Sunday, October 31, 2010

"I'll Risk My Reputation for That"

"Megachurch Pastor is Gay; Comes Out to Congregation."

That's the headline floating around the net, in various iterations. (Like this. Or this, which is a better story.) It may not be quite accurate -- "megachurch" is a tricky word -- but it comes close. And the story underneath the header seems noteworthy, at least so far as we can discern it. Which isn't very far.

Jim Swilley, 52, is a clergyman in Conyers, Georgia. Last week, he revealed to his congregation that he is gay, and has known this about himself -- even when he didn't have words for it -- since he was very young. He also pledged to remain celibate. He is twice-married, with four children, and although he is divorced from his second wife, they are still apparently close. She was with him when he made the announcement, and spoke in his support. He says that she knew about his sexual orientation all through their marriage, and was helped him make the decision to speak about it publicly.

He also says that, although he had been considering a public statement for some time, he was moved to action by the recent attention given to the bullying of, and suicide among, gay teens:
“As a father, thinking about your 16, 17 year old killing themselves. I thought somebody needed to say something,” Swilley said through tears. ...

“I know all the hateful stuff that’s being written about me online, whatever,” Swilley said. “To think about saving a teenager yeah, I'll risk my reputation for that.”
There is no hint (so far) of blackmail or a pending lawsuit, a la Swilley's fellow Georgian, Eddie Long. It appears that Swilley, settling into middle age, genuinely decided it was time for some honesty, and that this was a cultural moment during which his honesty might help somebody else. We hope that's true, and we hope that it does.

You can stop reading right there, and have most of our take on the subject. But if you're the curious, detail-oriented type, here's some background.

Swilley is -- or was, since he has apparently resigned -- a bishop in the International Communion of Charismatic Churches, an organization which has its roots in the 1970s dialogues between Charismatic and Roman Catholic communities. (Here is the ICCC's own self-description, which is fascinating, and includes a snapshot of its early leaders with Pope Paul VI.)

He is also the pastor of "The Church in the Now," in Conyers. The name will remind many readers of Flip Wilson's "Church of What' Happenin' Now," but we doubt that an hommage was intended. We aren't sure whether it is a "megachurch" as defined by the Hartford Institute (2000 weekly attendance), but it is certainly very large. It also has a very slick, albeit not very informative, website, full of expressions like
[T]his house was/is to be a place of human recovery for those who have not been reached by the conventional church…those who have been overlooked…those who have slipped through the cracks.
[T]o become a reality for this community of truth-seeking believers...this non-traditional, inter-denominational, multi-cultural embassy of Christ. [All ellipses original, and inexplicable].
Honestly, it sounds like a decent enough place, if you are charismatically inclined. It even sounds, at least superficially, like the sort of place that might be able to live with a gay pastor, certainly a celibate one and perhaps even the other kind. But who knows?

One person who may know is David Huskins, the ICCC archbishop. It's a bit hard to work out the details of their interactions, based on a report by the highly biased folks at GCM Watch, but it seems that Huskins knew that Swilley was gay, and asked him not to make a public announcement, out of concern for ICCC bishops in countries with powerful antigay customs and laws. (We're looking at you, Peter "String-'Em-Up" Akinola). Swilley resigned from the ICCC rather than keep silent.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Dinosaur in the Church

And no, this isn't a joke about all those cardinals too old to vote.

The beautiful Mother Anonymous once served a parish whose church building had a dinosaur in its stained glass windows. The members were quite proud of it, and rightly so. How many church windows can there be that are devoted to the evolution of life?

Still, the Cathedral of St. Ambrose, in a town near Milan called Vigevano, goes the wife's old church one better. It has an actual dinosaur skull built right into it.

This wasn't done on purpose. The cathedral was built in the 16th and 17th centuries, using marble from a quarry now noted for its abundance of fossils. But it was only recently that a paleontologist, Andrea Tintori, identified the skull, which is embedded in a section of the altar rail. Story and pics here.

This is a neat discovery, made a bit more amusing by the hue and cry of Anglicans the world over, claiming that they have dinosaurs too, you know.

Friday, October 29, 2010


If you're preaching Sunday, you may want to consider this bit of ecumenical snark.

After dismissing the extra-Calvinisticum (since Ptolemaic cosmology has been replaced by Copernican) and intra-Lutheranum (since "ubiquity ... cannot be taken seriously"), George Lindbeck concludes:
In any case, given the modern mood and the advent of historical criticism, Lutherans are nowadays no more likely than Calvinists to deny that Jesus was fully human. The problem for both parties in our times is to maintain Christ's divinity.
Not sure we agree with either the analysis or the accusation, but we certainly take the challenge seriously.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Monday, October 25, 2010

How Badly Damaged is Joe Miller?

We've already noted that the most Tea Partyish of the Alaska senatorial candidates has refused to answer questions about his "background," meaning a series of apparent ethical lapses.

From Wonkette, we learn that he is also refusing to answer questions about the military benefits he receives from the government, and the disability for which he receives them.

Briefly, candidate Joe Miller is West Point class of 1989, who ought normally to have served five years of active duty but instead served three years and three months. The available paperwork only lists his release as having been for "miscellaneous" reasons, and Miller is offering no more information. Here's a summary:
Miller boasts of his military record in his radio and teevee ads, yet refuses to discuss the nature or the degree of his service-connected disabilities; he receives monthly tax-free payments for life as compensation. If Miller is classified as 30% or more disabled, he receives additional payments for each of his nine dependents. This Veterans Administration benefits chart shows that Miller could conceivably be bringing in over $4,000 a month, tax free, depending on his disability rating. He needn’t report or declare this income.
So: crippled or crazy? We apologize for putting it so crudely, but the difference really is important.

Look, we admire military service, and so do most Americans. JFK, John Kerry, even the first Bush, are not our favorite politicos, judged purely on policy; but we are moved to admiration by their wartime heroics. Bob Dole and John McCain have service records of extraordinary valor, and over the years their physical limitations have been a constant reminder of those records. And sure, there are some wounds you don't like to talk about -- Jake Barnes' disease, and all that. If Miller lost the use of an organ and doesn't want to talk about it, that's one thing, and we feel sad that the circumstances require us to intrude upon his privacy.

But they do. Because if he suffered, or is suffering, from PTSD or some other form of psychological impairment, it strikes us that United States Senate is probably not the best place for him to work.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Post-Scriptum Post

In the last post, about Canadian Mormons, we noted in passing that Daphne Branham refers to the Warren Jeffs crowd and so forth as "breakaway Mormon sects." She uses that word "breakaway" six times, by our count. And we chuckle grimly.

Long ago, there was an exchange on GetReligion in which somebody -- Terry, we think, but maybe we're wrong -- complained about reporters who identified the bishops, priests, parishes and dioceses that left the Episcopal Church to form the Anglican Church in North America as "breakaway" bishops et cetera.

Father Anonymous wrote in to suggest that this was a theological objection, to which reporters for the secular press had no reason to be answerable. As a legal fact, the bishops, parishes and dioceses had left their parent church -- broken away, by any reasonable description.

Your correspondent was roundly shouted down, by commenters who tried to explain -- as though it hadn't been the entire point all along -- their shared belief that it was the PECUSA which had "broken away" from Anglican doctrine regarding sex and marriage, and that therefore the new organization was in effect actually the old one, and vice-versa. (All of which draws on the trope first adopted by Reagan and since cribbed by every dissatisfied neo- or theocon, "I didn't leave [my old home]; [my old home] left me.")

This may very well be an accurate theological statement, in a very narrow sense. (Narrow, since it ignores matters of church order and mutual tolerance which are also an integral part of Anglican theology.) But it misses the entire and not insignificant point that just as reporters ought not to indulge their partisan biases when reporting on politics, neither should they indulge their theological convictions when reporting on religion.

In other words, unless an article is really going to explore the theological issues to a depth that is nearly unheard-of (and far beyond the ability of most reporters), the prudent course of journalistic action is to stick with the conventional language of the secular world. And, as secular courts have held time and again, it is the ACNA which has broken away from the PECUSA, often attempting to carry off some PECUSA property while doing so.

So what about the Mormons? Basically, there are two kinds of Mormon schismatic: those whose ancestors squabbled over leadership after Joseph Smith's death in 1844, and those who continue to disagree with the "official" 1890 LDS teaching that polygamy is no longer acceptable. It is quite reasonable to argue that the first groups have not broken away from anything; they emerge from the same dispute which created the LDS properly so called. The second category, however -- the ones about whom Branham is writing -- have clearly and deliberately taken their leave of an organization which they consider corrupt. That is, broken away.

Our question, then, is whether any ACNA people will rush to defend Warren Jeffs from a hostile press, and demand that reporters no longer write of the convicted rapist and child molester as a "breakaway Mormon." After all, he didn't leave the LDS -- the LDS left him.

Mormon Welfare Queens

Seems that a Mormon sect is seeking to have the provision against polygamy in the Canadian criminal code ruled unconstitutional. One of their arguments is that, if plural marriages were recognized in Canada, wives and children would be eligible for greater welfare benefits.

Seriously. In affidavits presented to a judge who is hearing their petition right now, a witness identified publicly as No. 2

... complains that Revenue Canada has cut back child-tax benefits to some plural wives. It says they are living common-law and must claim the income of the father of their child, regardless of whether others are already claiming it.

"This has been a real hardship," she says.

... Witness No. 2 complains that the breakaway Mormons "have an extremely hard time helping women immigrate when they marry as a plural spouse as it is very hard to get medical insurance."

She complains that education is too expensive and "the kind of jobs we can get working with our own people are mostly not high-paying jobs as we live in a small rural community." ...

So, if polygamy is legalized, she wants money for education programs for polygamous women "tailored to our needs."

As Daphne Bramham observes drily in the Montreal Gazette, "In the doctrine of these [Mormon] groups - unlike in the Quran - there is no requirement that men must be financially able to support all of their wives and children."

This is pretty funny -- Mormon welfare queens. (Where is Ronald Reagan when we actually need him?) But it's not really our main point.

Bramham attempts, rather weakly, to make a case that changing the Canadian code would open the door to "a theocracy within our secular, liberal democracy." Weakly made or not, she may be onto something -- at a certain point, a society willing to tolerate any and all religious practices is likely to find itself permitting civil cases to be judged by sharia, or canon law, or some other unvoted-upon laws beloved of a religious minority.

But it seems to us that she's mssing the bigger point, and one which ought to give many Egg readers a moment of reflection. Like it or not, and most of us don't, polygamy is coming. It is pretty evident that, within a few years, much of Western society will permit same-sex unions which are marriage in all but (and often even including) the name. Heck, we already let rich people leave their fortunes to the puppy dog. Frankly, polygamy and polyandry are customs far better attested in history, and more widely practiced worldwide, than either of these.

It will start on the legal margins, and move toward the center. Soon, polygamy will be the new sweat lodge or peyote, adopted by spiritual-but-not-religious Boomer poseurs, looking as always for a hedonistic kick under the guise of an ancient tradition. In the end, it will be as unremarkable as, well, leaving your billions to Fido and Rover.

Here's the rub, and one that gives us at the Egg considerable pause. The eventual legal recognition of plural marriage will be a boon to religious communities who don't care much for "secular, liberal democracy" -- the extremist Mormon and Muslim fringes, and any number of authentic tribal peoples and their wannabees. And yet it will be the fault -- or rather, the logical and inevitable product -- of just that secular, liberal democracy.

Once we commit ourselves as a society to a course of development which is truly secular and liberal -- in which the rights of the individual are paramount, and religious principles are to be respected under law but not to shape the law -- it is only a matter of time until the shape of the society becomes one that its founders, in their age, could not have anticipated. And of course, we in the US committed ourselves to such a course long ago, as did the French, and as by now has much of the West.

Frankly, the severe social pressure applied to the early generations of Mormons has always puzzled us. It has always seemed like a betrayal of the First Amendment. (And we say that, mind you, with precious little affection for Joseph Smith).

This is hard for us at the Egg. Our churchmanship may be quaintly conservative -- neomedieval, really -- but our citizenship is solidly secular and liberal. We believe firmly in the principles upon which our nation was founded, and which most of its best allies now share. And it seems to us that there is a conflict here, which cannot comfortably be resolved.

These are the sort of moral conundrums, we imagine, that do not trouble the theocons. Their lives are made simpler by the conviction that civil laws are and should be reflections either of the religious teachings which prevail in a society or, more delicately, a supposed universal moral law which just happens to match in outline or even detail the ethical teachings of their own faith community. Even when "liberal," in the sense we are using it today, they aren't secular.

But our nation is. And, more and more in the years to come, we will all need to think about what that means.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Horton Hears a What-the-%&$@?

Joe Carter at First Things writes:

If I told you that an American church was having a Dr. Seuss themed supper and communion, how many guesses would I have to give you before you figured out it was Episcopalian church?

Just one? That’s what I thought. Who else would have a “Seusscharist”?

Fr. Bryan Owen reminds us that these are the same people who brought us the U2charist, the clown Eucharist, and the Pirate Eucharist. The dean of Nashotah House (along with a moment's reflection) reminds us that it is not really a great idea.

Too Much?

We're thinking about posting this on the church door and elsewhere around town, to advertise our Reformation Day service. There's a sermon to go with it, natch.

We had been monkeying around with the usual images -- the 95 Theses, Luther posting them, the solas and the rose and so forth. We love them all, but none of them seemed quite right.

At a time when scandals are everywhere, giving has tanked, the credibility of the clergy is at an all- time low and a muscular atheism is on the rise, this seems to be the question worth asking. And answering.

But is it a little too in-your-face? We can't decide.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"I'm a Constitutionalist"

The more we think about it, the more the senatorial debate in Delaware seems like a window into the nightmare landscape of America's political fringe.

We watched the video of Christine O'Donnell and Chris Coons, blathering on about creationism and the First Amendment. After she asks "where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state," the audio track records what sounds less like "an audible gasp" than an explosion of raucous laughter. And, after a momentary confusion, O'Donnell give a victorious smile -- as though, simply by stimulating the crowd, she has won something.

And let's be clear: she hasn't. The debate was held at Widener Law School, and attended largely by law students and law professors. O'Donnell's apparent confusion about an elementary point of constitutional law served to make her look ridiculous.

But note that we did write "apparent" confusion. Later in the debate, O'Donnell recovered herself enough to make explicit what was almost certainly her underlying claim all along: that because the words "separation of church and state" don't occur in it, the First Amendment should be read as a restriction upon Congress alone, and not upon states or, we suppose, counties. In other words, if a local school board wants to teach Creationism, or the state of Idaho wants to establish Neopaganism as its official religion, O'Donnell sees no constitutional problem with this.

We also heard one of the moderators ask whether the candidates supported repeal of a few other amendments to the US Constitution -- those governing citizenship, the income tax, and the election of senators. Coons said "No;" O'Donnell said many things, among which "no" could also be heard if one listened very closely.

But wait a second, we thought. The election of senators? The Seventeenth Amendment? Who cares about that?

Then we remembered a peculiar conversation, a couple of summers back, with one of our relatives, whom we shall simply call Bob. This Bob is from the part of the family that holds very closely to its political opinions, and feels that family reunions are just the right time to share. Lamentably, the opinions in question are often offensive both to common sense and other family members. A lively argument typically follows, followed by five or six years of not speaking to each other.

So there we were by the pool, sipping our cider, when Bob announced (a propos of nearly nothing) that the state legislatures should be free to select US senators however they pleased, be it by election or otherwise, "just as it says in the Constitution." When Father A. raised a timid eyebrow, Bob repeated himself, adding proudly, "That's right. I'm a Constitutionalist."

Now, if you look the word up in a dictionary, you will find constitutionalist defined rather straightforwardly as somebody who believes in constitutional rule. But Bob seemed to be using it in an idiosyncratic sense, as somebody who liked the US Constitution as originally written.

Naturally, then, we asked him the logical follow-up question: "So, the right to vote? White male land-owners only?" This made him surprisingly angry, and he accused us of putting words into his mouth, "just like all liberals." Whatever that even means.

"You see," Bob said huffily, "the Constitution itself allows for this little thing called amendments. Maybe you've heard of them."

We had, of course. The seventeenth, for example. But at this point, we deemed it wisest to move on to some less emotional topic. (If memory serves, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, secret prisons, and the torture of prisoners by US service personnel). But the initial conversation has remained with us, a little mnemonic earworm. For reasons that we don't really understand, our relation feels that the purity of American constitutional government requires the repeal of the 17th Amendment.

And he's not alone. Apparently, there is a more-or-less organized movement, begun by former senator Zell Miller and which has since gained momentum in Tea Party circles, claiming that the popular election of senators is a form of big-government overreach, and denies the states their rights under a federal system.

Do we need to mention that "states' rights" has long been a principle treasured by people who would like to repeal other useful amendments, such as the 13th and 15th? Their argument, when you cut through the blather, goes like this: "I'm not saying slavery is a good thing, mind you. Don't accuse me of that. I'm saying the decision to abolish it has to be made by the states, not some Big Daddy federal government." (If you don't believe this can be real, dig into groups like the neo-Confederate League of the South and Baylor journalism professor Bill Murchison.)

Now, we doubt sincerely that our relation Bob is part of this crowd. We have no reason to believe that Ms. O'Connell is, either. Yet they are both part of another crowd, more moderate and humane, which nonetheless shares its impulses and rhetoric with the scariest phalanx in America's political life.

The. First. Amendment.

Just ... wow.

This is a report from the latest of three debates between the Senate candidates in Delaware:

The exchange came .. as [Christine] O'Donnell criticized Democratic nominee Chris Coons' position that teaching creationism in public school would violate the First Amendment by promoting religious doctrine.

Coons said private and parochial schools are free to teach creationism but that "religious doctrine doesn't belong in our public schools."

"Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?" O'Donnell asked him.

Okay, just pause to savor the moment. Done? Now we move on:

When Coons responded that the First Amendment bars Congress from making laws respecting the establishment of religion, O'Donnell asked: "You're telling me that's in the First Amendment?" ...

"You actually audibly heard the crowd gasp," Widener University political scientist Wesley Leckrone said after the debate ....

Deep breaths, people. We all know that this crazy woman won't be elected, and that her candidacy is just a colorful sideshow, distracting us while smarter but no less wicked people make a serious attempt to seize power.

But still.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Dumb Accusation of the Week

The Crystal Cathedral has declared bankruptcy.

This was not hard to see coming. The church has changed leadership three times since 2006 -- Schuller pere turned the reins over over to Schuller fils, who was then ousted and eventually replaced by Schuller, uh, fille. None of this bodes well; the crowds like stability, and that means more than just keeping it in the family. Add to that a bad economy, and of course mainline decline -- because it is a congregation of the Reformed Church in America, albeit an anomalous one -- and, well, you've got some painfully familiar problems.

Readers may recall that we have a soft spot for the Crystal Cathedral, which is neither made of crystal nor an actual cathedral. It is an interesting building which houses an innovative ministry of a church with which we are in full communion. We may not care personally for the particular emphases of the ministry, nor for much of the art which decorates the campus, but we find the place interesting and have always wished it well.

This leaves us a bit peeved about some of the coverage. Blogger and freelance writer Sasha Brown-Worsham is having a schadenfreude-gasm over the idea that a congregation with a conspicuously large and expensive building should now have money problems:
And though they blamed it on the economy and dwindling conributions, one has to wonder, did God really need all that fancy glass and money? Was that megachurch for true spirituality or for greed and fame? ...

Think of all the money it takes to run such a mega church, so much, in fact, that they managed to build a $55 million debt. How many people in the world could eat on $55 million?
Yes, yes. And the nard could have been sold for poor relief. Thank you, Judas.

We don't mean to be too dismissive, but we hear this sort of thing too often. People who don't actually go to church themselves (and some who do) often have it in their heads that, because the church puts a priority upon social services, it is therefore about nothing but social services. This was not the case in the days of Jesus, nor is it now.

Brown-Worsham goes on:

Religion is many things for many people, but as far as a relationship to God goes, why does it take so much money to have one? Why is so much show needed to worship and feel close to God? ... This kind of show makes a mockery of real religion and the people who practice it.

Ah, yes. Show. We've heard this before: "Why do we need those silk vestments? Stained glass windows? Do you know how much an organ costs?" There has always been a puritanical strain within Christianity that asks these questions, and is outraged by the answers. But it has always been a minority voice. From the beginning, most Christians have taken for granted that the worship of God -- as the most important thing their community does -- deserves a bit of show. The cathedral at Chartres didn't come cheap.*

Of course we glorify God by feeding the poor; but we also glorify God with prayer and song, and pretty buildings in which to pray and sing. And, not incidentally, in which to feed people -- many of whom, poor as they are, appreciate that much more keenly the opportunity to spend an hour or two in a pretty building, giving thanks to God, in the one place where they can sit beside the wealthy as their absolute and unquestioned equal. If Worsham-Brown thinks these things mock "real religion and the people who practice it," we suspect she has little acquaintance with either.

Still, as with the money problems in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, this reminds us that the present catastrophic decline of so many Christian churches is not exclusive to the easily-picked-upon liberal Prots. It goes much deeper than that -- we're not yet sure how much deeper, but we do not believe that the life of any American church will look in, say, 2035, much as it does today. We may yet wind up being just what the Brown-Worshams of the world want.
* We have no idea how to estimate the actual construction cost of a medieval cathedral. But St. Patrick's, in Manhattan, was built between 1859-1879 for a total cost of $1.9 million. Adjusted for inflation, that comes to over $43 million in today's dollars. St. Paul's, London, cost 700,000 pounds in the 17th century, roughly $83 million today. The Dresden Frauenkirche was rebuilt in the 1990s for something like $250 million. At a piddling $18 million, the Crystal Cathedral was a bargain.

Some Guy on Some Show

President Obama is going to be on Mythbusters. Do you think he's going to show off his birth certificate?

Rimshot, please.

Per the Beeb, Mr. Obama says he is "a little disappointed" that he didn't get to blow anything up during the filming. To which we respond: You personally authorize the use of Hellfire missiles to vaporize our nation's enemies, practically on a weekly basis. Don't complain, pal -- you're living the dream.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Joe Miller's Jests

A lady being asked how she liked a Gentleman’s Singing, who had a very stinking Breath, the Words are good, said she, but the Air is intolerable.

This wheezer is from Joe Miller's Jests; or, the Wit's Vade-Mecum. Published in 1739, it is among the very first anthologies of one-liners in the English language. Although it remains an excellent source of ammunition if one wants to insult Colley Cibber, most of the jokes -- or perhaps we mean "jokes" -- were bad when first written and have aged poorly. And yet such was the little book's popularity that it went through many subsequent editions and and amplifications, and in time a "Joe Miller" became a a slang term for any tired old joke.

Which brings us to the senatorial elections in Alaska.

One of the surprises of the season was the defeat, in the Republican primary, of incumbent Barbara Murkowski by a candidate associated with the Tea Party movement and named, ahem, Joe Miller. Because Murkowski will now run as in independent, it is now a tight 3-way race, which will probably be won with as little as 35% of the votes cast. (And please, no jokes about tight 3-ways. This is a family blog).

This Miller fellow seems like a feasible candidate: raised in Kansas, educated at West Point and Yale Law. Although he lost his only prior bid for elective office, he has done a variety of jobs at different levels of government. Sounds good, right?

So why has he recently announced that he will no longer answer questions from the press -- at least when those questions concern his "background"? For that matter, why have his security guards starting shoving matches with local reporters who try to ask questions about this "background"?

Well, aside from Yale, what is Joe Miller's background? Consider those government jobs we mentioned. They include his work as part-time attorney for the Fairbanks North Star Borough. (In Alaska, as in New York City, "boroughs" are essentially counties.) This job doesn't appear on his campaign bio, and for good reason: according to his ex-boss, he was forced to quit because of an insubordination incident. This incident followed the discovery that he had been, unethically, using the borough's computers (and paid time) to manage his failed House campaign.

Bad enough, but possibly not the worst. Miller is running as a typical small-government candidate, eager to balance the budget and opposed to health care reform and most other social programs designed to assist poor people. Fair enough, we suppose. Except for two problems.

First, there is the revelation that Miller and his wife have received a variety of public benefits, ranging from low-income fishing licenses to unemployment insurance to federal farming subsidies. Murkowski accuses him of hypocrisy; Miller responds that he "wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth." This makes no sense at all, of course. Oughtn't he have rejected on principle the silver spoon offered him by a Constitutionally dubious government program? But far be it from the Egg to condemn Miller, or any other Ivy League lawyers who are living easy on the public dole.

Second, and to our mind far more damning, is the fact that Miller was six months late in filing his financial disclosure forms as required by law, and may now be liable for a fine of as much as $50,000. Shouldn't a lawyer be eager to comply with the law? And more to the point, shouldn't a debtor be eager to avoid paying out extra money?

And Miller is in deep debt. First off, he earned about $94,000 in 2009. That's a fine income, and one we'd be thrilled to report, and we're sure it is adequate to pay his mortgage on some undeveloped farmland. But we're not sure it was wise financial management for him to loan his campaign nearly $104,000 -- more than a year's salary (unless one gets elected to the Senate, and earns a good bit more). We're concerned that he is still paying off student loans of $15-50,000, although those at least carry a modest interest rate. We are much more worried by his credit card debt, which is somewhere between $35-80,000 on three cards. Doesn't this guy watch Suzie Orman?

We find it very difficult to take seriously the fiscal-conservative credentials of a candidate who is this deeply in debt. Physician, heal thyself and so forth.

All told, this Joe Miller seems like one more joke played on America by those latter-day Merry pranksters, the Tea Party people. He is man of no evident distinction, running for an important national office. He opposes programs from which he has benefited, and which offer daily benefit to people in much greater need. He has a history of ethical rule-breaking, which has already cost him a job and may now cost him substantial penalties. And worst of all, he wants to manage the finances of an enormous government, when he is himself sunk in debt.

On the whole, we have to go with the lady in the one-liner: even if you think the words are good, the air is clearly bad.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

China Censors Its Own Leader

At least when he talks about free speech.

It seems that Chinese premier Wen Jiabao has made a number of recent speeches, at home and abroad, in which he calls for greater political freedom in the country he leads. Few Chinese people know this, though, because Wen's remarks are routinely censored, just like everybody else's, by the time they hit the media. Got it? They censor their own head of state.

Seems that censorship in China isn't done by the government, per se, but by the Communist Party. And just to keep journalists on their toes, the rules for censorship change all the time -- and are never written down. Instead, you get an anonymous call explaining the new rules. No paper trail, no accountability. And no arguments.

Recently, a group of Chinese elder statesmen have signed and circulated an open letter, calling for the Party to relax its rules. These are heavy hitters, including Chairman Mao's former secretary, and a former editor of the Party newspaper. Here's a sample:
When our country was founded in 1949, our people cried out that they had been liberated, that they were now their own masters," the letter states. ... But even today, 61 years after the founding of our nation, after 30 years of opening and reform, we have not yet attained the freedom of speech and press to the degree enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong under colonial rule. ... Not only the average citizen, but even the most senior leaders of the Communist Party, have no freedom of speech.
Of course, very few people in China know about this letter. It's being censored. (Although, fortunately, the censors aren't geniuses).

But the rest of us know. So when the Nobel Prize goes to an imprisoned dissident, and China huffs and puffs that this will be bad for its relations with Norway, we respond pretty much the way we do when enraged Islamofascists burn down churches in response to the possible exercise of free speech halfway around the globe. I.e., with contempt.

Wow. Straight Men Really Like"Band of Brothers"?

Yup. That much. Along with poker, cars and "my boat."

Father Anonymous is suddenly a wee bit anxious about his masculinity. But he did like Private Ryan, which is next on the list. Said list is one of the many gay-straight cultural analyses blogged yesterday by OKTrends. This is the research arm of dating site OKCupid, and apparently combed through what is called the "data exhaust," such as the number of times a word is used in a profile, produced by its gazillions of users.

According to OKT, for the veracity or even existence of which we cannot vouch in the slightest, the results basically show that all the stereotypes are true.* Gay men like Drop Dead Gorgeous and The Devil Wears Prada; lesbians like The L-Word to the near exclusion of everything else on earth. straight women actually do like lip gloss and Nicholas Sparks, which -- when compared to the list of things straight men like -- makes one wonder where babies actually come from, since it can't be these mismatched weirdoes.

A few revelations may interest Egg readers in particular, such as this one:
Religion is the opiate of the masses, so long as the masses are straight. However, amass a bunch of lesbians and you're going to need actual drugs.
And we should all be troubled by a chart showing that, in almost equal numbers, women are twice as likely as men to believe that the Earth is larger than the Sun.

Can this be true? We genuinely don't know. The blog post is very funny, and written for a popular audience. It could be nothing more than a hoax to garner publicity and click-throughs. If so, it has succeeded spectacularly well, since we read it through this morning three times: laughing, wincing, and laughing again.
*All save one. There is no mention of gay men and opera, which makes us question the validity of the whole exercise. And we speak both as an opera lover and a realist.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Thirteen Letters, Sounds Like "Trouble"

The word is restructuring, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is doing it. Again.

The bottom line is that giving -- what used to be called "benevolence," and is now called "mission support" -- is down dramatically over the past few years. Many or even most of the ELCA's 65 synods are in serious financial trouble, and so is the national church.

Why? Everybody has a theory. Maybe it's the result of decades of debilitating internal warfare over Episcopalians and gay people. Maybe it's the cost of a topheavy administrative structure. Maybe it is all those old people who won't listen to the young people, or vice-versa. Maybe it was the CNLC's captivity to ultra-liberal Protestantism. Maybe it's the effect of a worldwide economic crisis, which features 10% unemployment and pension plans in dire jeopardy. Or maybe it's mainline decline, the undiagnosable black box of modern church history. (We at the Egg blame the AELC, just on principle. At this point, we may as well put our cards on the table and admit what readers have already guessed: we also think the AELC killed Kennedy and is hiding the truth about UFOs).

Whatever the cause, the result is clear. Painful as it is, we are glad that the church had the guts to take action, further streamlining its structure. We may tease Bishop Hanson about his albs, but we admire his willingness to face reality. You might be surprised by how rare that is in church leadership. And we are very sad that he's had to do it twice.

We don't know all the details of the bloodletting. Here's a press release, but it only hints at what the result will look like. As 16 "units" and "sections" are condensed into three units, will there be some functions that are no longer given proper attention, or attended to at all? Will there be some gains, in coherence and missional focus? We hope so, but only time will tell.

What concerns us most right now is the human cost. A national staff of 358 will be reduced by 65 or so. That's nearly a 20% layoff, on top of the cuts earlier this year -- and in a virtually stagnant labor market. How will those people pay the rent and buy groceries? Five foreign missionaries on active duty will be called home, almost immediately. Who knows how disruptive that will be, not only to the missionaries and their families, but to the ministries they have be building up?

Please pray for the church, and in particular for those who are facing the end of ministries they had cherished and cultivated.

Monday, October 11, 2010

"A Little Midnight Picnic"

Halloween is coming. The toddler has announced that he will sally forth as Cowboy Woody and Mother A. will be Cowgirl Jessie. Your correspondent is reliably informed that his choices are to dress as Buzz Lightyear or Stinky Pete the Prospector. Oh joy.

All of which makes us think of Christine O'Donnell.

As you surely know, Ms. O'Donnell is a gubernatorial candidate in Delaware. We are unsure of her qualifications. Although she has never held any government office, she has lost two previous Senate bids, which we suppose bespeaks at least some familiarity with the world of politics. Her chief public notoriety apparently comes from appearances on Bill Maher's show and something on MTV called Sex in the 90s. She has been teased a great deal in the press because of her objections to extramarital sex and, um, masturbation. And her fudged academic credentials. And her claims to have classified information detailing a Chinese plot to conquer America. (Oooh, big secret. They own our debt.)

Oh, and she used to be a witch. Or rather, she "dabbled in witchcraft." Or, really, she went on a few dates with people who dabbled, back in high school. In a droll clip from the Maher program (watch it here), a preposterously young O'Donnell describes her first date with a dabbler, "on a Satanic altar." Apparently, she was not put off by the traces of blood. After a movie, they went home to his house for "a little midnight picnic."

Well, imagine the howls of outrage. But if you weren't watching closely, you might miss one nuance: that many of the said howls came from witches. Practitioners of Wicca don't want to be associated in the public mind with Christine O'Donnell. Who could blame them?

What especially sets of Selene Fox (High Priestess of the Circle Sanctuary) and Diotima Manitineia (spokesperson for "The Witches Voice") is the conflation of witchcraft with Satanism. Fox says, "Any political candidate that is going to equate witchcraft with Satanism is ill informed and is not likely to get the support of people involved in nature religion," which we doubt is all that dire a threat. Mantineia says, even more forcefully, that
witchcraft and Satanism are two different things... witches or Wiccans do not believe in Satan. We don't even believe that Satan exists. Satan is a Christian deity of some kind. He is part of the Christian religion not ours. We worship nature; we work very closely with nature. We do not have blood on our altar and we have little to do with Satan. So I don't know what Ms. O'Donnell is talking about. I wonder if she knows what she was talking about.
Sure, it's a only a tempest in a cauldron. But for the sake of clarity, let's take a moment to unpack some of this.

We'll begin by saying that we do not for one moment doubt Ms. Fox or Ms. Mantineia when they describe their own religious communities. If they say that they worship nature or the moon or anything else, we believe them. What we want to pick out here are the varying definitions of "witchcraft" in play.

The modern "witchcraft" movement, of which Wicca is one part, is described by Margot Adler's classic Drawing Down the Moon. Practitioners do indeed present themselves as part of a nature-religion, often claiming continuity with the pagan religions of northern and western Europe. The problem, as we mentioned the other day with reference to neodruidism, is that precious little is known about about those religions. Any claims of continuity are dubious at best.

Sometimes, the modern witches also claim continuity with the victims of the Renaissance witch-craze, which swept through northern Europe during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. This claim rests principally on the identification of those victims -- largely women, often older and lacking in strong family connections -- as practitioners of an ancient European nature religion. This is, in essence, the thesis put forward i the 1920s by an anthropologist named Margaret Murray. The problem is that the Murray thesis has been discredited by most subsequent scholarship.

But let's be clear about what a "witch" means in the technical vocabulary of early modern Christianity, because this definition is also alive today. It does not refer to somebody skilled with herbs, for example -- monasteries often kept such a person around as their physician. Nor does it refer to an astrologer or soothsayer, as such. A witch, as understood by church documents, was a person who entered into a contract with the Devil, typically for the purpose of helping herself (or, more rarely, himself) at the expense of others. A witch was both a heretic and a criminal. And yes, in modern language, witches were Satanists. (So Christine O'Donnell is ... right. We guess.)

Now, this position reversed the traditional teaching of the Church, which was that "witchcraft" was a delusion, and that the real heresy was not its practice, but the belief that it could be practiced -- the belief, in other words, that God permitted the Devil to create such pacts or award supernatural powers to human beings:
Whoever therefore believes that anything can be made, or that any creature can be changed to better or worse, or transformed into another species or likeness, except by God Himself who made everything and through whom all things were made, is beyond a doubt an infidel.
This is the position of the famous Canon Episcopi, the governing authority from the 10th century until about 1486. So why did that change? Blame the Dominicans. They had been created to preach against the Albigensian heresy, which certainly did exist, and over time their portfolio had expanded to the extirpation of all heresy, not necessarily by homiletical means. They were often put in charge of the Inquisition, for example. And it was a pair of Dominican friars from Germany who offered to the Church the dubious gift of the Malleus Maleficarum, which -- after some sharp criticism in the beginning -- eventually came to serve as a treasured reference book or people who did believe that women could in fact have sex with the Devil, turn their husbands' penes to glass, and concoct an ointment that would let them fly.

The underlying reality, we should say clearly, is almost certainly that "witchcraft" as the Church defined it after 1486 didn't exist, except in the imaginations of some very strange people. (This despite the credulity of, say, Montague Summers. We adore Summers for his batshit-crazy books and crazier prose, but come on). On the other hand, while it wouldn't shock us to find some remnants of folk-religion in the German backwoods, it seems pretty evident that this was (with rare exceptions) not what was actually prosecuted. Two different things.

So what was really going on here? These days, the witch-craze is generally explained by a combination of factors. Europe during the Renaissance and Reformation was in the midst of a destabilizing cultural shift. Humanism, nationalism, Protestantism and capitalism were all taking off, and every one of them was a threat to somebody's sense of order. The Crusades having spent their force, a new enemy was needed, emotionally at least, to rally the troops and stave off anarchy. In Germany, at least if memory serves, the average age of first marriage was on the rise, and the unmarried adult woman -- the "spinster" or, in sociological language, "surplus female," was an easy target. And so, flying in the face of an ancient (and comparatively reasonable) doctrine, the practice of hunting and executing "witches" was begun.

Those unacquainted with the details sometimes assume that the witch-hunts were a medieval and Papist aberration. Sadly, this is not the case; they were largely a Renaissance phenomenon, in which Roman Catholics and Protestants both displayed homicidal paranoiac zealotry. We could go on in tedious detail about the demographics -- some countries killed many "witches," others killed almost none. But back to Ms. O'Donnell.

Since Trevor-Roper drew an analogy between the witch-craze and the Red Scare of the 1950s, the "witch hunt" has become jargon for the way a fearful society worries about the Enemy Within, the invisible Fifth Column in its midst, seeking to undermine its institutions and destroy it. These days, the real "witches" in American society are, depending upon the week, Mexican immigrants (presumed to be illegal) or Muslims (presumed to be terrorists). Or, of course, the political party one does not favor.

So when Christine O'Donnell says that she dabbled in witchcraft, the issue isn't whether she was in her youth (a) a Devil-worshiper or (b) a typical middle-class kid from Jersey looking for nookie with a pretentious bad boy. The issue is whether she, or any other candidate, can manage to stop inventing threats ("China!" "Taxes!" "Spanish!") in order to stir the base emotions of the voters, and then sit down to make the intelligent compromises among people with different ideologies and interests that actually constitute good government.

Collars, Again

Sorry to belabor a point, most of all about something as mundane as haberdashery. But we just stumbled over this, and wanted to share. It's from a piece by Fr. Edward Lewis, writing in the parish newsletter of St. John's, Watford (linked above):

Wearing the clerical collar (a sign which says to others, available for you) an outward sign of the Sacrament of Ordination, gives the priest privileges beyond description. People will allow us to enter into the most precious and deep moments of their lives. They will tell us things they would never share with another. They will expect our prayers and support. Yet it is not the person, but the office which people are using. Of course it is helpful if the general demeanour is a friendly and open one; but let us never forget that it is Christ at work in the ministry of the priest.

Not quite how we would have put it, but we do like the part in parentheses.

Friday, October 08, 2010

The Church at Ground Zero

Nice Times piece linked above about St. Peter's, a Roman Catholic parish church that stands a couple of blocks from the site of the Word Trade Center. About as many blocks, in fact, as Park51, the proposed Muslim community center.

The point to the story is that, when St. Peter's was built in 1785, Roman Catholics were considered a dangerous new addition to the Big Apple. After all, they were bound to obey a foreign ruler, had an uneasy relationship to democracy, and -- what with the Index and all that -- were generally inimical to the American way of life. Not to mention that the building was funded by yet another furriner, the king of Spain. So they were forced to move their building away from the downtown area, to a spot outside the city limits. Which is pretty funny, if you know the present-day geography, but was a big deal at the time.

Needless to say, things have changed, which is the other point to the story. But we especially like this reminder of just who the "real" New Yorkers were in those days:
On Christmas Eve 1806, two decades after the church was built, the building was surrounded by Protestants incensed at a celebration going on inside — a religious observance then viewed by some in the United States as an exercise in “popish superstition,” more commonly referred to as Christmas. Protesters tried to disrupt the service. In the melee that ensued, dozens were injured, and a policeman was killed.
Wait, incensed? That sounds promising. Oh, no, our mistake. Angered. And probably scared. Because -- and this is the part worth remembering -- there was a time when some people thought it was un-American and even seditious to celebrate Christmas Eve.

No, Not "Choler"

(Although, heaven knows, that's where Father A.'s expertise really lies.)

Our dear friend Gillian, with whom we studied theology ages ago but who has only just recently been ordained to the diaconate, doubtless en route to the priesthood, asks about collars. Where, when and how often does one wear them these days? A good question, and one that shouldn't lie stuck in the "comments" section.

Audrey's answer is straightforward: "When you are at work, wear your collar. When you are not, do not." She says that this has served her well, but adds (and do we detect a rueful tone?), "This means I wear it a lot."

That advice serves extremely well, depending on one's definition of "work." Alone at the typewriter on a Saturday night? We're working, but probably in sweats.

Our own answer is a bit more nuanced. The principle of a distinctive dress for the clergy is medieval, although of course everybody wore distinctive dress in those days. (And damn all those modern lawyers who want to look like bankers! Put your wigs on, people!) But unlike, say, the cassock, the modern strip-of-cloth-or-plastic clerical collar is a fairly recent innovation, dating only to the 19th century. Unlike, say, the alb, it is clearly not a sacred vestment, but a piece of street attire. (And yes, all this depends upon a sharp distinction between sacred and profane which may not stand up to rigorous theological analysis. But it's how these things are organized, so go with it.) So the customs are new and the rules, such as they are, are flexible.

Some people don't wear them at all. And not just Baptists. Our late and cherished grandfather wore collars (made by Brooks Brothers!) in his youth, but quickly abandoned them. His argument was that the collar created an emotional distance between the clergy and those they were called to serve. He considered this a bad thing; experience has made us think it can sometimes be a very useful one indeed. A little distance can prevent a lot of misunderstanding.

More to the point, it can be very useful indeed to be recognized at glance. After 9/11, our bishop urged pastors in New York to wear their collars, saying, "People need to see you." He was preaching to the choir, since we were a multitude already clad in black.

Still, there was a time when Father A. thought he might himself go collarless, out of deference to the old man. Then came CPE, during which all student-chaplains were required to wear "professional dress," which our director defined as "jacket and tie, or clerical collar." Father A., then known formally as Impoverished Seminarian A., owned only a single blue blazer, which was locked in a trunk, stored in a dormitory basement, in another state. The math was simple: three black shirts were cheaper than one new jacket.

The turning point came when he was dining alone in the hospital cafeteria, enjoying a flattened ham-and-cheese sandwich on a stale kaiser bun along with an underripe banana.

"Pardon me. Are you one of the chaplains?" The woman standing across the table had a frantic look in her eyes. And no wonder. Her younger brother was in the emergency room. He was a thirty-something man who for some years had been struggling with a chronic disease, and it looked as though he was going to lose the struggle shortly. For most of his life, he had been estranged from his family and from the Church, but lying on his gurney waiting to be admitted, he had wept on his sister's shoulder and whispered that he wanted to see a chaplain.

So I went. And did the things you do in that situation. It was a privilege. And it would not have happened had I been wearing a necktie and nametag, because the sister would never have spotted me across the room.

Since then, Father A. has been passionate in his affection for the clerical collar. As our favorite OT prof once remarked, "It opens more doors than it closes." So we wear it whenever we think that it may serve to open a door to pastoral conversation. That means always when visiting, always when traveling to and from church events, and usually at the office. This, at least, is our rule when playing on familiar turf.

Because location does play a big part in this. In New York and its environs, clerical collars are very common, and send a clear cultural message. Here in Romania, they are quite rare, and we now wear ours only in the churchiest situations. It felt strange for a while, but we have adjusted. No, that's a lie: it still feels strange. And, because we have capitulated to local custom, who knows how many doors have remained shut?

Bishop Hanson Enters the Monastery

We do feel guilty about picking on the Episcopal bishop. It's not as though she's the only one who has misplaced her amice.

Consider this gentleman, recently accepted into the Order of Friendless Brothers (known by tradition as the Chicken-Necks).

Thursday, October 07, 2010

How Many Lepers Does It Take to Write a Sermon?

If you are preaching this week, you may have stumbled across any number of sermons and homiletical helps which say, typically in so many words, that "Martin Luther was once asked to define true worship. His answer: true worship is the tenth leper turning back."

It's an interesting remark, more so if Luther actually said it. But did he? We don't know, and we are hoping that some reader may be able to help a poor book-deprived missionary.

Given the surplus of spurious illustrations floating about the ether, as well as those which are genuine but torn savagely from their context, we won't use this remark unless it can be verified. Nor should any of our readers!

Does anybody know the answer?

To Divinity ... and Beyond!

(Yes, our toddler is a big Buzz Lightyear fan).

As many Egg readers already know, Susan Hogan has discontinued her fine blog, Pretty Good Lutherans. While we still nourish the hope that she will bring it back to life someday (hint, hint, Susan), we have finally and sadly deleted it from our sidebar.

The good news is that Susan has started another site: Divinity and Beyond. It is dedicated to religious news from the state of Minnesota. This means that, although it is by no means exclusively Lutheran, there is a great deal of news that will interest Lutherans. And, obviously, other people.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Every Pastor's Dream

No, not a parish with no vestry meetings. Better. Way better.

A researcher at Temple University has discovered a way to dramatically improve the brain's ability to recall names.

Good news: it really works, no baloney. Bad news: it involves electrical stimulation to the brain's anterior temporal lobes. We're not sure, but this doesn't sound like the sort of thing one does at home. Still, get us a transcranial direct current stimulation machine, maybe with a decent bottle of merlot, and we'll give it a shot.

The Amice is Your Friend

Literally, that is, since the word comes from amicus.

But there's more to it than that. Its existence, even as that existence becomes endangered, is a reminder of something worthwhile: that your alb is supposed to cover your street clothes, not show them off. Collars included.

In one of his reader Q&As today, Fr. Zuhlsdorf is asked about laypeople serving at the altar, and whether they should have their ties and turtlenecks and what-all sticking up from their cassocks. The obvious answer is no, and neither should the clergy. Both Fr. Z. and his reader refer to the appropriate section of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal. Case closed, Roman-style.

But for those of us who do not answer to the authority of the GIRM, the question may require an answer from first principles. So, briefly:
  • Vestments, by their nature, are designed to tell a story -- not about the wearer's individuality, but about his or her place in the assembly. Far from being an opportunity for personal display, they are a guide to the task that each person will fulfill in the service. These are all baptized; this one is ordained, either to the priesthood or the diaconate; that one will celebrate Holy Communion. Ah, say the faithful, reading the day's living bulletin; we understand.
  • By the same logic, various bits of personal haberdashery -- notably wristwatches and bracelets -- are customarily removed when leading worship. The last thing anybody wants is to solemnly elevate a chalice, and yet have the faithful in the pews distracted by one's butt-ugly G-Shock.
  • The traditional base garment for the minister of Holy Communion is the alb, a simple white robe. To fulfill its purpose of covering up the secular clothing, the alb is designed with close-fitting sleeves and a hem that falls just above the tops of the shoes. The neck (along with shirt collars and other neckwear) is covered by the amice, which while not part of the alb as such was for many generations inseparable from it in use. The net effect is that the celebrant's head, hands and feet are revealed, and the rest is covered up by pure baptismal whiteness. Other vestments are added to this foundation, which is the immersion of the individual into the fundamental reality of the Church, the Resurrection of Christ.
Several recent developments have changed the way that the alb is used:
  • The alb has spread beyond the celebrant, and is now frequently used by other ministers as well. This means that where, once, the alb was nearly always worn under a chasuble, now it is often worn without any other vestment.
  • The cassock-alb, introduced (we believe) by C.M. Almy and now available from every supplier on earth, has virtually eliminated the use of the amice.
Neither of these is objectionable by itself. Although cassocks and surplices offer a much neater appearance on most people than albs, because they don't bunch up as much, they are not magical. One plain white robe delivers the message as well as another. And the cassock-alb is eminently practical.

However, as albs have come to be used more widely, marketing forces have led to a greater diversity of styles than existed in the past. Some of these styles defeat the basic purpose of an alb. Excessively wide sleeves simulate a surplice, and cowl necks proudly reveal whatever may be underneath -- typically, a clerical collar and a flash of one's shirt. Better that than chest hair, we suppose -- but still.

It makes you want to stand up and say, "Dude, just buy an amice."

We hate to pick on an easy target, but this brings us to (D&FMS of the) PECUSA PB Katherine Jefferts Schori. Schori's vestment choices are so predictably wretched that they seem to deliberately mock the customary good taste of her peers. And in fact, we have come to believe that she is, deliberately and savagely, mocking much of the rest of the Anglican clergy and especially its episcopate, with many of whom she is upon notoriously poor terms.

Consider the picture to your right.

Cowl neck? Check. Flapping sleeves? Ditto. And chasuble? Could be worse, but it ain't pretty. Under normal circumstances, we would consider this an example of extremely bad judgment. Under normal circumstances.

But as most readers know, this photo was snapped in the midst of what the Anglican world calls "Mitregate." Bishop Schori, on a recent visit to Britain, was asked by Lambeth Palace to forgo the use of her mitre in procession when she celebrated the Eucharist. The official basis of the request was that CofE canon law does not recognize the existence of female bishops; the underlying reality is that this was clearly read, and surely meant, as a snub to Schori.

Her revenge? According to our theory, it was to proceed wearing attire that clearly revealed her ordination both to the priesthood (note the collar) and to the episcopate (note the flash of purple shirt). It was just the sort of telling of one's personal story that the tradition discourages and vestments, traditionally designed and worn, discourage. But there are times when one's personal story is a n important and timely witness to the Gospel. Perhaps this was one of them.

The moral of the story is twofold. First, buy an amice. By which we really mean, let us all wear our vestments as they were meant to be worn, not merely for the sake of decency and order, but for the sake of the Gospel we are called to proclaim. And second, sometimes decency order may get in the way of the proclamation. So then you skip the amice.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Al Qaeda and the Orgasm Gap

File this under Department of Say What?

A special 130-page issue of the Journal of Sexual Medicine will be devoted to the results of a large survey by the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University. It promises juicy details to effect that men have more orgasms than women, and some people wear condoms while others don't. Biggest thing of its kind since 1994, and no doubt very interesting if this is the sort of thing that interests you.

What interests us is this unfortunate encomium:

Dr. Dennis Fortenberry, a pediatrics professor who was lead author of the study's section about teen sex, said the overall findings of such a huge survey should provide reassurance to Americans who are curious about how their sex lives compare with others.

"Unless, like al-Qaida, you feel there's something abnormal about the American people, what these data say is, 'This is normal – everything in there is normal.'"

Huh? Did he really say that? "Unless you're a bloodthirsty anti-American Jihadi, you'll like this survey." Or, to put it more simply, "Wear a condom, or the terrorists win."

Just Gotta Vent

Some days, ministry is more fun than others.

So there's this couple: fiftysomething, married about five years, they seem nice but what do I know? Started coming to church a couple three weeks ago, so I don't really know them yet. They did tell me up front that they were having some financial trouble. His new job as a press photographer is already behind on the paychecks -- thank you, Death of Print. Then they lost their apartment, crashed with a friend. Then, Friday night, they were out on the street. Slept at the train station.

Saturday, they called me.

Now, I'm a foreigner with poor language skills and virtually no local connections. Not your go-to guy for emergencies. But Mother A., God bless her, has spent the last year networking like a crazy woman. So she made a couple of calls, and found them a place to stay for a few nights. It was a vacant apartment, and a nice one. I know it was nice, because I met them at church with a backpack full of blankets, picked up some groceries at the store, and took them over. You could say I helped them move in, although "moving in" meant putting their daypacks down on the floor and saying "Here we are."

That was a good day. I was glad to help.

Then, for two days, the owners worried. Who were these strangers they had let into their property? Were they drug addicts? Boozers? Would they wreck the place? Would they overdose and die and be found weeks later because of the smell? It is easy to chuckle during the daytime, but at night, these things can keep you awake. And they aren't irrational fears; we live in a bad old world, where things really do happen.

So they called me.

Politely but firmly, they said that two nights would be quite enough, and could I hand them the keys sometime tomorrow. So I went to bed, tossing and turning, knowing that I would have to wake up in the morning and change from Lord Bountiful into the moustache-twirling bad guy. Which I did, this morning. Called the guy at work, asked him to come home quickly. Walked over to the apartment, and explained things. Tears were shed, fears expressed. Rightly so. We took some time to clean house -- basically, this just meant wiping the kitchen counter.

The woman had washed some clothes, so we waited for them to dry, speeding it up a little by holding them near the burners of the gas stove.

It took about two hours. Then we left, locking the door and stepping out onto a brisk, windy autumn day. The sort of day that is pleasant to walk around in, until the sun goes down and it gets cold. I gave them some money for lunch, and walked over to the owner's house to drop off the keys.

I reassured the owner that the apartment was in good shape, that the people were grateful, and that even if her fears were misplaced, they weren't unreasonable. I thanked her, and started home.

It was noon, and it had already been a lousy day to be a pastor.