Sunday, November 27, 2016

A modest proposal...

Continued from last week…

It’s time to wrap up another whiny harangue. I think I see some light at the end of the tunnel. Remember when I talked about those youth rallies on the Puerto Rican west side during which a thousand Puerto Rican teenagers surged forward to give their lives to Jesus and be filled with the Holy Spirit? 

Remember, I said they were totally hokey, with tears and slobber and people walking around with Kleenex boxes. I just got back from a wonderful retreat, at the highlight of which the gathered congregation surged forward to be filled with the Holy Spirit. It was totally hokey, tears and slobber and people walking around with Kleenex boxes and it was wonderful. It occurred to me that the whole thing is about conversion. 

To the degree that we - the church - understand and pursue personal conversion as our first priority, we will flourish or perish. The days of assuming conversion are over. Most young people in our culture don’t pray. Why do I mention prayer? It is in prayer, the lifting of the heart and mind to God, that we have the encounter with the Almighty. It is that personal, though not private, encounter that empowers and motivates the Christian life. Our young people have never learned how and they don’t see the point of it. Check out the Pew Surveys on the subject. They have never encountered God. If people do not have an encounter with heaven, they are not going to live the Christian life on earth.

There are moments when the world changes. The life of William Wilberforce was one of those moments. Born in 1759, he experienced a conversion in 1784 and thereafter dedicated himself to the abolition of slavery and came to be that movement’s de facto leader. He and his movement succeeded in ending slavery in the British Empire by 1833, which in turn made abolition inevitable in the United States and the rest of the Christian world.  Wilberforce was part of the very unfashionable Anglican evangelical movement. The upper-class sneered at evangelicals, especially those who, like Wilberforce, came from their own numbers. An evangelical Englishman had no future either in politics, or high society. They were a bunch of fanatics who distributed religious tracts outside taverns and one really wouldn’t want to be seen with or, infinitely worse, be one of them. Well, they changed the world and ended one of the greatest crimes of human history. 

If one can speak of a leader of the Anglican evangelical movement the nod would have to go to John Wesley who lived and died an Anglican an ordained one to boot! Wesley’s tireless missionary work among the poor of England started after a horrible ship ride home from a failed missionary journey to the Americas. Onboard he encountered a group of German Pietists and their pastor who maintained complete calm during a ferocious storm. As they prayed in the bow of the boat the English ran about in panic. Wesley asked the Pietist pastor why the Germans had been so calm while the Anglicans had been terrified. To which question the pastor posed another: “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and have you been sealed with the Holy Spirit?” Wesley had to admit that he didn’t know. After he arrived back in London he started to attend Pietist prayer meetings and on May 24, 1738, he experienced what he called a strange warming of the heart. From then on he was a fearless preacher throughout Great Britain despite persecution by his fellow Anglican clergymen. Wesley and his friends preached wherever they could despite the opposition of the less enthused. He was accused of all sorts of horrible things, including an attempt to re-establish Catholicism! Heaven forfend!! 

Wesley believed that the government sponsored Anglican Church had failed to call sinners to repentance, and these sinners even included corrupt clergy! Despite the great opposition, Wesley travelled Britain preaching the Gospel, mostly on horseback, until his death in 1791 at the age of 87.

So, am I suggesting that we all become Methodists? Wesley was never a Methodist. He died as an Anglican priest. I am merely suggesting that we answer the question that Wesley had to answer. Have you accepted Jesus Christ as the Lord of your life? Have you been sealed with his Holy Spirit?
Rephrase the question anyway you pleased but ask and answer it honestly. Can you honestly say that you have met Jesus of Nazareth in a personal way, or is he just a dead philosopher who has a lot of followers? And the second question: When was the last time the Holy Spirit spoke to you? If the answer is, “a long time ago,” then perhaps it's time to renew an old relationship. If the answer is never, maybe it’s time you asked the Holy Spirit to intervene in your life. If we all did this, I have a feeling things would be quite different.  

Imagine a Church that expected the Holy Spirit to speak at staff meetings, parish councils, planning sessions, finance committees and even from the pulpit!!! I said a while ago, that just citizens make a just society not the other way around. If we could only expect God to speak, and if we learned to hear clearly, I suspect that the Church and the world would be very different places. 
the Rev. Know-it-all

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Overcoming an early '70's Seminary Education

I was a part-time hippie and a fashionable socialist. I actually owned a Mao jacket and The Little Red Book of the sayings of Chairman Mao. I marched in protest. I sat in protest and I played guitar in protest. I slept on the floor. I tried to be a vegetarian. I was partial to Trotsky, but I think that was really about the cool glasses he wore. I actually leafletted for feminism. I was an idiot. I snapped out of it when the peace committee at my college had a huge fight between the violently non-violent and the non-violently non-violent. (I took the side of the non-violently nonviolent.) 

I was also dallying with interesting religions at the time and ended up in a Pentecostal prayer group at the same time that I was giving up on political activism. I found out that prayer works a whole lot better than community organizing. It seems inevitable that today’s liberators are tomorrow’s tyrants. You can’t have a just society without just citizens. The conversion of the citizen is the only way to change a nation. We, the clergy of the sixties, blew it. We failed utterly.

I spent my early ministry pre- and post-ordination on the Puerto Rican west side. We had a huge youth prayer group, four or five hundred teenagers. They weren’t all saints, by any means. It was a great place to meet girls. The gangs would wait to kill people coming out of the prayer group. There were prayer meetings that exited to gunfire. I was too dumb to know how dangerous it was, and what was really going on in the back pews.

Now it’s 40 years later. I don’t hear much about Puerto Rican gangs on the west side anymore. I hear about Puerto Rican accountants, attorneys, electricians, mechanics and secretaries. What happened? A lot of things, but one thing that I know happened for many was conversion. There were so many different groups all pushing for conversion to Christ. We used to hold youth rallies that would attract a thousand kids. We would work out truces with the gangs so kids could pass over gang boundaries for the weekend. We had no budgets, and not much organization, but we fed and entertained a thousand kids for whole weekends. The highlight of the rally always came when a thousand kids surged forward to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and savior. 

It was hokey, tears and slobber and people walking around with Kleenex boxes. It was about as theologically deep as a puddle. It had all the decorum and dignity of a clown car. The Saul Alinsky, Carl Rogers-trained clergy of the neighborhood were appalled and did their best to put an end to it. This unbalanced and overly emotional sort of thing was dangerous and certainly not Catholic as far as they were concerned. So, a lot of these kids went un-pastored after their conversion and a lot of them joined protestant Pentecostal churches that were happy to shepherd them. Some drifted back into old ways, but they could never quite forget their encounter with Christ and now, 40 years later as I look back at that time that has absorbed so much of my life and energy, it occurs to me that, on a certain level, it worked. To find out that God was real and that Jesus loved them broke the cycle of poverty and violence for many of them. 

We never told them that society had messed them up. We told them that sin had messed them up and that they could repent and Christ would accept them. The Latin community that I knew was torn by marital instability, violence, alcohol, substance abuse, gambling and prostitution. When someone experienced a conversion, especially in a fundamentalist church, it was the end of gambling, the end of wasting money on the botanicas (voodoo stores) the end of smoking, drinking, gambling, etc.

Automatically, a person who underwent a conversion and was socialized into one of the strict storefront churches was suddenly richer, safer and more involved with their families. I won’t say that they were all happily-ever-after-stories, but they certainly were not sad-and-hopeless-ever-after stories.

The local Catholic pastors, and their fundraising efforts never seemed to mind drinking, smoking and bingo in the basement. That sort of thing kept the schools open. I have no objection to a dance or a Las Vegas night or any of that stuff when its purpose is to bring people together as a family, especially in a community that isn’t enslaved by all that, but when slowly, quietly become the main focus of the institution; it ceases to be a religious institution.

Well, guess what? We have to close a lot of things, and my suspicion is that back in the grand old sixties if we the clergy had been what the Lord had wanted and not so much a community organizing group, we would not be facing this kind of current mess. 

To be continued

Sunday, November 13, 2016

And where did that get us?

Image result for easy riderWe moan about the lack of vocations, and as I mentioned last time I wrote, why would we expect children to choose religious vocations when there are no children, and the few whom have managed to beget are convinced, conspicuous consumers who think that God is Santa Claus and every day should be Christmas? (By this I mean the children’s feast of getting, not the Catholic feast of giving.) We are increasingly a society of old people, except in the case of my generation. We are, as the poet wrote, “forever young.” We are old people who still wear pony tails and backward baseball caps. When I was a lad, the film “Easy Rider” was very popular. It is about the deep spirituality of a motorcycle riding drug dealer.

Everybody who wasn’t able to play the acoustic guitar in coffee houses seemed to be avid motorcyclists. I never know whether to laugh or cry when I see someone about my age riding a motorcycle who has squeezed his 300 pounds into yesterday’s leather clothing, bandana or leather cap crowning the whole ensemble. In my generation, one did not have a “girlfriend.” She was your “old lady.”  And she rode behind you on your “hog” (motorcycle). Now there she is still clinging to your love handles, a look of terror on her sun wrinkled face. She is now quite literally “your old lady.”  Quite a sight, these 70-year-old young rebels, these knights of the open road who haven’t a clue that they are older than dirt and prone to hip fractures. 

That’s pretty much my generation, born to be wild. Imagine the wrecks that our children are! My point is this: My generation thought that we were the pinnacle of human evolution, we, the Age of Aquarius, the generation that by its frank honesty and good will would end the oppression of the past! Free love, free drugs, free booze and, now, early liver failure. How has that all worked out, fellow baby boomer?  We take to the open road with the wind blowing through what’s left of our hair, the bugs splattering our dentures. As we ride off into the sunset to visit our 1.8 grandchildren, does it ever occur to us that maybe we were wrong. 

If you think the whole revolution of the sixties was a fine thing, maybe you should look at the kids, or the lack of them. Our 1.8 grandchildren have their faces glued to a screen. They seem frightened by everything, especially by their hippy grandparents. They are not capable of communicating except by text. Maybe we should admit the truth, sell the bike and find a nice nursing home with rockers on the front porch (By rockers I mean a kind of chair, not musicians). Our one-point-eight grandchildren are going to resent the whopping tax burden that we will impose on them to pay for the long-term health care that will be need when we fall off our motorcycles. There are fewer and fewer providing more and more. We old folks don’t want to give up our way of life. We’ve worked hard for this glorious retirement. Someone has got to pay for our Viagra! We are the ME generation, parents of the ME generation, grandparents of the ME and my portable TV generation. We are narcissists who have spawned two more generations of narcissists.  We are consumers. We consume high end products, smart phones, computers, big cars mini mansions, luxury vacations, tickets to the big game, preferably sky box. If we don’t have all the stuff we see on TV we feel cheated. We have been raised to believe that stuff is our right! You are what you own! 

We’ve had 1.8 children, because the average cost of raising a child born in 2013 up until age 18 in the U.S. is about $245,340, or $304,480 if you account for inflation, according to the latest annual “Cost of Raising a Child” report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We have no children out a great sense of nobility. It wouldn’t be fair to raise children on hand me downs. It would cost millions to have ten kids. We couldn’t give each of them his or her own bedroom in our suburban mini mansion, each with his own computer, I-Pad and designer dreck. If the meaning of life is smart phones, computers, big cars, mini mansions, luxury vacations and tickets to the big game, preferably sky box, why bring them into this world anyway?  

Who is to blame for this mess? I am. I, the young hippy priest, I who believed what I was taught in the glorious 60’s, I am to blame.  I was happy to encourage penitents in the confessional, “Oh, don’t worry, that’s not really a sin.”  I had to be “self- actualized” according to Dr. Abraham Maslow. Dr. Maslow invented a hierarchy of human needs that had to be fulfilled before self-actualization could occur. Once all my needs had been fulfilled, I could be fully human. It sounds a little like the emperor Nero who said upon seeing the palace he had built for himself in the middle of Rome “Now at last I can begin to live like a human being.” The great Dr. Carl Rogers told us to strive for Optimal Development. That meant I had to have a growing openness to experience and to move away from defensiveness. (I am not making this up).

We were required to spend some time in what was called C.P.E., Clinical Pastoral Experience. We were farmed out to various hospital, and charitable institutions to spend a semester or so in a kind of apprenticeship directed by a kind of mentor. They were not necessarily Catholic, or even Christian. My mentor was a liberal Methodist pastor who advised me in my final evaluation to move in with some young woman in Sandburg Village, a very trendy apartment complex in the area. I found out later that this advice was given to most of the young Catholic seminarians. Pastor **** believed deeply in marriage, he himself had married several times. Another young seminarian in our group was told by Pastor **** that he would make a fine priest if he could (insert indecent activity here). 

Maybe I should not be talking about these things, but I’m old and tired someone has got to tell the truth about these things at some point. This man, Pastor **** had the right to weigh in on my fitness for priestly ordination. He had the sexual morals of a ferret, but was fit to judge me and my Catholic Faith. I personally never studied canon law or St. Thomas Aquinas, but I did study Dr. Abraham Maslow, Dr. Carl Rogers, Saul Alinsky, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. In short I learned that it was all about me and my needs.

The Gospel was just one way to self-actualize, to develop optimally. And of course, I dished out this hogwash to the faithful. They, like I, were happy to substitute pop-psychology and folk music for the timeless morality and liturgical beauty of Catholicism. And so, who has time or money enough to be self-actualized with 10 kids?  Better have 1.8 so I can afford that consciousness raising seminar at the Christian Yoga ashram at Big Sur. (Big Sur is a rather pricey bit of the Central Coast of California. It combines vast wildernesses and breathtaking views for those who want to get back to nature along with Starbucks availability, and Wi-Fi access.)  I am not making this up either. Back in ’69 much of seminary faculty went on a retreat at Big Sur. I remember when Fr. Borisewicz, the math teacher, came back sporting love beads. I should have realized then that the train had jumped the track.

My point in all this whining? We are about to run out of the people whose generosity has filled the seminaries, the convents and the collection baskets of the Catholic Church for as long as anyone can remember. They are in their 80’s and nineties. Following them are the narcissists like myself and the narcissists we have raised in the past 40 years. I have this overwhelming sense that the visible structure of Catholicism in the developed consumerist world is about to pop like an overextended soap bubble. 

Next week: a few suggestions