Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Seen and Unseen, by the Rev. Peter J. Van Hook

I believe in God…the maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. ~ The Nicene Creed

There is no reality beyond our perception of it.

It took me a long time to comprehend the depth of that little saying, but when I finally “got it”, it changed my life as a pastor. For years I had been confounded by the response of people, parishioners especially, to things I had said or done. (Sometimes peoples’ responses to things I have done or said is all too accurate, but that is another story.) Contemporary neuroscience has demonstrated that everything that goes through our senses is filtered and interpreted by our brains, which in turn have been formed by our experiences.

An example: the first Sunday of my tenure as Priest-in-Charge of St. Mary's Church I moved the Table from directly in front of the High Altar (where the Rev. Jessica Hatch had used it) to the center of the chancel (the area where the choir would be). I did not do this for serious liturgical reasons; I did it because it was a First Sunday and I wanted the children to stand with me at the Table during the Holy Communion! My intention was to move it back to its previous position.

Nobody said a word.

I thought this would at least raise some comments and questions (my perception). If anyone did consciously notice they did not say anything to me, and since I like the Table where it is it has stayed in its present position. (The same thing happened with the frontals [covers] on the Table, which I did not know existed until last Lent. They were not invisible: no one had shown me where they were stored.)

This is why the contemporary version of the Nicene Creed is important (and it is not just the “I believe…” vs. the “We believe…”). The traditional (Elizabethan) version states it “…maker…of all things visible and invisible.” The contemporary version states it as “…maker…of all that is, seen and unseen” (note the comma; it’s important). There is a significant and important difference between something being invisible and it being unseen. Invisible means that the thing is not available for us to perceive in any way, and it may exist, but we cannot know that. Unseen means that the thing exists but it is out of sight, hidden, or we have simply missed it. Our senses have filtered it out of our individual ability to see, hear, or touch it.

This is why we pray for people we do not see and perhaps have never met. We cannot know that they actually exist; we take it on the witness of others that they are. (Our friend Michelle Despain has not been seen in church in months, but I assure you that she is quite real!) The prologue of the Gospel according to John says that “no one has seen God; it is the Son who has made him known.” I have not seen God (at least that I know of), but I have perceived God at work in the people and world around me. I did not see the Resurrection of Jesus; I take it on the witness of the Apostles and others that they saw Jesus after he was crucified, a witness that has been passed down through generations of Christians until it got to me.

In other words, the Resurrection is not something invisible. It is, simply, something that for us is unseen. It is beyond our immediate perception. We have to listen, feel, and see carefully to discern it. Like everything else, we have to decide to discern it. That is not a trick of the mind. It is how reality works. We have to choose to see what is.
Peter +

A footnote: I recently made two other small changes in church. Again, no one has said anything to me about them. I do not know if they simply have not been perceived as changes, or if some have noticed them and not said anything. I try always to welcome comments and questions about our worship, because there may be things there, or things done, that I have not perceived myself. Remember: we’re in this together!
The authors of this blog welcome comments, reactions, and critiques.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Pastoral Care and Pastoral Guilt, by the Rev. Peter J. Van Hook

Will you undertake to be a faithful pastor to all whom you are called to serve, laboring together with them and with your fellow ministers to build up the family of God?
One of the vows in “The Ordination of a Priest,” bcp p. 532

That I can recall, in my forty-three-plus years as a pastor in The Episcopal Church I have missed Sunday services for which I was responsible twice, both because of illness. (There are probably a half-dozen or more Sundays that I should have been absent, but that is part of this story.)

Like most Episcopal clergy I feel not only the highest sense of responsibility for such, but I also worry that “things will not go well in my absence.” NOT because I think I am irreplaceable, but because I feel intense guilt when I fall short of my vision of what a parish priest is and does.

On the official side of things there are the vows we take and the canon law we pledge to uphold. The vows are said in response to questions from the bishop who is seated before you while a church full of people are silently listening and looking. (The ordinand has their back to the congregation, including the clergy of the diocese, but you know that everyone is looking at you.) It is a particularly solemn moment that one does not forget.

The vows take up one page in The Book of Common Prayer. The canon titled “Life and Work of the Priest” takes up about twenty pages in small print. It is difficult for a lay person to imagine the breadth of the responsibilities a parish priest has, including pastoral care, education, administration, worship, social...etc. It is not hard to feel overworked and inadequate all at the same time.

I am old enough and experience enough to be able to balance most of these things, and even to let go of the things I cannot do, by virtue of talent, skills, or time. More importantly, along the way I learned that one must look at the entirety of the vow noted above. We clergy tend to place a period after “service,” and delete the rest of it. It may be that the truly important part is in fact the second part, about working together to build up the family of God.

I am fortunate to be serving in a congregation that lives into the “working together” stuff. From my first Sunday at St. Mary’s Church, I have noted the willingness of people to step up and step in when needed. So, when things got really crazy in my life last week I knew I could count on that reality of mutual support. I just had not realized how much . . . .

Many of you are aware that Rob Jones, Deacon Sandra’s husband, became ill early last week. He was admitted to University Hospital for tests, but at the same time his condition continued to worsen. Late in the week he was notified that he would need a liver transplant. Saturday afternoon he was told a liver was available, and the surgery would be noon Sunday. (As I write this on Tuesday I can report that the surgery went well, and that Rob continues to recover quite nicely.)

The details of what happened in my life from Friday through Sunday are not important, but the broad outline is. Four clergy and one bishop (!) played tag team as Rob prepared for surgery and after. A fifth priest, Mary June Nestler, late Saturday evening during a phone call offered to cover for me at St. Mary’s while I attended to Rob and family.

I drove down to Provo early Sunday morning, made sure things were in order (did I mention the hyper-responsibility?), and then drove back to the University of Utah in time to give Rob a blessing on his way to surgery. I then spend most of the day staying with Sandra et al., until one of the other clergy appeared and gladly offered to stay the rest of the afternoon, and I headed home. At St. Mary’s Church the worship went well, and a delightful potluck was enjoyed by all. Bishop Hayashi spent considerable time visiting with Rob on Monday. Others have continued their vigils as well.

I offer this little bit of history not to brag but to demonstrate what happens when we work together for a common goal: the building up of the body of Christ (in this case, caring for Sandra and Rob).

Note that in forty-three years of parish ministry I have never had anything like this happen. I suppose it has happened in other places and perhaps in other ways, but never involving me. And I do not feel one bit of guilt for missing church at St. Mary’s on Sunday. Well, maybe a tiny bit . . . .


The authors of this blog welcome comments, reactions, and critiques.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Do Not Be Afraid — thoughts on the politics of fear (part two), by the Rev. Peter J. Van Hook

26 "So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.”
~ Matthew 10

In my blog last week I began my consideration of the politics of fear by laying out a New Testament and Early Church context, especially noting the similarities of that society and ours. (Hint: don’t let the differences in technology fool you.) The most notable characteristic of the first Christians was their absolute, unshakeable confidence in God and in the divine purposes.

This week I want to uncover the sources of the politics of fear (albeit briefly) and state what I think a true Christian response to the world’s crises can be.

In my view there are at least two main types of religious charlatans in the world. The first group claims special knowledge not available to others, and their claim to authority is their possession and ability to interpret [for you] such special knowledge. The second group tends more toward the day of reckoning knowledge. That is, in a curious way they have the answer to all the ills of creation which if you do not follow and obey them will lead you to you-know-where. There are other types, but these two, especially in contemporary American culture, are the more prominent.

What drives both of these types is anxiety. That anxiety can be expressed in many ways, but think about these: the end of the world is coming…and by the way you and your behavior are the cause of it; American society is sick and soulless and doomed, all because of those [fill in the blanks]; you must not come in contact with those [fill in the blank]s because a) they are evil, b) they are really evil, and c) they will corrupt you and turn you into one of that Godless horde. (The latter is one of the reasons zombie movies are so popular these days.)

Interestingly, the more anxious they can make you the more likely you are to become one of their followers. (At this point, read power, influence, and money.) What I see and hear from these sorts is unrestrained, unresolved, and unrecognized (or not admitted) anxiety. The source of that anxiety is likely that person’s own history, especially their family of origin and its dynamics. People with unresolved anxiety use others as living garbage bags into which they can pour and unload their feelings without taking responsibility for the consequences.

So, what do I mean when I talk about “the politics of fear”? By that term I mean those in our political life who are constantly blaming others (for whatever), who are claiming special knowledge (“I KNOW how to fix this economy! Just elect me and I’ll show you how!”), and who are addressing more and more narrow groups of listeners who now become the “in” group (the saved, the righteous, the good guys, the Christians vis-à-vis Muslims or whatever) and who have identified the true sources of our society’s ills and problems. Black and white thinking is one of the most obvious behaviors of anxiety-ridden people. Us/them. White/black-brown-yellow-red. Christian/non-Christian. Good/evil. Their thinking lacks nuance, subtlety, and discretion. Mostly, it is always somebody else’s fault (whatever “it” is).

It should be clear that a more sound (healthy, good, effective…) life is one in which the person can take responsibility for the consequences of their actions (without needing to take responsibility for things that are indeed not their responsibility). It is one in which appropriate anxiety (as a good therapist once said, there are good things in life to be afraid of) is owned and dealt with. It is a life in which there is the ability to discern the gradations of good and bad in everything and in everybody. It is a life in which all sorts of “others” are welcomed and appreciated. It is a life in which offense is not taken when it is not meant.

It is, in other words, a life of confidence.

Christians need not fear nor be anxious. They need to be caring and care-full. Christians have special knowledge of the divine life and divine purposes—and are more than happy to share it (see the quote at the beginning of this article). Christians are generous, hospitable, respectful, and (generally) happy. Christians understand the vagaries of this life, and accept them for what they are, within the larger context of the Kingdom of God. Christians live with confidence in the constant presence of a God who loves and cares for them.

The authors of this blog welcome comments, reactions, and critiques.

A bit of background about the author. The Rev. Peter J. Van Hook has a Masters in Divinity, the professional degree for Episcopal clergy, which includes rigorous studies of scripture, tradition, and reason. He holds a Doctor Philosophy degree in Political Science, with a concentration in Public Administration. His primary academic interests are how values guide and justify decision making in organizations, and the sociology and psychology of individual action in organizations.