Musings of an Anglican/Episcopal Priest

Month: January 2010

Worth Caring About…

[Note: written for the most recent Grail, the newsletter of St. Joseph of Arimathea]

Not that long ago I was down at Church of the Advent joining in one of several focus groups that the Bishop had asked all clergy to participate in.

Fra Angelico: Sermon on the Mount

As we discussed the past, present and future of the Diocese of Tennessee and reflected upon our strengths and weaknesses as well as the challenges and opportunities that face us, I was reminded of a presentation I once saw that I thought was applicable to our circumstances.  In his presentation for “TED” (a non-profit devoted to “ideas worth spreading,”that holds conferences where thinkers from various disciplines share theirknowledge) James H. Kunstler talks about “the immersive ugliness of our everyday environments in America” and shares his belief that much of the way we have organized our contemporary environments and communities lead to depression because they are places that “aren’t worth caring about.” His argument and hischallenge is for Americans to begin considering the ways in which we can makeour communities worth caring about through the development of buildings andpublic spaces that hearken back to age-old principles of urban planning. In effect, Kunstler argues, if communities are not inspiring and do not illicit care from citizens, they will eventually cease to function as meaningful communities and will be besest by all the problems one can find in communities in decline.While Kunstler’s ideas were specifically applied to the built environment andurban planning, I believe the same principal holds for our diocese as a whole as well as each congregation: our goal should be to build or grow and improve upona community worth caring about.

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Tonight’s presentation to the Men of the Church: Not For Sale

Tonight’s presentation to the Men of the Church at St. Joseph of Arimathea (and their families) is about the Not For Sale Campaign which educates people in order to combat modern slavery. We will be meeting at Steamboat Bill’s at 248 Sanders Ferry Road in Hendersonville TN, beginning around 6:00pm with the presentation following at 7:00pm.

For an eye-opening experience, explore the map below from
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The War on Kids

I was catching up on Colbert via Hulu a few weeks ago and saw his interview with Cevin Soling and knew I had to blog about it, especially in light of the story I had just read recently, Life with Shelby, about the experience of one young woman and her family in the educational system.

I don’t think it’s a red herring to discuss the aesthetics of the way schools are constructed.  I once heard a TED talk (if I can find it I’ll post it in the comments) where the presenter talked about the importance of creating “communities worth caring about.”  I think the same principal applies to learning communities/schools.  One can create a community worth caring about (and therefore an environment in which learning is valued), or a community that is despised and inculcates a distaste for learning.

Click below for the video

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Life & Learning

My family is pro-education.  It has been for a long time.  Generations, in fact.  Now, that doesn’t mean that everyone in my family has a PhD–far from it.  But what it does mean is that from our origins in the Appalachians, from some people who had been wealthy and become poor and others who had never had any resources to speak of, a healthy respect for education and learning was instilled.  My dad has been known to quote his grandfather, a bootlegger, as saying, in an earthy way “Son, they can take your money, they can take your house, they can even take your woman.  But nobody can ever take your education.”

From my mother’s side, amongst other family items, I’ve found a letter written by a young teacher just out of normal school to my great grandfather, thanking him for his support of the new school (a one room school house) that had just been completed in the community.  It was the first school in that community, and the enthusiasm of the young teacher is still infectious just shy of a century later.  My great grandfather was a veteran on the Spanish American war who returned home to live the remainder of his days farming, raising tobacco and pushing for the building of roads and other elements of progress in the community.

On both sides of my family I see evidence of the great tradition of Southern Populism that gave rise to and supported education in North Carolina in the University of North Carolina system and in many smaller local institutions, from the founding of one room school houses to community colleges.  As an heir of even a small part of this tradition, you’d be hard pressed to get me to say anything negative about the idea of education in general, and the importance of the liberal arts in particular.

But as true as all of this is, it doesn’t make me less of a critic of some of the negative trends in education which are especially prevalent in public schools–perhaps because they are the push-me-pull-me of education.  I say this not to be critical of public school teachers–my sister is a talented and committed high school history teacher at a public school in North Carolina–but because I believe the institution we have constructed to educate our children is systemically flawed, in some cases tragically.  I’m sure my sister or any number of other gifted teachers could write pages about the specifics of this claim, and they are in many ways as much victims of the system as the children they strive to educate.

I bring this topic up today because of a pair of articles I just finished reading by Gordan Atkinson, aka Real Live Preacher.  In Our Life With Shelby, pts. 1 & 2, Atkinson recounts the experience of his middle daughter, Shelby, in the education system.  It is a powerful story and I pray that the positive note that the articles end on will only continue and that Shelby will flourish.

Our Life with Shelby, pt. 1

Our Life with Shelby, pt. 2

TLC: Denial and how to kill a denomination

The Living Church published this piece from Canon Neal Michell about the culture of denial that characterizes the institutional structure of the Episcopal Church.  I long ago became convinced that TEC as an institution was floundering (quite apart from conflicts over moral and social issues) and intent on falling on its own institutional sword.  This is just one example of the inertia drawing it that direction:

Killing the Messenger

During the previous triennium the State of the Church Committee told the truth about the condition of our church. It did an excellent job of reporting the difficulties of an aging, financially challenged denomination. It acknowledged further losses due to conflict in our churches, particularly over sexuality issues that have exacerbated the decline in attendance and membership. The committee made recommendations for addressing these challenges.

Were their recommendations heeded? No. Our General Convention had no real strategy in its decisions. The cuts in the triennial budget were hailed as “fair” and “across the board.” But they weren’t strategic. Seemingly strategic staff positions of three years ago and even one year ago were eliminated with little dissent. The convention passed all evangelism-related resolutions while at the same time eliminating the church’s evangelism officer.

So many of our dioceses are in financial difficulties. Some of the financial shortfall in diocesan income is due to the recent recession. But remember, giving to the Episcopal Church by the dioceses is based upon previous years’ income. The most recent financial shortfall for the Episcopal Church is attributable, not to the recent recession, but to decreased income to our collective dioceses in the past three years.

With ever-increasing decline in attendance and giving and ever-increasing costs of doing business at the congregational level, assessments paid to the Episcopal Church by our dioceses will likely decrease even more within the next six years. In other words, this current financial shortfall was a long time in the making, and it will likewise be a long time in the remedying.

As a denomination, we need transformational change, not incremental change. Incremental change represents business as usual. Incremental change represents “just trying a little harder.” If we continue doing things as we have done, we will continue our decline, continue bleeding off the endowments of previous generations, continue to congratulate ourselves on the pockets of vitality while we become a church pastored primarily by retired and part-time clergy. One recommendation of the previous

State of the Church Committee was that some members be reappointed to provide for some continuity with the previous committee. Was that advice heeded? No. Not one member of the 2006-09 State of the Church Committee was reappointed for 2009-12.

{Read it all}

To be clear, this sort of thing frustrates me, but does not cause me to loose sleep at night.  I don’t actually thing TEC is unique, nor do I think the failure of an institution means the efforts one puts in in parish ministry are pointless.  Institutions rise and fall, but that does not mean that congregations cannot experience health and vitality as this occurs.  Likewise, if a congregation fails after a pastor puts their efforts into it, so be it.  What matters most (in my opinion) is the impact one has on individual lives while being faithful, and the cumulative effect of that.

FPR: Methland, the book you should read this year

Methamphetamines are a scourge on America.  Before I moved to Tennessee, I heard about an increasing number of meth-related deaths (often heart attacks) in Western North Carolina, where I grew up.  The first counties I lived in when I moved to Tennessee were meccas of meth production.

Meth, like most addictive drugs, plays upon particular weaknesses.  Meth, however, seems particularly suited as a drug for the “common man.”  A drug that helps you work longer hours, feel strong–like superman–and helps you forget the meals you haven’t eaten or been able to afford.  Well, it’s too much for many people in poor communities, rural and urban, to pass up.  This book is definitely on my reading list.


Claremont, CA. They call it the “Superman Syndrome.” People who use methamphetamine often believe that they are capable of doing impossible things. Like flying. Or walking through walls. Or earning a living as a meatpacker in the era of agribusiness.

Nick Reding’s Methland (Bloomsbury, $25) made a number of “Best Books of 2009” lists, but I want to make sure it does not get consigned to the Decade That Was. It is one of the best pieces of book-length journalism that I have read in years, and if you haven’t read it already it should be your must-read book of 2010.

Methland starts out as the tale of one small town – Oelwein, Iowa – so ravaged by small-time methamphetamine production that its officials ban bicycling on Main Street. (Meth makers were riding through downtown with chemical-filled soda bottles strapped to their bikes; the motion helps to “cook” the drug.) Everyone is in a state of collapse: the people who are addicted to the drug, of course, but also the people – the mayor, the prosecutor, the doctor, the policemen – who are trying to fight it.

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