Thursday, 31 January 2013

Father Mulcahy vs. the Devil

This is a stand-up comedy routine (“schtick”, to use the technical term) I wrote a few years ago as part of a continuing education course.  It follows my comments made about Fr. Mulcahy from M*A*S*H in my previous post, as well as my recent post on “A well-kept secret”.

I get nervous when strangers ask me my job.

No, I’m not a Mafia hitman.

I’m not Anthony Mundine’s public relations consultant, Tim Matheson’s speechwriter, Craig Thomson’s lawyer, or Charlie Sheen’s life coach.

With a body like this, I couldn’t be a male stripper. 

I’m a Uniting Church minister.

Now, if I tell most Australians I’m a “minister”, they think I’m some kind of politician, and they expect me to shout their drinks, so I sometimes borrow terms that other groups use.
  • If I’m talking to someone with hardly any contact with churches, I often say I’m a “priest”.  Most people understand what “priest” means.  A lot of people act really strangely around “priests”, though.
  • If I’m talking to an older person or a Pommy, I say I’m a “vicar”.  They understand what that means, but then they act like I’m really … vague, … like I won’t get the punchlines of jokes.
  • I never call myself a “pastor”, because Australians associate “pastors” with the funny American religions.

Now, with any professional God-wrangler, most people think we’ve given up all sorts of stuff for our religion
  • Either we’ve given up sex, or else we’re not supposed to be too enthusiastic about it … (unless you’re gay).
  • Either we’ve given up the grog, or else we’re not supposed to be too enthusiastic about it … (unless you’re Anglican).
  • Either we’ve taken a vow of poverty, or else we get paid peanuts ... (unless you’re an evangelist; then you’re a gazillionaire).

Still, I really like my job, except for a few bits of it.

I’m supposed to visit people, particularly when they’re sick.  Now, with visiting sick people, whatever I do, it will be wrong. 
  • If I don’t visit a sick person, what do I get but, “Why didn’t you visit my mother?” 
  • If I do visit a sick person, the patient sees me coming, gets all upset, and says, “Here comes the minister.  I must be dying!”

Then there are church business meetings.  Now, don’t think that people on church committees sit around and discuss the meaning of life.  That doesn’t happen. 

  • At the local level, church meetings are all about riveting stuff like leaky roofs and how much mustard to put on the sandwiches at next year’s fete.  That’s fete, as in the phrase “a fete worse than death”.
  • Church meetings beyond the local level are similarly riveting, only more so.  Normally, you need at least one murder mystery a day to get through Synod.

But, back to what I was saying, the worse thing about being a clergy type is that we’re all expected to always be so … nice … to everyone no matter what.  A lot of this has to do with the role model that every professional God-wrangler from my generation had when we were students:  every minister, priest, vicar, rabbi, nun, imam, pastor, Buddhist monk, swami, guru, Salvation Army officer, and Mormon missionary.  I’m speaking, of course, of Father Mulcahy from M*A*S*H.  

Later generations of theological students had the Vicar of Dibley and Father Ted:  far more edgy role models.  In our day, we had Father Mulcahy. 

Now, Father Mulcahy was compassion personified.  He was compassionate in a nerdy sort of way.  Think of Kevin Rudd in a clerical collar and you’ve got the idea.  Anyway, Father Mulcahy was nice to everyone:  Radar, Hotlips, Klinger -- even Major Burns. 

And because of his compassion, Father Mulcahy had such a positive impact on everyone.  Think of Hawkeye.  More than fifty years after the end of the Korean War, there he was on The West Wing, running for president.  And he only lost narrowly to the guy from L.A. Law.

And because Father Mulcahy set the compassion bar so high for every professional God-wrangler, we’re all expected to be so professionally … nice … to everyone … at least in public.  As a result, most of us are absolutely grumpy when we get home:  Father Mulcahy in public, but Ian Paisley at home.

Is the reverse also true?  Does a fire-breathing evangelist become a meek-and-mild Mr. Nice Guy when he gets home?  After a hard day of denouncing people, does Fred Nile relax by baking a batch of ANZAC biscuits for the kiddies at the local mosque, or for the old dears at the Home for Elderly Lesbians?

Anyway, as I said, I’m a Uniting Church minister, and the big thing I like about the Uniting Church is that we’re allowed to pick and choose what we believe in or not.  That’s pretty good, because just about every religion has some good stuff that they believe in and do, and some rubbish stuff that they believe in and do.  And if you can pick and choose what you believe in, you can pick what you think is the good stuff and ignore the rest.

One of the things I don’t really believe in is the devil. 

I blame the Zoroastrians for giving us the devil. 

Now, I have nothing against the Zoroastrians personally.  I think Freddie Mercury was a very talented musician. 

But, historically, the Zoroastrians were a disaster.  They were complete pyromaniacs, for one thing.  But the worst thing about them was this idea they had three thousand years ago.  They believed that there were two gods of equal power, a good god and a bad god, and the two gods were always fighting with each other … cosmic biffo.  And all the bad stuff that happens in the world is because the good god and the bad god are having this eternal stoush.

Over the centuries, all the religions that are into the one-God idea … they took this Zoroastrian idea of the punch-up between the good god and the bad god and decided, “Hey, let’s give our God some competition!”   And so, the devil was born.  They came up with this cosmic boogieman:  evil and supernatural; nowhere near as powerful as God, but still able to scare people:  a cross between Dracula and Newt Gingrich.

And then, this devil is in charge of Hell, where God sends people she doesn’t like.  Now, if this devil is supposed to be God’s eternal enemy, why does God trust him to run her jail?  (As you can probably tell, I have problems with Hell, also.)

Think about it.  Just about every religion going, however else they disagree with each other on the religious details, agree on one big thing:  God is really into compassion.  God is like Father Mulcahy, only much more so.  That’s the big selling point of any religion.

And, if you think about it, if anyone has a right to lose her temper, it’s God.  Think about all that God has on her plate.  She’s got to keep the universe ticking over.  Meanwhile she’s got to keep all the different religions happy at the same time.  If you or I had that job description, we’d have worse anger management issues than Mel Gibson.  But God is just heavily into the whole compassion thing.

But there are some religious people – while they talk about how compassionate God is – they also say that God is willing to send people to be fuel for an eternal barbecue – just for getting their beliefs wrong.  That isn’t compassionate.  Father Mulcahy wouldn’t do that.

Think about it.  When Robert Mugabe or some other dictator throws some politician or newspaper editor into jail for criticising him, we don’t say that Robert Mugabe is all that compassionate, do we?  

Actually, I think God is much more like Father Mulcahy than Robert Mugabe (except that she probably is black.)  

Anyway, this is why I get nervous when strangers ask me my job.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

The Vicar of Dibley, Father Mulcahy, Father Ted, & co. as role models in ministry

While watching some of the early episodes of the British TV sitcom "Rev.", I reflected on how clergy characters in other TV programmes have functioned as role models for people in ministry.

For myself, and for many clergy who trained at the same time as me (late 1970s), Father Mulcahy from "M*A*S*H" was a real role model for ministry.

For many female clergy (particularly female Anglican clergy) trained in recent years, the image of "The Vicar of Dibley" features in the unwritten yardstick by which they are measured by their congregations, much to their annoyance in many cases.

The priests of Craggy Island in "Father Ted" and their confreres in "Ballykissangel" have provided similar annoyance to many of my Catholic colleagues.

And now, there's "Rev.".

It's interesting to see the attitudes toward ministry - and even the theology of ministry - found in the  clergy in these programmes.

Father Mulcahy, in the long-running US programme "M*A*S*H", functioned as a counsel of perfection, as a pair of tough shoes to fill (OK, a pair of tough army boots to fill).  He was never judgemental.  He was gentle and welcoming to everyone, even the most irritating, even Major Burns.  He was always accessible to everyone in the unit, Catholic or not, religious or not.  He was ecumenical at a time - the early 1950s - when few people knew the word.  He was a John XXIII priest in the days of Pius XII.  He was a TV equivalent to George Herbert's The Country Parson.  To clergy of my generation - of any denomination - he served as an impossible role model for ministry.

Geraldine Grainger, British TV's "Vicar of Dibley" was a different sort of person.  She was a newly ordained Anglican priest at a time when the Church of England had only recently begun ordaining women.  She was feisty and funny, enjoyed a drink and a joke, not to mention the occasional chocolate (or seventeen).  She was frankly ambitious, had strong opinions, and bumptiously high levels of self-confidence.  If she fancied a bloke, she was open about it.

At roughly, the same time as "The Vicar of Dibley", Catholic priests featured prominently in two Irish-made series on British TV, the sitcom "Father Ted" and the drama "Ballykissangel".
  • "Father Ted" focused on three priests living on a remote island off the Irish coast, the scheming and avaricious Father Ted, the immature and clueless Father Dougal, and the dementia-affected Father Jack.
  • In "Ballykissangel", one theme in the series was the tension between the young local curate and the older parish priest.  Between one season and the next, the curate changed.  The radical and passionate Father Peter was replaced by the naive and pious Father Aidan.  This led to an interesting change in the character of the parish priest Father Mac.  The scheming ultraconservative who frequently crossed swords with Father Peter became a pragmatic and pastorally progressive priest who served as a streetwise mentor to Father Aidan.
And, as I said, now there's "Rev.".

Like Geraldine Grainger, and Fathers Dougal, Peter, and Aidan, Adam Smallbone is fairly newly ordained.  He's more intelligent than Dougal, less radical than Peter, less naive than Aidan, and has much lower self-esteem than Geraldine.  Unlike any of these, he's married and lives in an urban area.  He has a collection of eccentric parishioners and hangers-on with whom Father Mulcahy and the Vicar of Dibley would be well at home.  My favourite is the persistent beggar with the ever-evolving creative sob story as to why he needs some cash immediately.  (I've met this guy ... frequently.)

At times, such as when he offered the use of his church to the local mosque's children's group, he showed a radical edge.  At other times, such as when he dug in his heels over non-worshippers sending their children to a church school, he seems unhelpfully conservative.

But ultimately, "Rev." seems to me to be about the continuing education of Adam Smallbone, an education that includes his conferences with his Archdeacon.  Adam probably sees the Archdeacon as an obstructive ultraconservative (such as Father Peter's experience of Father Mac).  I see the Archdeacon more as someone trying to help Adam survive in ministry, despite himself (perhaps similar to Father Mac as Father Aidan's s streetwise mentor, with a dash of Sir Humphrey Appleby and a touch of Lou Grant for good measure).

And anyway, Adam Smallbone is a person with clear flaws in ministry and life and clear knowledge of his flaws, different both from Dibley's supremely confident Vicar and the impossible perfection of the 4077th M*A*S*H's chaplain.  Perhaps this is a useful model for ministry, at any stage.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

A toast to Martin and Robbie ...

This week is a week for a number of celebrations.

Monday was the day for the observance of Martin Luther King Day in the US.  Dr. King's actual birthday was the 15th of January but, in the way of many public holidays in many countries, the celebration is transferred to the nearest Monday.  As a "recovering Yank" who has lived in Australia since 1980, Martin Luther King Day is one of two American holidays I continue to celebrate regularly (the other being Thanksgiving Day).  As an undergraduate student at Lafayette, I wrote my senior honours thesis on aspects of Dr. King's theology.

In my opinion, it was a blessed coincidence that Barack Obama's second inauguration as President took place on Martin Luther King Day.  Dr. King would have been pleased not only that Mr. Obama was elected in the first place, but that he achieved a second term.

Friday is another notable birthday, that of the noted Scottish poet Robert Burns.  The 25th of January is a day when Scots people around the world gather to engage in such rituals as "addressing the haggis" in honour of their national poet.  (And, in all honesty, haggises are probably best addressed rather than eaten, if I may say.)

And what do a Twentieth Century pastor from Atlanta and an Eighteenth Century poet from Ayrshire have in common with each other?

For both of them, a major theme in their life and work is the oneness of humanity.   We are all part of a single human race.  We are all dependent on one another to survive and to thrive. 
  • King conveyed this message as a preacher and a social activist, calling this conviction of the oneness of humanity the Beloved Community.
  • Burns conveyed this same message of universal fellowship as a popular poet

Both Burns and King had a deep and abiding faith in the living God, even though both were bitterly criticised by the conservative religious establishments of their day.  King's noted and inspiring "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and Burns's hilarious poem "Holy Willie's Prayer" were (in very different ways) their answers to their self-righteous critics.

And so, ladies and gentlement, please please charge your glasses and join in this toast to the abiding memories of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Pastor and Martyr) and Robert Burns (Poet and Prophet).

"For a' that and a' that,
Thank God Almighty, they're free at last."

Saturday, 19 January 2013

"There will be snow on the mountain tonight ..."

After a few theological posts, here's a joke I like.

For those who like a joke to have a "moral", the moral of this joke is "If you live in a small community, your neighbours may know more of your business than you really would like."

During the Second World War, a German spy was sent to a small town in Ireland.  He needed to find his local contact.  He knew two things:  the man's name was Patrick O'Shea, and the password when they made contact with each other was "There will be snow on the mountain tonight."

He went first to the local pub and asked the man behind the bar if he knew a Patrick O'Shea.

"Well, sir, that is an interesting question.  The O'Sheas come from this area.  And Patrick is a popular name in Ireland, because of the saint and all that.  As a result, there are no fewer than nineteen Patrick O'Sheas in this town.  The mayor's name is Patrick O'Shea, as is also the case with the headmaster, the parish priest, the vicar, the policeman, and the undertaker.  And, if you want to be pedantic about it, my name is Patrick O'Shea."

The spy thought a bit and he decided to confirm if the barman was his Patrick O'Shea.  "There will be snow on the mountain tonight," he said.

"Oh, you're looking for Patrick O'Shea the spy."

Friday, 18 January 2013

A well-kept secret (perhaps a bit too well-kept)

In the area of Christian belief and practice, there have been many reforms in the years since the end of the Second World War.

Some of these changes have been well-publicised.
  • The ecumenical movement has led to far better relationships between Christian denominations.
  • In many places, relations have improved greatly between Christians and Jews, between Christians and Muslims, between Christians and members of other faiths.
  • Many denominations have recognised that God calls women as well as men to the churches' ordained ministries.
  • Some denominations have begun to re-think their attitudes regarding sex.
  • The Roman Catholic Church translated its liturgy into the vernacular from Latin, while most "Protestant" churches in the English-speaking world translated their worship into the vernacular from Elizabethan English.
All these reforms are, to my mind, very good.

But there's one reform that has taken place during this time that seems to have gone unnoticed.  It's a well-kept secret, a bit too well-kept.

Over the past few decades, most mainstream Christians have quietly abandoned the notion that a person's standing in "the life of the world to come" is somehow dependent upon their getting their belief right.   Christians of many different perspectives have asked themselves "Can a Jesus-shaped God really send people to be fuel for an eternal BBQ merely for getting their theology wrong?" 

Overwhelmingly, the answer has been an emphatic "NO!"

This change has happened among Christians of the full range of mainstream denominations, and it's even showing its face among some of the more theologically-astute evangelicals.  It's happened among laity, among theological scholars, and among parish clergy.  It's happened not only among liberally-minded ecumenical types, but also among relative conservatives ... even among some who could be described as "very conservative".

Because this change was the result of individuals quietly changing their minds, in their own time and in their own way, rather than a major ecumenical or denominational body making a solemn pronouncement, it has escaped the notice of many people outside the churches.  Many people in the wider community still think that the typical mainstream Christian believes that God will still condemn people to hell merely for getting their theology wrong.

Those of us who watched the episode of Q&A on ABC television in 2012, in which the "colourful Sydney religious identity" George Pell and "the colourful Oxford scientific identity" Richard Dawkins squared off at each other, saw this at first hand.

Professor Dawkins, the voice of proselytising atheism in the English-speaking world and the man who proves you don't have to be religious to be a fundamentalist, said in an accusing voice to Cardinal Pell something to the effect of "And of course you believe that anyone who doesn't believe in your God will go to hell."

Cardinal Pell, normally the voice of traditionalist conservatism within the Catholic Church in Australia, looked at Professor Dawkins and said firmly that he didn't believe God would condemn anyone merely for their beliefs (or the lack thereof).

The look on Professor Dawkins' face was priceless. He looked a bit like a child who was told that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy were all metaphors for Mum and Dad.  I felt sorry for the poor bloke. 

But it is a well-kept secret ... a bit too well-kept.  Most mainstream Christians today (even a conservative's conservative such as the Cardinal) do not believe that God will send people to be fuel for an eternal BBQ merely for getting their theology wrong.  

We need to leak that secret, and let it become public property.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

"Well then, define 'Christian'."

Frequently, the media uses the word "Christian" in a funny way (not "funny - laughing" but "funny - weird").

Traditionally, the word "Christian" referred to anyone who identified with any part of the Christian faith, regardess of their denomination, the details of their beliefs, or their levels of practice.  Thus, anyone who identified him/herself broadly as part of the religion which followed the life and the teachings of Jesus was a Christian.  Simple.

Lately, it's become a bit different ... and a bit more complicated.

Some Christians have started to say things like this about other Christians because of various details of their beliefs or practice:  "This person isn't a real Christian," or "The people in that church aren't real Christians".

It's got to the point in the United States where the media uses the word "Christian" only to speak about the more narrow variety of "Protestants".  Increasingly, the media here in Australia is starting to do the same thing. 

This situation isn't helped by the fact that many of the groups that identify themselves most deliberately as "Christian" tend to represent a particularly narrow approach to Christianity.

For example, there's a group called the Australian Christian Lobby  They  represent the views of a particular group of Christians, but not of all Christians.  The Christians whom they represent are those with particularly conservative religious beliefs (or, at least, conservative beliefs within a "Protestant" context), particularly conservative political opinions, and particularly conservative views on sex.  (And they spend a lot of energy expressing their views on sex.)  They have a perfectly legitimate right to hold and promote these views, but it is dishonest for them to act as if these are the only possible views that can be held by Christians.

As well, it is foolish for the media - and for politicians - to think that their views are the sum total of Christian opinion in Australia.

And it's particularly foolish for anyone to think that Christians who hold contrasting opinions are somehow being other than Christian in their views.

Anyway, in the context of all of this, here's my working definition of the word "Christian":

The word "Christian" refers to any individual, faith community, or movement for whom Jesus of Nazareth is the central figure in their spirituality; without regard to whether or not other Christian individuals, communities, or movements regard their beliefs and practices as being adequate.

This definition has the advantage of regarding as a Christian any person who relates in a positive way to the Christian faith, without imposing a "Christian" identity on those who do not choose such an identity.


Monday, 14 January 2013

Everything you've always wanted to know about sects ....

Every now and then, I get involved in conversations on the words "sect" and "cult", and what they mean.

Both "sect" and "cult" are negative terms, and they are only used to speak about someone else's church or faith community. It's worse to be a "cult" than it is to be a "sect", but both are pretty bad.

Nobody ever describes their own church / faith community as a "sect" or a "cult".  I've never heard anyone say, "Well, I'd better go, or I'll be late for the service at my sect," or "Our pastor gave a great sermon Sunday at our cult."

Everyone who uses either word uses them to describe groups about which they are negative.  Neither word is used in an appreciative way.  I've never heard anything like "The local sect had a nice carol service this year" or "Our kids really enjoy the Sunday School and youth group that our neighbourhood cult organises."

In terms of formal grammar, "sect" and "cult" are both irregular nouns; and they are declined this way:
  • my "one true church",
  • your "denomination",
  • his / her "sect",
  • their "cult".
There have been many attempts to define both"sect" and "cult".  Some of these attempts have been pedantic.  Many have been confusing.  Most have been remarkably unhelpful.

For what it's worth, here's my own attempt at defining "sect" and "cult".  I'm trying to make them practical definitions, and a fairly simple definitions.  For each definition, please think of a church / faith community you've been part of, either in the past or the present.

Sect:         Does / did your involvement in this group lead you to be  more compassionate or less compassionate in your attitudes toward the bulk of humanity outside your group?  If "more  compassionate", it's not a sect.  If "less compassionate", it probably is a sect.

Cult:        Does / did your involvement in this group lead the people who care most deeply about you to worry about your well-being?  If "no", it's not a cult.  If "yes", it probably is a cult.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

A man walked into a confessional ...

Following my serious post a few days ago, here's one of my favourite religious jokes.  I hope you like it.

A man walked into a confessional.  He told the priest that it was ages since his last confession.  He was an acrobat in the circus, and rarely had the opportunity to get to a church when a priest was available.

The priest said he hadn't been to the circus since he was a little boy.

"After my confession, would you like to see my act?"

"Why not!"

After the confession, they left the confessional, and the acrobat started his act ... right there in the church:  somersaults, cartwheels, handsprings, ending with some trapeze action on a chandelier, a triple back flip, and a perfect two-point landing on the back of a pew.

A group of elderly ladies was watching this from the back of the church.  One said to her friends, "If that's the sort of penance he's giving today, I'm coming back when he's in a better mood!"

Thursday, 10 January 2013

God after the bushfires

Whenever tragic events such as last Friday's Tasmanian bushfires happen, it brings out the best in most people.  Many people find hidden reserves of energy, courage, generosity, and compassion that we forgot were present.

Tragically, these events bring out the worst in others.  This includes some people of faith.  For many people, if they have an inadequate view of God, this leads to real trouble.

Some people - not all, not most, but some - see the disaster as an "act of God". Some even say that these tragic events are God's "punishment" on people for various "sins", usually of a sexual nature.  Following the 2009 fires in Victoria, one high-profile cult leader in Victoria described the fires in just this way.

For some odd reason, the people who believe that natural disasters are punishments from God are more apt to see them as punishment for people's sexual peccadilloes rather than for such more weighty matters as greed or bigotry.

When people talk this way, it becomes a reason for some people to lose their faith, preferring no God to a cruel, capricious god who would cause such suffering.  It's an understandable - and sensible - reaction.  If the only choice was between a cruel or capricious god and no God at all, I'd also choose no God.

But ... but ... this isn't the only choice.  Thank God. 

I do not believe that God caused these destructive fires.  Neither did God cause any other natural disaster.  These disasters are caused by natural forces, frequently worsened by the irresponsible stewardshp by people of God's good earth.

The God whom I worship ... who is worshipped by mainstream Christians, mainstream Jews, mainstream Muslims, and mainstream members of other faiths ... God is profoundly loving, merciful, and compassionate.

In the face of these disasters, God does two things.

God suffers alongside those who suffer.

God also inspires people - people of faith, people of no faith, people whose faith is known to God alone - to undertake acts of courage and compassion on bchalf of others.

Bad things happen, both in the world of nature and in the area of human behaviour.  God doesn't cause these bad things to happen.  God gives us strength to deal with these bad things with courage, creativity, and compassion.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

A funny thing happend on the way ...

For much of last year, I kept saying that "My plans for next year include writing a blog."  Well, here it is, early January of 2013, and I'm starting this blog.

I suppose this makes me a "blogger".  I don't know about you, but to me "blogger" sounds a bit like a rude Cockney insult, as in the statement "He's a right blogger, that one, innit?"  It sounds like the sort of term you'd use to cast simultaneous aspersions on a person's honesty, integrity, ethics, morals, intelligence, taste, solvency, and hygiene.

Anyway, so much for my opening stand-up schtick.  And there will be some schtick in these blogs, because I like schtick.

The title of this blog sounds like some stand-up schtick, "A funny thing happened on the way ...". You may ask, "On the way ... to where?"  Don't worry if I don't answer that question.  Perhaps being "on the way" is more important than any final destination.  In any event, funny things sometimes happen on the way ... even when the way is very serious.

Anyway, I'd better introduce myself.  For those who don't know me, my name is Bob Faser.  (For those who do know me, my name is also Bob Faser.)  I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia and an ecumenical staffer.  I live in Hobart, Tasmania.  I grew up in the States, and sometimes I'm called a "recovering Yank".

Sometimes this blog will be about ecumenical or interfaith issues.  Sometimes this blog will be about issues of theology, ministry, or spirituality.  Sometimes this blog will be about politics, or popular culture, or the arts, or life in general.  Sometimes, this blog will just be about funny things, perhaps even just some schtick because, as I said, I like schtick.

Anyway, there's the introduction.  Now for some serious blogging ... or at least some serious schtick.