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Welcome to the website of a retired United Methodist pastor! This corner of the Internet continues nearly fifty years of a weekly column in a church newsletter, on topics ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. The opinions expressed are the author's and represent no institution, although it is hoped that within these pages you will find a reflection of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who, in his own borrowed words, insists that we love God with, along with all the rest of what we are, our minds. "Critical" as used in the title does not mean being nasty or grumpy; it means using intellectual faculties in the service of God. Your reactions, rebuttals, comments, and questions can be addressed to: BobHow9846@comcast.net.

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Recent Postings

December 23, 2014 - Essays: Christmas Undiluted

January 16, 2015 - Essays: There's a Wideness in God's Mercy... Never to Be Forgotten My crusade on behalf of real pastoral prayer

There's a Wideness in God's Mercy... Never to be Forgotten

My crusade on behalf of real pastoral prayer (and not that prayer as another sermon in disguise) at Sunday morning worship has been met all across central Connecticut with a resounding silence and not a single resolution by a turned-around collar to mend her ways. In another generation and another place perhaps, only perhaps, a pulpit will rediscover the art of real public prayer.

So I move on... to other vexing sights and sounds in ecclesiasticum.

Beginning with the costumes with which clergy vest themselves. As an habitual surfer of television I frequently find myself at one of those religious stations usually passed over as soon as reached. I pause sometimes because looking back at me is a black cassock with a red berretta, as in the image to your left... though who is pictured on TV is far more corpulent. Which is tame compared with the garb former archbishop of St. Louis, now Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, chooses to adorn himself for high occasions. Those who claim the lineage of Melchizedek would, in my estimation and that apparently of Pope Francis, do better to follow in the sartorial footsteps of the fellow they also admire, the one who had only the plain robe on his back on the day of his death.

It's not the elegant archaism of the costume that gets me; it's the incredulity that attends my soul when beholding the wearer, that anyone might allow themselves to be garbed that way. Maybe peacocks can be Christians too, but I think it would be difficult to put off the preening long enough to do the serving.

Of course, from time immemorial people have dressed up (and some down) in the name of God. Hassidic Jews, the Plymouth Brethren and the Amish, and fundamentalist Islamic women are known by their "uniforms." A subtler uniformity can sometimes be detected in, for example, evangelical missionaries who tend to sport haircuts as magnificent as Billy Graham's. Some liberal Protestant clergy, either from an identity frozen in time or habitual frugality, continue to wear their Sandinista shirts forty years later.

Mea culpa! I am unreasonably pleased whenever a new acquaintance misidentifies my former occupation offering, "Lawyer?" Which is the way Thorsen the tailor in Brooklyn, who knew better, described me to his wife on Sunday mornings when he wanted to go to worship at the church where I was pastor: "Borghild, let's go hear the young lawyer." It was an observation made less on the careful reasoning and brevity of my sermons than on the cut of my vested pinstriped suit.

Among my many confessions of cowardice is this one oft-repeated: if I had the courage of my convictions I wouldn't wear a robe and a stole in the pulpit, just an ordinary suit (like a lawyer?). I subscribe to the rule, with a nod in the direction of Soren Kierkegaard, that the Christian is or should be indistinguishable in a crowd. That is, she should look, if not behave, like everyone else. Yeah, yeah, I've heard the excuse that the collar can be an asset in an emergency situation when someone needs a chaplain or the chaplain needs to get quickly past rigid administrative oversight at a hospital or jail. Such extraordinary moments (maybe once or twice in a lifetime) hardly justify a career dressed up like a penguin.

We don't need clothes to separate us from the common herd. Especially when our founder's mission was for the sake of the "common herd," in which clergy should, therefore, proudly claim membership.

I wrote "sights and sounds" at the top of the page. Now for the sounds, or, more accurately, the scribblings at the beginning and ending of pastoral letters, the same usually said aloud at church gatherings, not only worship but gatherings of holy delegates in administrative session: to the multitude in earshot or online: "My dear brothers and sisters in Christ." How beautifully pious! How wonderfully imitative of St. Paul! How reminiscent of Victorian revivalism! How horribly limiting!

In the play "A Man for All Seasons," by Robert Bolt, the protagonist, 16th century English chancellor, Sir Thomas More, reacts to the petition of the Spanish ambassador who couches his relation to Sir Thomas in religious terms, since both are Catholic: to wit. "we brothers in Christ." More is indignant, not to the appeal to keep the peace and preserve Henry VIII's marriage, but to the implicit narrowing of Jesus' vision. More's words, in my recollection at least, go to this effect, "Brothers in Christ? I have only to open that window to find a multitude of brothers in Christ." Bishops everywhere and anywhere would do well to remember this exchange when the words fall too easily off the lips or drip too easily off the pen, "My brothers and sisters in Christ." Unless, of course, the pastoral letter is addressed to all humanity and not just a denomination thereof.

Same for the closing salutation, "With Christ's love" or "Yours in Christ." Well, of course, of course! We all belong to each other through the grace of Jesus Christ. No one is excluded, not even Islamist radical bombers. The world turns day by day by the grace of God, who were she to desist in that graciousness or forget for a moment to provide it, would deliver us abruptly to a black hole in the universe.

The point? No one of us - certainly not those vested in red, or groomed with a Billy Graham haircut, or preening in a pinstriped suit, or sporting a Nicaraguan shirt - dare, on purpose or by pious reflex, abridge the wideness of God's mercy.


1990 - 2015 Bob Howard