Urban Ministry and Witchcraft; Allegiance and Belonging: Old First E-pistle 07.27.18

Urban Ministry and Witchcraft;  Allegiance and Belonging: Old First E-pistle 07.27.18

On my week away with my brother and his family in St. Louis, I had three books from friends to read. I got the first two finished, and didn’t start the last one, in part because my Nook wasn’t functioning right.

The first was a manuscript by my ex-wife’s former colleague, Angel Garcia. He has written a career history of a Catholic Priest who served in the South Bronx. It’s a tale of urban ministry, the relocation of Puerto Ricans to NYC, Vatican II, the onset of the Heroin epidemic, the burning of the South Bronx, and Latin American Liberation Theology resonating in a impoverished North American neighborhood… and the church’s and the individual minister’s responses to it all. It’s not yet published. Angel asked me to read it to make editorial suggestions, and I had a few. But it was a good read — both as a reflection on a certain time and place in American life as well as a helpful picture of what ministry is really like. When it is available, I will suggest it again.

The second was a book called “The Heart of Wicca,” by Ellen Cannon Reed. It was suggested by a friend, Jeff, who worshiped with us for a time. He feels that Old First well could have been a spiritual community that could have worked for him, but some interpersonal stuff got in the way. In time, he found his way to Wicca, or Witchcraft or Neo-paganism. And there he has found a way of understanding and living in the world and a community of support that is very helpful to him.

When he caught me up on all that had happened to him, he was very apologetic… apparently worried that I might be upset with where he is finding himself spiritually. Hmm… I think as a pastor I show myself pretty open to how people of other faiths or no faith can lead good lives? Maybe his fear had more to do with how Christianity has traditionally reacted to Witchcraft, or how Wiccans feel that Christians react to their practice?

The third book was a novel recommended by my friend, Martha. It is called “The Time of Our Singing” by Richard Powers. It is the fictional story of a German Jewish  émigré who meets and marries an African American woman from Philly. The day of their meeting is Easter, 1939, at Marian Anderson’s epochal concert on the Washington Mall. Three children, are born to this union, Jonah, Joseph and Ruth. The parents mean to raise their interracial children in a time before that mixed race marriages were common steeped in the freedom they had found in music, beyond time and identity. But they all are faced with America’s brutal ‘here and now.’ In the children’s case, that meant the Civil Rights era, the violence and protests of the 1960’s,  and the racially retrenched latter part of the 20th century.

The oldest child follows a life in classical music; the youngest chooses a radical activism that repudiates the white culture she sees her older sibling representing; and the middle brother tries to keep connected to both his brother and his sister. I’m looking forward to reading this novel that is described as “a story of self-invention, allegiance, race, cultural ownership, the compromised power of music, and the tangled loops of time that rewrite all belonging.” If I can’t get the Nook to work; I’ll buy it in hard copy.

But this week’s E-pistle is about three things that impressed me about the book on Wicca. No… fear not… I am not converting and becoming a Witch! I think there is always more to learn from different ways of looking at the world than any need we have to be afraid of other faiths or philosophies or practices.

So here are my three takeaways from Wicca:

  1. Wicca, Witchcraft, neo-paganism: though one might expect them to be strange and foreign, it is / they are not as different as I expected. They do have a number of different Gods, and some disagreement as to whether those Gods are multiple incarnations of male and female Gods or separate deities. But polytheism hardly shocks me, and in our faith where we try to refer to our One God in both male and female terms, it was not difficult hearing  the author refer to a primary male and a primary female God. As I say at baptisms, “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God, Mother of us all.”

         Otherwise, the practice was not particularly beyond my understanding as a practicing Christian. As Wicca is mostly a tradition emerging in the Western developed nations, it either borrows or parallels much from Christianity — both in vocabulary and in the structure of its practice. They cast a holy circle for their coven much like we understand our churches to be sacred  space and worship a sacred time. There are celebrations of the passing of time about every 6 weeks that made me think about our Christian calendar of observances in new ways. And even casting spells, they are appeals to the Gods to share their power in the working of human life…and not so unlike our own understandings of petitioning God in prayer.

         Anyway, I am not suggesting that anyone needs check out Wicca! But I will go as far as saying that I am not sure it is something we have to be particularly wary or afraid of.  

     2. It was interesting to see a faith that is so positively adaptive: specifically, it is open to drawing its tradition from a number of different pagan traditions. It occurred to me that religions or spiritual practices could be typified as either being self-protective or assimilating. The former is usually about protectiveness vis a vis purity / pollution and some capital “T” truth claims. Self-protective religion is guarding against the misleading of outside influences (somewhat like the French are with their language!). There are religious traditions, on the other hand, that are              much more open to or even interested in assimilating from outside themselves. The Bahá’í faith is the quintessential example of assimilating, but other faiths, such as Hinduism, have shown an ability to acknowledge and even adopt rather than deny the wisdom of other traditions.

          Christianity in the wide sweep of its tradition has often been more stand-offish and self-protective, perhaps in part because of the Hebrew Scripture texts it shares with Judaism that preach a fear of and punishment for the Israelites’ syncretism  vis a vis the Canaanites. We are not to abandon our God and run after other gods!

          Less concerned about people switching faiths, I often think that in our day the greater temptation is, instead, more about watering down one’s faithfulness or losing one’s religion before the worldly altars of our modern secularism: materialism, wealth, power, youth, entertainment, pleasure, sex.

          I also wonder if one could not make a case that one of the ways the UCC is different from other Christian traditions is because we are more comfortably assimilative of insights from outside our tradition, narrowly defined and fiercely protected? What do you think?

     3. The author makes a very big point in the book that Wicca is not a religion; rather it is an “initiatory path.” As someone who has studied religion, I was not surprised by her insistence. Many traditions resist being seen as a religion because they fear the sort of unholy alliance that happens when dogmatic faith positions are combined with positions of social power. I am not really convinced that denying either dogmatic or power  positions in society saves one from being a religion. It is true that Wicca or neo-paganism is a very open, dynamic and developing set of beliefs /    practices. I also understand, the author didn’t want either the teaching to be concretized / institution or the spiritual experience to be missed. She is not just looking to rack up numbers of adherents.  

         But then “religion” isn’t a bad word for me; nor does it carry negative connotations. If a ‘way of life’ centers around one’s worshiping and living according to the direction of a God or gods…  

         Anyway, the argument the she made was really interesting to me as a pastor. Her distinction was that a religion is a set of beliefs that are taught /  “doled out” to those who then become adherents. But as an initiatory path, she explains, Wicca is an invitation to experiencing mysteries and truths that are not self-evident without some initiation and cannot be taught.

         I like that! And I would hope that church then is an initiatory path too! I do not want us just to be telling people what to believe. Rather, I pray that church occasions experiences of the holy we find through Jesus. What we suggest, teach, preach is the language and understanding — the initiation — which the church believes opens people us to experiencing for themselves the deeper mysteries of faith, hope and love. I don’t want you to come to church to memorize the Affirmation of Faith; I want you to come here to experience and be changed by grace, forgiveness,                         community, justice and mercy, new beginnings.  The ‘initiation,’ the church’s teaching is not any end in itself. Instead, it is more like having to learn a language in order then to experience the truth that tongue can share through its poetry…

         Anyway, I guess my third point is simply: do not come to church to learn or receive what you think the church wants you to believe. Rather come to church that a way might open before you, that you might have some experiences of that which is beyond and bigger than yourself… not just other and neutral, but positive, constructive, personal, nurturing and loving.

See you in church,