by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | May 2, 2019Hi friends, as a minister whose email address is available on our website, I get a great deal of mass emails from various ministry-related organizations. Solicitations of what new books are out; dozens of different community organizations (local and otherwise); bulk invitations to gigantic preacher conferences; and all kinds of church consultants looking to help me do x, y, or z. I don’t read any that I’ve not signed up for personally or that aren’t from the Episcopal Church. Usually, I just delete them or unsubscribe.
But on Maundy Thursday I got one that pushed a button. Maundy Thursday is one of the most powerful services of the Church year. Jesus gathers with his disciples for a final time. They share a meal—the meal which Christians will continue as the Holy Eucharist—and Jesus washes their feet. Judas leaves the gathering to betray Jesus. Our Lord goes into the Garden of Gethsemane and prays, “Father, let this cup pass from me, but thy will be done.” At Church, the altar is stripped and the cross shrouded in black as we enter into the beauty, drama, and holy terror of Good Friday.
The mass email I got was from a consulting firm I’d never heard of, and they were offering to help me grow our church budget by some ridiculous percentage during Easter Sunday and the weeks following. The email itself was filled with Alleluias and images of Easter Lilies. Again, they sent it on Maundy Thursday.
I was alone in the office at the time, so I indulged in a brief…ah…monologue, might be the best word, as I scrolled down to the unsubscribe link hidden in teeny, tiny letters at the bottom. I was delighted to find that this particular email distribution gave me options as to why I was unsubscribing, including one that said “Other,” followed by a comments blank. I ticked this option, and—filled with righteousness!—what I said was something like:
You sent me an Easter-themed email on Maundy Thursday. This does not engender confidence in your organization.
This is pretty tame as far as responses go, but at the time I felt that my restraint was simply further evidence of my ecclesial superiority, a way of communicating “I don’t have time for you” while actually going out of my way to respond. So let’s call this what it is: unnecessary Church snark.
Not all traditions observe Lent the way we do. Nor do all traditions observe Holy Week with the level of intentionality that Episcopalians do. I’m sure the staff of such and such consulting firm is just doing their jobs. After all, I, too, make plans for Easter season before Easter is actually upon us. There’s no way around it.
I bring all of this up to highlight a tension I know some of us (and perhaps many of us) feel: the tension between respecting other ways of doing Church and claiming unreservedly our convictions about the way that seems genuinely best to us. Many of us in the Episcopal Church, and at St. Liz specifically, are self-described refugees from other denominations. I’ve heard more than one person describe themselves as a “recovering [insert previous denominational affiliation].” For others, it’s not so much about a worldview or denomination, but about the music of a church. Or whether a church does communion. Or the extent to which it can be described as ‘traditional.’
To return to my silly little email example: I actually do believe it’s inappropriate to celebrate Easter before it’s time. I do believe it’s inappropriate to shout (or type!) giant Alleluia’s on the night Jesus is betrayed. I do believe that observing Holy Week with all the rituals and drama of palm processions and washing feet, of stripping the altar and sinking into the heaviness of Good Friday, with a great big celebration once it’s time for Easter—I do believe that’s the best way to do Holy Week. We are embodied creatures, ones who experience the world with our senses and who observe rhythms in days, weeks, seasons, and years. We are people of the Incarnation, people who believe that God is with us in this bread, in this wine, in these feet we are washing on this one special night of the calendar. Indeed, Jesus has marked the very calendar itself with His death and resurrection. To bring out the white lilies and talk about beefing up the church budget on Maundy Thursday really does strike me as a gross trivialization of a profound mystery.
I believe all of this, and I believe that my belief is good. When I emailed our anonymous consultants, however, I was not resting in the truth of what I know, let alone remaining open to the possibility that there might be goodness in other ways of doing things. Or open to the possibility that there might be more to this consulting firm’s perspective than simply one email. (Or, perhaps more realistically, the possibility that this email really wasn’t worth the time!) I could’ve just unsubscribed and gone about observing Maundy Thursday. But instead, I chose to snark a little at people whom, for a moment at least, I held to be unenlightened barbarians.
That’s what ecclesial snark looks like on me: a sort of pointed smugness. This is one of the sins of the Episcopal Church, and I occasionally perpetuate it, I’m sorry to say. We’re an old and beautiful tradition. Lots of poets. Lots of intellectuals. Lots of royalty. Lots of founding fathers amongst our historical numbers. That means lots of assumed superiority to shed.
I don’t know what ecclesial snark looks like on you. Maybe it has to do with those ‘fundamentalists’ who don’t drink or dance. Maybe it has to do with the hierarchy of Rome. Maybe it has to do with church music. Maybe you’re like me and are outraged that, instead of observing a holy day with the proper dignity, someone would offer to help your church raise a bunch of Easter money. Or perhaps you’re simply not guilty of this particular church sin. I hope that’s the case. In my experience, there are a great many people at St. Liz who possess that particular brand of holiness called not taking ourselves too seriously.
But if you’re like me and you do suffer from the occasional bout of snarkiness, I hope you’ll attempt some appreciative inquiry about whichever group it is that drives you snarky. Perhaps there’s some ascetic virtue in the abstinence from drink you can’t abide in those ‘fundamentalists.’ Perhaps there’s great value in having a Magisterium, a value which has somehow been obscured. Perhaps the sense of righteousness that came with sending that email is something else entirely.
I also hope you’ll be intentional in articulating the conviction you hold that, perhaps in your less kind or less patient moments, manifests as snark. The conviction might very well be a deep and holy one. Oftentimes snark is simply the result of a good thing bent to bad use.