Part 2: The Pearl

Donald Schell

Part 2 of 2 (Part 1 is here.)

Preparing to lead children enacting Jesus’ parable of the Pearl Merchant, I struggled to find a dramatic entrée. The parable is very compressed, just barely a story. It seems to hang entirely on a moment of purchase and taking possession of a pearl. What gestures and movements could our actors offer to show what’s happening? Paying out a price and having something in hand didn’t offer us much for a specific, wholly embodied improvisational scene.

Looking back, I realize I was struggling with an interpretation of the text I’d heard repeatedly, a formula for what we must do to possess the kingdom of God. The day before we’d be working with the Pearl Merchant, our Godly Play teacher for Friends of God Day Camp told me, “tomorrow I’ve got to tell a parable that has never made any sense to me. The man ends up with the pearl. Then what? Does he retire to look at it? Does he starve?”

I agreed with her. Over the years I’d heard fundamentalist and liberals preachers alike stick to a literalism that killed the story by preaching this parable was about “paying the price” to gain and possess God’s Kingdom as our own. And is the kingdom of God something we possess or a context for action, for living?

That evening, reading and re-reading the text, my mind kept drifting away to scenes from January, 2007, when I was with a Episcopal church lay and clergy leaders in the Mercato in Addis Ababa. The Mercato is Africa’s largest open-air market occupying many, many blocks and streets of Addis Ababa. I was trying to find a way to enact possession of the pearl, which, I assumed was the point of Jesus’ parable, and felt frustrated that my mind kept going to rich, sensory memories of the Mercato.

The Mercato wouldn’t let go. It had seized my imagination - its push of people, the noise, the smells of people, goats, donkeys, and diesel exhaust, savored whiffs of fresh roasted coffee beans and the incense vendors bins of resin. When I finally let myself enter the scene my imagination was making, a pearl buyer presented himself, pushing through the modern Mercato to find a stall where he’d heard someone new to Addis was selling precious gems and pearls.

I followed my imagined merchant down a narrow alley lined with coffee sellers. A donkey train laden with sacks of coffee pushed into the alley, swaying to its own complex music of clattering small hooves and jangling warning bells, it crushed us into coffee stalls. When they’d passed, the merchant rushed on As the alley opened out into a wider street of the Mercato, a blunt-nosed diesel produce truck beeped and just avoided him in a slow motion swerve. The crowd parted and when it came back together the merchant stopped to greet a someone pushing a wheelbarrow mounded with big sacks of tef flour (for making injira flatbread); behind his friend two women waited stock still with produce purchases balanced on their heads. The cook at some cafe is expecting those three, I thought.

As the merchant hurried on, I realized this was return visit to the stall where he’d already found the pearl and where the seller had quoted a high price. I was following him as he returned with more in his purse. After he’d bargained to the limit of the money he had in hand, realizing as he bargained that, even with the high price, he saw the value of the seller’s treasure more clearly than the seller.

I realized that, although Jesus only tells of the merchant seeking and finding the pearl, gathering more resources and then returning to buy it, first century listeners would certainly have supplied a first scene of lengthy and even heated bargaining and a second scene of renewed bargaining when the buyer returns to the stall.

And would he return and pay the last price the seller had asked? Of course not. He might even make a lower offer than the last one he’d made before! He’ll continue bargaining carefully and strategically hoping to bring the seller’s last price down further.

Real, impassioned Mediterranean/Middle Eastern bargaining means strategy, drama, and dynamic relationship. Jesus’ listeners would know the buyer’s bargaining moves, how ever they imagined them. Their experience would supply bargaining and a buyer’s eye for pricing pearls to complete this brief parable. I smiled to think that Jesus’ listeners would be as baffled by a store with non-negotiable marked prices as some of us American Episcopalians in Addis Ababa were at bargaining in the Mercato.

Our group’s Ethiopian guide (who had visited the U.S. more than once) was well aware of this cultural difference and asked us to leave our sense of “price” behind. She told us “price” in Ethiopia meant something quite different than the display place in a U.S. store. Neither buyer nor seller thought the opening offer should name an actual market value. The first asking price began a game and initiated a relationship. “The merchants feel disrespected when you don’t bargain. If you pay the first asking, the seller feels offended that you think he actually believes his inflated asking is a real value. The seller’s first price is only supposed to start a conversation. When you don’t take it that way, they feel personally rejected, as if you were saying, ‘I’ll pay you more than both of us know this is worth so I can avoid having to really deal with you.’”

At the beginning of our trip, she’d bargained for us so we could learn to bargain ourselves. When we saw something we wanted to buy, she explained, “Note it carefully with cautious glances, act you might be interested in something else. Then be a little disappointed or distracted as you walk away. Come and find me. Point out what you’re interested in discreetly, and then watch carefully while I get you a proper Ethiopian price.”

A good-hearted artist in our group protested, “I’m happy to pay the first price they ask because I know their prices are absurdly low. Even paying their full asking price, I feel bad because I’m paying so little. Bargaining just seems rude to me.”

Our guide shook her head “no.” She was a fierce bargainer, proud of what she could do bargaining on our behalf even with sellers who were old friends of hers. Rudeness would be seeming not to care about the price and buying casually.

That last day in Addis, when one of us showed her a lot of crosses and small icons he’d just purchased from one stall, she asked what he’d paid. She was outraged at what she heard and said, “NO!” and took our American friend back to the stall shouting at the merchant in Amharic. For a while the seller shouted back, but eventually he got quieter and just listened. Finally he gave her a handful of cash that she took with a nod of acknowledgment and handed to our friend.

Later, when I asked what she’d said, she replied,

“I called him a thief. I said that if he charges prices like that, I’d never bring my guests to his stall again. I said that when our friend compared what he’d bought with what his friends had bought, he would learn he’d been cheated. I told him that hurts me and shames Ethiopia. I named him a fair price, and told him if he didn’t pay back the difference, I’d tell all the other guides what he’d done.”

Remembering her teaching and how she enforced traditional market values of respect and relationship (our relationship with the merchant and the merchant’s with our group and guide) began to open up the Parable of the Pearl Merchant for me.

I started to wonder -

When there are no price tags, who decides what’s a fair and legitimate price?

What’s the bedrock of relationship between seller and buyer?

And what does the buyer do when the seller doesn’t seem to realize the full value of what he’s selling?

Next day at Friends of God Day Camp, before making ourselves pearl merchants and pearl sellers, I talked asked the children whether they’d seen their parents bargain in flea markets or antique markets, the remnant of ancient practice in our country. They had seen how different those markets were from regular stores. From experience of flea markets, the children explained offers and counter offers to me. They knew your opening offer should be much less than you were willing to pay. Then we wondered whether in the parable, the merchant would literally sell everything to buy just one pearl - did he sell his house? his furniture? his clothing? everything? really everything? Just what has he gained?

The Pearl isn’t the kingdom of God. The kingdom is like a merchant who has learned to live in the wisdom and freedom of graced moments of chance and choice. The pearl merchant enters, lives into, the kingdom as he seizes the moment of grace. Being able to buy that pearl and knowing how to buy it changes his life completely - that’s the kingdom.

Of course he’ll sell the pearl a few days after he’s bought it. He probably knows who he’ll offer it to when he’s buying it. Someone who will see its enormous value, is passionate about pearls, and has the money to pay for this one and more. The day of his purchase, our merchant has bought the winning lottery ticket, he has become an important person, suddenly he has wealth enough to see to the needs of family and friends, and his work as a pearl merchant will be changed for ever with this huge boost in his own net worth. His word will have real weight. People will send new pearl lovers to buy from him because people will know that he’s an astute buyer and seller of pearls.

When we got to playing the market scene and the children imagined they’d sold nearly
everything they owned to make a better offer on the pearl, I asked them if they offered everything they now had available for purchase. “No way,” they responded. I know I’ll pay it if I have to, but I’ll start out offering less.”

Wise as serpents, innocent as doves, the kids were becoming pearl merchants in the kingdom.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

Part 1: The Joys of F.O.G.

by Donald Schell

Part 1 of 2

Last month my congregation offered a free week-long day camp called F.O.G, an apt name for a summer gathering in San Francisco with perennial summer weather report, “Foggy near the coast, clearing by noon.” I think the joke is deliberate, but as an acronym it also refers to the teaching of Gregory of Nyssa that Christian life in community makes us “Friends Of God.” To the fourth year of our summer F.O.G, Sylvia Miller-Mutia, St. Gregory’s associate rector and the founder of F.O.G. asked me to lead daily Bible drama workshops for the children, each day exploring a different Gospel parable through improvised dramatic enactment of that day’s Godly Play story.

Until F.O.G. my only experience of Vacation Bible School had been summers growing up in a fundamentalist church. I still treasure that first learning of Bible stories, and am also grateful for good support in conversations with my parents for shrugging off the creationism, anti-Semitism, and horrifying interpretations of the atonement some of the teachers offered. What caught my heart, even in that fundamentalist setting was the offering generous-hearted teachers made when they really gave us the stories with room to ask questions and make our own interpretative discoveries. And as we come back to the stories, the discoveries seem to on through a lifetime.

Over the years between that long ago Vacation Bible School and my happy experience with F.O.G., I’d begun doing drama work with Bible stories, starting in summer camp chaplaincies – Family Camp summers in Idaho when I did my first parish work there, and then a couple of decades of summers of both Family Camp and Kids’ Camps in the Diocese of California.

Improvising theater to encounter and interpret Bible stories uses imagination something like Ignatius Loyola’s method of using imagination and the senses to read ourselves into familiar stories to feel how the stories live for us when we’re in them. For my drama workshop version of Ignatius Bible study I’ve worked with stories about Jesus and with the stories Jesus offered as a story teller, the parables.

As preacher/teacher/theater director I learned to spend time ahead with the text, reading it over and over slowly and looking for ways to guide actors recruited from the congregation or gathering to make simple, wholly embodied, interpretative gestures and actions to flesh out the stories.

Sometimes the Gospel story gives specific gestures, for example, in Matthew’s version of the Syrophonecian woman,“…a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’”

The Gospel says she “came and knelt,” two simple gestures to offer our actors in an improvisation. But each gesture contains more choices - HOW does the woman come and HOW does she kneel?

Does she approach very respectfully and kneel as if in church?

Or does she run to Jesus and throw herself at his feet?

And if she throws herself at Jesus’ feet, does she touch him?

Acting gestures need to be energetic and, as actors say, “specific.” How ever the preacher/director, actor or congregation decides the gestures should be enacted, “kind of walking” toward Jesus and “sort of kneeling” won’t give life to an improvisation.
Sometimes specific choices aren’t just the “how” of a gesture in the story, but discovering spatial arrangement and response of one character to another that aren’t given, but still have to be specific. As in Ignatian Bible study, we mae choices about gestures and movements that the Gospel story omits.

For example, in the story of the resurrection appearance to Thomas in John’s Gospel, does Thomas take Jesus’ invitation to touch the wounds in his hands and put his hand in the wound in his side? When I’ve worked with this text and asked the congregation, we discover that some people feel strongly the text assumes that he did reach out and touch Jesus’ hands and side. Others feel equally strongly that for Thomas hearing Jesus’ invitation and seeing the wounds was enough – often those people feel the writer of John wants us to picture Thomas dropping his skepticism and doubts in a moment of overwhelmed worship.

Some questions of “how” only show up when we’re planning or even guiding the congregational volunteers creating an improvisation. In this same resurrection appearance, it simply says that eight days later Thomas and the other disciples were gathered again in the upper room. And then, “Jesus appeared.” Embodied enactment demands more specifics. Different, specific blocking (the placement and movement of our actors) shapes the story differently. If the actor playing Jesus “appears” by slipping in to stand between or among disciples facing our Thomas, Thomas may see Jesus’ first. The actor can use his face and body to show his startled transition from not seeing Jesus to seeing Jesus. The other disciples might see Thomas experiencing something before they see Jesus. But if our Jesus actor comes and stands directly behind Thomas --where other disciples see him before Thomas, perhaps Thomas seeing his friends’ faces makes him turn to face Jesus, even before Jesus speaks. Neither is the “right” answer of how to enact it, but we do experience something different either way.

In the first instance, perhaps we’d find ourselves wondering how the other disciples might see Jesus’ presence through Thomas’s revelatory moment, while in the second instance, we might sense how the other disciples’ faces and faith move Thomas to a very literal turnaround conversion.

GP1.JPGOne of our stories this year was Jesus’ parable of the pearl merchant. I’d never worked with that story before, in my difficulty preparing to work with that particular parable made some unexpected interpretative discoveries. The essay that follows this describes my difficulty, the process of discovery and what I and we learned about the parable from enacting it. But to conclude this first essay, I’d like to encourage readers to visit the F.O.G. website to learn more about embodiment in prayer and teaching. Sylvia Miller-Mutia has been developing Friends of God Day Camp for the children of St. Gregory’s and other children in the church’s neighborhood. Sylvia’s approach to inter-generational liturgy and storytelling, like mine guides a congregation to embody text and song together. You can see additional ways of praying with our bodies and our senses Sylvia has developed at the resource website she’s made for F.O.G. leaders and parents.

Seeing what she’s creating for children and adults, you won’t be surprised to learn that before becoming a priest, Sylvia danced professionally with the Utah Ballet and then in modern dance was a member of Carla de Sola’s Omega West Dance Company. Improvisational interpretation of Bible stories and Sylvia’s embodying prayer in movement invite experience and questions, like a Godly play “I wonder.” Rooting interpretation and reflection in imagination, feeling and intuition leads us to discover new possibilities in familiar readings.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

A Celebration of Women's Ministry

A Celebration of Women’s Ministry for the 40th anniversary of the first women to be ordained priests in the Episcopal Church

by Rebecca Lyman

I love the Canaanite woman—or the Syro-Phoenician woman-- or the African woman or the Asian or the Hispanic or the Muslim or the poor or the gay or the uneducated woman.

Let’s call her Marge or Isabel or Jun or Aziza. Let’s say she smells and she is pushy and past her prime, a bit wrecked, a bit fat, and no husband or brother or father in sight. Or maybe she is beautifully dressed with a Kate Spade handbag and nervous about talking to a wandering holy man on the wrong side of town. Because whoever she is, as a woman, she is out of her place— just another mother with another sick kid.

And Jesus doesn’t answer her. Not until the disciples urged him to get rid of this noisy pest. And perhaps some of the female disciples were in on it too. Certainly you want to fit in with the pack of jostling searching egos.

So Jesus explains to her the legality of the situation. He is sent to heal his own people, the lost sheep of Israel. She then kneels before him and says, “Help me.” And he falls back on economic and legal rationalizations: “It is not fair to take children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She does not bat an eye: “Of course, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs from beneath the table.”

326px-Folio_164r_-_The_Canaanite_Woman.jpgFor the only time in the New Testament Jesus changes his mind. I hope he smiled like any good debating rabbi who enjoys the logical correction. I hope in fact he loved dogs, for we know he loved children.

But mainly I hope he was humbled and renewed to see modeled before him what he had momentarily forgotten he was: the Word and Wisdom of God willing to humbled for the needs of the sick and lost and possessed and invisible; Wisdom crying in the streets to the simple since the scoffers and the fools and the haters could not hear and would not see that the mercy of grace is woven into the very foundations of all that God loves and creates, especially the good people, the green people rooted in the sun, shining. I hope all the disciples, male and female, also learned repentance by watching him listen and change.

And I hope when our fearful battered St Thomas Cranmer was dragged out into the pale Oxford sunlight to be burned for recanting his recantation, he remembered her too. He had corrected her in his own prayer of humble access: we are not worthy to gather up the crumbs beneath the table. Now stripped of his titles and even his virtue, perhaps he was comforted by finally talking back, becoming the Canaanite woman, a father unable to stop crying out to heal his only child, our Anglican church.

This morning we celebrate the humility and repentance of our church for finding the lost coin, for including the hundredth sheep, for recognizing the vocations and ministry of women. We are all part of this old hospital of sinners which creaks and moans and delays like an old bobbling ark until gestations of justice come forth to shock and split and amaze us in rebirth: ever ancient, ever new. We love it for it carries the Spirit of freedom and renewal within its old fierce conservative soul. Just like us the Church is frightened, heroic, bold, inconsistent, and saved by grace. We are all as Zachariah called us “prisoners of hope” (9.12) and as Adrienne Rich says full of “a wild patience” (“Integrity”). Who would think wanting to be good would make us so radical?

Forty years ago eleven brave women were ordained to the priesthood by three male bishops. They were certainly not the first “ministers” of the Christian church from Phoebe the deacon to the apostle Junia to Mary Magdalene to Paula the biblical scholar to Hilda the abbess to Leoba the missionary to Julian and Margery and Hildegard and Catherine and Teresa and Joan of Arc and the deaconesses and the missionaries and the lay church workers and the altar guild. And these are only those we know, for then as now the sheer activity of women in Christianity remains hidden, the underground artesian well, the warp of the fabric of unity, full pressed down and running over like the power of Wisdom itself: the tough, the annual, the wild poppy which needs nothing but a root to flourish: the women, really only writ large what is also called so patronizingly “the laity”, the “unprofessional” as if Christian life could have assigned levels of spiritual expertise.

Nor were these eleven the first ordinations in the Anglican Communion. The first was Florence Li Tim-Oi in China in 1944, quickly limited as a local exception. Here in San Francisco in 1965 Bishop Pike recognized Phyllis Edwards as a deacon. But these brave eleven were called—a challenge to the tranquility of divine providence usually working in the church--- ordained as deacons and were prepared to be priests. Many supported them, including men who refused to be ordained until women were ordained and the three retired bishops who heeded their consciences to lay hands upon them. All of them women and men together deciding ten years after the Civil Rights movement, in the midst of Watergate and in the last stages of the Vietnam war that institutions must be challenged to be changed. In the words of Stringfellow and Wink they saw how institutions become powers and principalities in spite of themselves, even and most heartbreakingly the Body of Christ. The ordinations were illegal according to canon law. The bishops met in emergency session at O’Hare Airport, disrupting their retreats and summer vacations. And some bishops then saw they had forgotten who they were---servants of need, faithful to the Spirit in all vocations; they remembered the only traditional legality of ordination was a bishop in accordance with the ordination rite. We all began to remember who we were. We caught up with the diverse leadership of the first century.

None of this was easy—it still isn’t and quite honestly the beloved community of forgiveness and new life never is in this blessed and bloody world. Twenty years ago when I was ordained, a conservative colleague said to me, “Now tell me, this is all a political act really, isn’t it?” For we don’t need the Supreme Court or the statistics about pay and leadership or our own self-doubts or our interrupted speech to tell us that equality and justice and respect come slowly. And I don’t know if we women are more relational or more grounded or maternal or verdant or emotional—at least not yet. It is hard for all of us, male or female, to remember or know who we are when the ground shifts beneath us whether by choice or chance. I do know that the white economic and educational privilege, which has imbued the ethos of the Episcopal Church, does not go away quietly, and a toxic clericalism can easily choke our gospel humility. We have our reward.

The ministry of women is part of the groundswell of ordinary humanity in the church: the blooming of holy people as Hildegard of Bingen would say, to remember God works from the ground up, not the top down. God works in the still small voice which called and empowered and sustains and emboldens and purifies and heals all of us together, all called to be the face and hands and voice of Christ to one another in the world: I am among you as one who serves (Luke 22.27).

God comes to make us all human, wholly in body as well as spirit and mind—comes to heal and feed and relieve and restore. For the uncomfortable truth of the gospel of Jesus and Paul is that “suffering makes us better than we ever wanted to be” (The Diary of the Country Priest). These divisions and fears and defenses are the necessary way into repentance, into the new reign of God that must break our Western hierarchies and racial segregations and economic stratification; the suffering humanity in Palestine or the Texas border or without water in Detroit or the routine shootings in Chicago or evictions in San Francisco cry out to expose our ideologies of privilege, which erase and justify violence and dehumanization. We need each other to be whole and human as we point toward a future we do not yet see, but know in hope to be the only true reality. “We are prophets of a future not our own” (Bishop Edward Untener, Saginaw).

Repentance creates growth; patience is essential to courage; joy does not block the mystery; struggle is not failure. We are of course penultimate, but we do flow into in the stream of a larger Love. Let us remember and rejoice in who we are— all of us together the children of Wisdom. Let me leave you with this image of our church from Marge Piercy’s poem, “For Strong women”:

Strength is not in her, but she
enacts it as the wind fills a sail.
What comforts her is others loving
her equally for the strength and for the weakness
from which it issues, lightning from a cloud.
Lightning stuns. In rain, the clouds disperse.
Only water of connection remains,
flowing through us. Strong is what we make
each other. Until we are all strong together,
a strong woman is a woman strongly afraid.

Be of good courage; Christ has overcome the world!

Preached 12 July 2014 at Grace Cathedral. The Rev Dr Rebecca Lyman is the Samuel Garrett Professor of Church History emerita at The Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley.

"Folio 164r - The Canaanite Woman". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Embodied teaching

by Maria L. Evans

"Take,​ ​eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the
remembrance of me."--from the Words of Institution, Eucharistic Prayer A, p.362, Book of Common Prayer

I wish I had a dollar for every case of a less than one centimeter diameter ductal carcinoma-in-situ of the breast that I've shown at our hospital tumor board for the last 14 years, looked at our clinical medical students, interns, and residents, and said, "I don't know if this is the luckiest woman in the world or the unluckiest one. She's 99% likely cured after her sentinel node, radiation, and Tamoxifen, but she's hung with a cancer diagnosis for the rest of her life, for something that really, biologic-behaviorally-speaking, is a notch just below a full-blown cancer. The bigger thing is her risk for subsequent breast cancer."

On Monday, March 17, 2014, that person became me.

Stage zero ductal carcinoma in situ, 3 millimeters in diameter, all removed on the needle biopsy, no residual tumor seen in the lumpectomy, two negative sentinel nodes, a course of radiation, and the thrill of taking Tamoxifen for the next five years.

I had to laugh that the most common question that has been asked of me is not "how are you?" but "did you look at your own slides?" (Answer: Yes, but my associate signed out the actual case. I was, after all, kinda busy at the time.) I mean, really, my DCIS (we tend to call it by its initials) pretty much looks like everyone else's DCIS. I'm happy it's now residing in a fixed paraffin block and on a few microscope slides in a drawer in our storage room.

But I had an added hurdle to deal with that most people in my shoes don't even have to consider.

Remember what I said earlier about the monthly Tumor Board conference? We do a conference where we show and discuss every full-blown cancer case to every one of our trainees from 3rd year med students on up. My case history, my mammograms and ultrasounds from the last several years, my tumor in living color, projected three feet high on the smart board. We discuss what's in store for the management of every patient. We discuss their various body parts and what's going on with them...and I am the chair of that conference.

Several folks said to me, "You know, we don't have to show your case if you don't want to." I said, "Are you kidding? This is a very classic case and they need to see the changes in the mammograms over time. It'd be a disservice not to show this case. Also, it sends a bad message when we say that they can learn from all the patients except the ones who also happen to be their teachers." I put on a very brave face while thinking, "Oh my God. I've got to talk to all these young docs and docs-to-be about my boob." Then another thought crossed my mind. I remembered the time I had a thrombosed hemorrhoid. None of the students or residents wanted to examine it, since I was one of their attending docs and teachers. It was clearly uncomfortable for them, as well as me--only in different ways. I strongly felt this had to be done, but I also knew there would be discomfort for them, and a very real chance I'd tear up or my voice would break.

I prayed about this one a lot...and in my prayer time something came to me. Jesus didn't just teach with his words, he taught with his body itself. He taught with his healing touch, of course, but the fundamentally more important thing was that he taught with his broken body, hanging on the cross--and that three days later, the end of that body wasn't really "the end." It's also clear that this method of teaching was uncomfortable for his disciples--so uncomfortable, in fact, that it was down to only a devoted few present for the very end.

"Well," I thought to myself, "If Jesus could be vulnerable to the world with his broken body, I suppose I can stand a little vulnerability and discomfort about my broken left breast."

The April Tumor Board date came, of course, and we discussed and showed my case just like everyone else's, with one addition. I turned to the group and said, "I guess you all have figured out with the age and the initials M.E. on the title of this case, that this patient is me. You have an opportunity today you don't normally get in this conference. I'd like you to take a deep breath, and ask me anything--and I mean ANYTHING. I'll try to answer as best as I can."

Everyone squirmed in their seat in silence at first...and one by one the questions trickled first they were very clinical. But then someone asked me, "What are you most afraid of about this?"

I took a deep breath. "Well, I'm not afraid of this particular tumor. It's gone, and I'm only a stage zero. It's highly unlikely I'm going to die from this. But I'm pretty nervous as to how the radiation is going to make me feel...and I'm really nervous thinking about the genetic testing that I'm going to do once my deductible is squared away and the insurance will hopefully pay for it. Not so much about the breast side of things--I've been diligent about my screening mammograms for a long time, and I know the drill there. But I don't like the idea of possibly having the BRCA gene, because if I have that, it also comes with a 40% risk of ovarian cancer, and I'll have to give serious consideration to having my ovaries yanked. I'm way more afraid of ovarian cancer."

All my career, I've made my living being just a tad intimidating with the youngsters. But in my heart, I knew the real teaching would happen if I could bring myself to being vulnerable, and a lot of it did, over the next few days, in the hallways, and at the other side of my two-headed microscope. It would go something like this:

"I'm really lucky," I continued. "I have a very curable tumor, I have insurance, and I know this stuff like the back of my hand. But I lie in bed at night and think, "How do people pay for this stuff when they don't have insurance? They don't, that's how. They go bankrupt trying or they don't even do the things that you and I routinely know need to be done...and even when they are able to make at least some choices, they're doing it with far less understanding than I have. I have found myself crying over the pain of a broken world a heck of a lot more than I've been crying over me. If I have cried for myself, it's from having been shielded from the truth about my unseen privilege. It's not popular to say the playing field needs to be leveled when it comes to health care, but I believe it more than ever."

The reality is that all of us have opportunities all the time to teach with our bodies. Some folks have no choice or few choices as to how that teaching occurs. How will those of us who do have some choices, teach with our bodies in a way that we reveal our vulnerability in a Gospel sort of way?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, is a grateful member of Trinity Episcopal Church and a postulant to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. She occasionally finds time to write about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid.

Who is Responsible?

by Linda Ryan

Like a lot of other people, I've been reading and watching various reports and commentaries on the recent Hobby Lobby case. The Supreme Court voted 5-4 that Hobby Lobby should have the right to refuse to cover birth control for its employees on the grounds that it violates their (Hobby Lobby's, or rather, Hobby Lobby's major stockholder's) religious beliefs. The Court has said that in this case, a corporation run for-profit and without a direct affiliation with a specific religious denomination (like a Roman Catholic or Baptist hospital, clinic or even bookstore) can claim religious grounds in refusing to cover specific medical procedures, devices or prescriptions. It's got folks up in arms, in a manner of speaking, almost as much as the open carrying of assault rifles into stores and churches.

Perhaps the best summation came from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg who noted in the minority dissention that allowing Hobby Lobby to prevail set a precedent for anybody to claim something someone else did or was doing conflicted with their religious beliefs and should not be allowed. There have been a host of spin-offs on that, including those who say that since they paid their federal taxes and some of that tax money went to fight a war they felt was unjust, they should be able to sue to have the government not include their tax money in any such conflict. I don't think that one has a prayer (pardon the expression) of getting anywhere legally but it does make me stop and think, how far can this go?

My employer has forbidden smoking on the premises, even in private cars parked on the premises. It isn't so much a religious thing with him as it is a health one. People work for him with the understanding that if they smoke, they will have to go across the street or down the block. He doesn't go so far as to say they can't smoke anywhere, including in their own homes, like some firms do, just on his own property. His responsibility is to give his employees a clean, safe environment in which to work, and, to him, smoking does not contribute to that as well as being a personal dislike. It makes sense and the employees go along with it. But what if he were Hindu or Jewish or Muslim? Could employees be forbidden to bring sandwiches containing beef or pork? If he were a Jehovah’s Witness doctor, could he refuse to give someone a life-saving transfusion because his religion forbade him receiving one himself? Maybe that's a frivolous example, but it could happen and very possibly be legally upheld.

What I think it comes down to is judgment, not necessarily one person judging the actions of another but rather the judgment of God. Religions usually give a list of thou shalt nots because their holy texts or great teachers or clergy say that these are the precepts that God (or a god, or an authoritative figure) has declared to be the rules and to be a believer and a member, those rules should be applied to a member's daily life. If they don't follow the rules, they could be (a) punished or (b) expelled for their sins or perceived sins. In some cases, including school honor codes, if someone is aware of some wrongdoing and do not report it, they are equally guilty and should be punished the same as if they did the deed themselves. I think this is a key to the Hobby Lobby thing; the owners who do not want to cover birth control believe that by providing it they are going against what God expects and that they will ultimately have to face judgment themselves for allowing someone else to do something they, the owners, believe as clearly against God's will.

And there's the rub -- God's will. The Bible says to be fruitful and multiply. It also equates a form of birth control as evil in the story of Onan (Gen. 38:8-10). Of course, at that time sperm were considered to be very tiny but fully formed infants who just needed to be implanted into a woman to be incubated to full infant size. What got Onan in trouble was that he refused to impregnate his sister-in-law so that his deceased brother would have a legitimate offspring, a duty Onan was supposed to do to preserve his dead brother's inheritance and line. Onan's punishment was for selfishness more than anything else, and his punishment was meted on the basis of that. People use Onan as a figurehead for opposing any form of birth control without thinking that there might be something else more important that caused God's wrath.

When I stand before God to be judged, am I going to be judged on what I did or what I allowed other people to do? I don't believe in the death penalty but will I be judged for paying taxes that contribute to the continuation of such a practice? Am I going to be held responsible for the cutbacks in education because people I didn't vote for decided we needed to cut school lunch programs, arts programs, and a curriculum aimed at teaching kids to think rather than just answer standardized test questions? I believe God wants me to pay attention to things that benefit all people, not just major financial contributors, powerful conglomerates, or even people who think like I do. I think I will be judged on that more than what I make other people do to fit my particular religious beliefs.

What the Supreme Court has decided is that religion and religious beliefs have more weight than health and safety issues. It has decided that one segment of society can be discounted because of religious beliefs. And, as so many have pointed out, it opens the door for a lot of pain and suffering to come from lawsuits and decisions where a person or corporation decides it can make the rules reflective of their religious preferences, whether or not those who work or associate with that person or corporation have religious beliefs of their own that may or may not coincide with their employer's or associate's.

The final decision is going to be up to God. Meanwhile we all have a responsibility to "Do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8d). That doesn't necessarily mean we are responsible for our neighbors lives and choices other than helping them meet their needs for adequate food, clean water, shelter, clothing, education, medical care, safety and equal access to all of those things as we have ourselves. We're responsible for caring for the widows, orphans, prisoners, the sick, the dying, and even the resident aliens in our land (check the Bible, it's in there more than once!); we're not responsible for forcing them to attend our particular church on Sunday (or any other day declared a religious duty) or to obey tenets of a faith to which they don't subscribe themselves. That's simply not in our job description.

Where I think we do have responsibility for which we will be judged is if someone else comes to harm because of our insistence on adherence to our own religious beliefs. We can't just wash our hands and say, "It must be God's will" or "The Bible clearly states..." when in fact it actually doesn't. God has given us a job to do and that job isn't to put stumbling blocks in the way of people who are already crawling because they don't have the strength or resources to walk. The Hobby Lobby decision will keep a lot of people crawling and put a lot of stumbling blocks in the way. There are already reverberations that restrict others even more, especially women.

What part of "Do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God" don't we get? Aren't we responsible for believing that?

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter . She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale.

Wanting to be heard

by Marshall Scott

Not long ago I was responding to a news item on The Lead, and made this observation:

So, I find myself with this reflection, applicable on all sides: just because my argument has not been found compelling, it does not mean my argument has not been heard. I often find that hard to remember myself, since I am quite secure that my values are shared (or should be) and that my statements are rational, relevant, and cogent. That doesn't change, though, the central reflection: my argument may have been heard and still not have been found convincing.

Not long after, one of our Editors, the estimable Ann Fontaine, asked whether I would be interested in writing a reflection on that for Daily Episcopalian. I was, and I am.

Only, that was when I ran into a writer’s dilemma: just how does one go about writing about it? More to the point, how would I go about illustrating the point?

I could, I had thought, take an issue and highlight how personal conviction might interfere with listening one the one hand, and with accepting rejection on the other. At that point, the problem wasn’t that there were too few issues to highlight. The problem, or at least the beginning of it, was that there were too many. And, of course, for any issue that I might choose to use as illustration I would most assuredly have response from someone for whom that issue was entirely too important personally for any reflective distance, for any willingness to hear the other side.

And, when we think of that which might be too important personally, we have to ask why. Before we fall into that as an individual exploration, we might acknowledge other dynamics. One that I have found interesting came up on NPR a while ago. Last October I heard this story from Shankar Vedantam, a correspondent on NPR’s Morning Edition. He writes about social science research, and in this report he was focusing on the topic of “loss aversion.” Loss aversion is about how we make decisions. More specifically, “what the theory of loss aversion will predict is that you will fight harder and longer when you're confronting a loss.” In the story he quotes several scholars and cites their research. They illustrate this with examples both from gambling and from political decisions. The research and the examples lead him to this observation:

And I think part of the problem is that the voters are suffering from loss aversion too. So everyone is in the same psychological basket, so to say. You know, so the fundamental idea with loss aversion is that you're driving by looking in the rearview mirror. That's what loss aversion is. It's not a good idea when you're driving. It's not a good idea when you're gambling, and it's certainly not a good idea when it comes to national policy.

And it’s specifically not a good idea because an individual will fight harder to avoid loss than to pursue identifiable gain, or even, in the gambling examples, basic security. After all, isn’t this why we say that an argument based on “sunk cost” is fallacious: that simply seeking to avoid loss – to make the sunk cost meaningful or worthwhile – is likely to end up increasing the loss rather than recovering it?

Now, I’m not one to say that behavior is destiny, whether we identify it as social or as psychological. On the other hand, if this is demonstrable, surely it is one of the dynamics in our difficulty listening to one another. Moreover, and as I often say in premarital counseling, even if behavior is not destiny, it is the behaviors that we don’t pay attention to that come back to bite us.

Think about the prism this gives us for so many of our current controversies. In almost every case I can think of, the greatest noise in the argument comes from those on either pole who are anxious that something has been or will be lost. The right to bear arms vs. the right to a safer society; whether and how we should engage again in the wars in the Middle East; “pro-life” vs. “pro-choice” (in which even our language highlights the focus on what is lost); arguments about “tradition” vs. “progress” in the church and out – all of these seem all too often to hang up on what has been or will be lost, even if that isn’t all that is talked about.

I have no doubt, too, that the rampant individualism that characterizes our society contributes to this. After all, how much more desperate is my position, my loss, if I have only myself either to rely on or to look out for?

So, what shall we say to these things? We could reflect on this as a matter of hope. After all, one might look at loss and say that one takes on the additional risk, the additional struggle, because one “hopes” for success. Unfortunately, both in the research and in my experience it seems in fact the opposite of hope. We take on the additional risk not out of hope but out of despair; and the deeper the loss that comes of the additional risk, the more desperate we seem to become. “Hope” seems hardly to be the appropriate category, even for a faith community that speaks of being a people of hope.

I think the more appropriate category is humility. To rehearse what we have all heard before: humility is not about simple self-deprecation, much less about despising self. It is certainly not about the great pride expressed in being “wormier than thou.” It is, rather, about seeing clearly; and not only about seeing ourselves clearly, but also seeing clearly the world about us. It involves actually looking at an issue, at a situation, and at ourselves in it. It involves especially looking, not in the rear view mirror, but all around – to the front and to all sides. It involves acknowledging our own limitations, certainly, as well as our strengths; and acknowledging the strengths of those with whom we disagree, as well as their limitations. It involves seeing not only the costs of our experiences and our struggles, but also the possibilities. It involves looking at all these critically, but not cynically; judiciously, but not judgmentally. Most of all, it involves recognizing that in these issues we are not individuals alone; for not only are there communities to which we can look, but God is with us always.

And at that point we can become people of hope. We can hope that both we and those with whom we disagree, can see more clearly and can see possibilities that we haven’t yet seen. We can hope to find values we share, instead of hanging up solely on conflicts where we disagree. We can hope to see how God is working in those with whom we disagree, even as we hope to know that God is working in us - to trust that God is working, as always, for the good of those who love God, even when - especially when – our arguments, when heard, are not compelling.

Or, perhaps there are other words to the same point that might sound more familiar: “seek first the kingdom….” To seek the reign, the citizenship, the community of God, requires first and foremost that we be looking for it. It requires that we clear our sight, and that we look not only back, but forward and all around, to seen not only what God has done, but also what God is doing and might do yet. We’re entering into a series of Sundays when the Gospel lessons from Matthew will be describing in one way and another the Kingdom. We know already that the Kingdom is costly. We have formed our community out of the experience of what it cost God in Christ. At the same time, we believe that the Kingdom is in some sense at hand, and in some sense still to come. What might it mean if in all things, and especially in our worst controversies, we could look all around again and seek the Kingdom, trusting that God is working and will work? What might it mean, and what might it take, for us to seek first the Kingdom, even when – especially when – we fear we are not heard; or, just as likely, when we are heard, and not found compelling?

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a hospital chaplain in the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an Associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

Fourth of July and the liturgical calendar

by George Clifford

The Fourth of July—Independence Day—is not only a national holiday but also a feast day observed in our Episcopal liturgical calendar. The newly formed Episcopal Church included the feast in its 1786 prayer book and then omitted it in 1789. The change occurred upon the recommendation of Bishop William White. He contended that former loyalists, who constituted the main obstacle to the Episcopal Church growing, found the feast objectionable. The 1929 Book of Common Prayer restored Independence Day as a feast. That history suggests three lines of thought.

First, the inclusion, omission, and re-inclusion of Independence Day in the liturgical calendar should warn against equating nationalism and Christianity. For its first century and a half, Episcopalians viewed loyalty to Christ and not the nation as paramount.

Today, perhaps much less than in 1786, the United States is not part of Christendom (if one presumes that Christendom still exists somewhere). The US is a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and religiously diverse nation. Consequently, we should object, as did most of the nation's founders, to legislative efforts to establish Christian teachings or practices. No law can ban private prayer. Conversely, no law can require belief in God. Indeed, printing In God We Trust on US money seems patently hypocritical, as people are often more confident in the dollar's power than in God's power.

Second, notions of US exceptionalism—the idea that the US is the new Israel, a city founded upon a hill as a light to the nations, or a nation especially blessed by God—are incompatible with Christian inclusivity and justice. Paraphrasing the book of Acts God is no respecter of peoples or nations, loving all equally.

I proudly served the US Navy for over two decades, ready and willing to go into harm's way to defend our freedoms and way of life. However, I also knew that the US was neither the most just nor prosperous nation. The US has some admirable characteristics, but we can also learn from other nations. Viewing the US as a member of the global community, co-equal with the other members, best coheres with God's equal love for all. On Independence Day, we thus do well to give thanks for the goodness of this land and to seek God's wisdom and assistance in addressing our shortcomings and failures.

Similarly, placing a US flag adjacent to the altar generally sends a wrong message, tacitly implying that God somehow especially favors the US. I have had the US flag removed from the worship space of every congregation that I have served except one. In the military, confusing loyalty to God with loyalty to the nation is an ever-present danger. In my civilian parishes, my congregations have all included citizens from several nations. The one place in which I did not remove the flag was the US Naval Academy. There, as part of the recessional, midshipmen dipped the US flag before the altar dramatically symbolizing the priority of loyalty to God over nation.

Third, we appropriately reinterpret what we celebrate on Independence Day. Our reading of the Declaration of Independence illustrates the positive potential of this process. The well-known, rightly treasured expression that "all men are created equal" originally meant white, property-owning males are created equal. After much struggle, some of which continues even in the present, most Americans now interpret that phrase to mean that all people, regardless of socio-economic status, race, ethnicity, or creed are created equal. This new reading is so widely accepted that the historically ignorant often respond with surprised disbelief when informed of the phrase's original meaning.

In addition to struggles to end racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual discrimination, we now hear belated calls to end injustice against gays, lesbians, bi-sexual, and transgender persons. This struggle will require, like its predecessors, decades to complete fully but, with God's help, the arc of history bends inexorably and irreversibly toward justice. Ten years ago, only one state had legalized same-sex marriage. Laws in 20 states now permit same-sex marriage; court rulings are pending in seven more states. Sometime before 2020, same-sex marriage seems likely to become legal in all US jurisdictions.

Economic injustice is more elusive to define and rallying support to end it more difficult. Requirements that voters pay a poll tax in order to be eligible to vote replaced the prior requirement that eligible voters must own property. The poll tax—struck down by US courts as an unconstitutional attempt to limit voter eligibility—has subsequently given way to campaigns in which the winner is almost invariably the candidate who raises the most money. The recent primary defeat of the US House of Representatives Majority Leader, Eric Cantor (R, VA), by an unknown and poorly funded Tea Party candidate is the notable exception to that generalization. Calls for racial justice by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stirred the nation, mobilizing people on both sides of the issue; tellingly, his calls for economic justice were widely ignored and now largely forgotten.

Money does not assure happiness. Research indicates that people living in the US who earn more than $75,000 per year experience only marginal increases in their happiness when their income increases. However, people who earn less than $75,000 (and that is 60% plus of us) experience significant increases in happiness when income improves. In other words, money cannot make us happy, but a lack of money can keep one from having the resources to live a reasonably happy and good life.

A tension between the present and future in-breaking of God's kingdom on earth echoes throughout the New Testament. Unfortunately, when it comes to money, wealth, and power Christians individually and collectively too often emphasize a future rather than present focus. This tension is evident when one compares Matthew's better-known but probably later version of the Sermon on the Mount with Luke's presumably earlier version. Luke, for example, records Jesus taught that the hungry shall be satisfied (a call for economic justice!) whereas Matthew records Jesus taught that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied (spiritualizing and thereby eviscerating the call for economic justice).

Justice delayed is not justice. Will we, as does Matthew's gospel, spiritualize Jesus' teachings and emphasize economic justice will only arrive with the fullness of the Kingdom? Alternatively, is God speaking to us through Luke's gospel, calling us to join in the struggle for justice for the least amongst us? Independence Day is an opportunity not only to celebrate progress toward equal dignity for all but also an excellent time to encourage progress toward equal opportunity for all in the pursuit of happiness.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

Holy Communion

by Laurie Gudim

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” – Annie Dillard, from Teaching a Stone to Talk

Have you ever had one of those dreams in which you have gotten married to someone that in waking life you detest? You startle awake, panicked, and you are utterly relieved to discover that it didn't really happen. Why does such a dream cause such an intense reaction in us? We believe that something profound happens in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, something that cannot be taken back with a simple “I didn't mean it.” In the course of the ritual our lives change. Where before we were single, this little fifteen minute ritual makes us members of a partnership. Vows made before the collective bind us. And the resulting union is difficult to undo.

A core spiritual discipline of mine for many years now has been participation with my faith community in the sacrament of Holy Communion. I have come to understand that something similar to what happens at a wedding happens to us every time we take communion. The ritual draws us, captivates us at the level where symbols are our language.

Crash helmets and life preservers are apropos for such a sacrament. Like the ritual of a wedding cements our bond of unity with a partner, the Eucharist makes concrete the unity between each of us and Christ, and, by extension, between each of us and all the others. Whether or not we are aware and even if we don't intend it, the Eucharist shackles us. In other words, we are really, really close, you and I, uncomfortably close, when we share communion. We are in each other's business, vulnerable, and we are united by a bond that is stronger than blood and inescapable, even in death.

It is no wonder that we have a lot of rules for when and how this sacrament happens. The casing created by the rules surrounding Eucharist helps manage the TNT being concocted. Dressing in special clothing, having processions and sacred vessels and putting a great many words and movements into the dance of the Holy Communion help us, if we are awake to it all, appreciate the symbolic gift being given at the levels in us where it will do the most good.

The Eucharist makes us available to the ever-changing and changeable God, the Creator who loves each of us beyond our capacity to understand. Immanuel, God-with-us, who is always alive in our hearts makes himself felt through this liturgy and yanks at us from the inside. It also makes us available at our cores to one another. It crosses all our differences to make us one people, one family, one Body.

I have come to realize recently that since I have been participating in the Eucharist right along, I have already been washed away in this particular river. The people of my faith community mean a great deal to me. Ironically, they mean so much to me that they can disappoint me terribly. I once thought that the answer to this dilemma was simply to care less, to expect less from church. But now I am thinking differently. It seems to me that instead of fighting the river's strong current, kicking and struggling against the flow of my bond with a particular set of people who make up my Eucharistic community, I ought to let it carry me. I ought to tell the people who worship with me how important they are to me. I ought to commit to hanging in with them through the really hard stuff.

For better or worse, in sickness and in health, we are community to one another. I can take good care of this union or I can let it languish in the tensions and discord that are common to living life together. But whichever course I choose, the bond is there. When we have disagreements or misunderstandings, I can talk directly with all concerned. When I am tempted to bail out, to take my ball and go home, I can think again, I can work it out. Conversely, when I appreciate someone for their ministry or their presence, I can tell them so.

It seems to me that the Eucharist is the most valuable contribution of the liturgical churches such as ourselves to the health and spiritual well being of our culture. The TNT of this ancient rite is in its ability to transform us is without parallel. But the trick is that we have to both consciously value it and understand its significance. Without that it becomes just another archaic practice that has no meaning to modern sensibilities.

Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries.

Five Reasons Your Church Buildings Deserve Better

by Eric Bonetti

If you're like most Episcopalians, you value your church building as a place of comfort, warmth and respite--a place of welcome and peace, remote from the stresses of daily life.

Or you think you do.

In fact, it may be that your church building -- whether a splendid reminder of the glories of Anglo-Catholicism, or a modest, modern masonry and glass structure -- deserves better.

Ivy Clad Ruin - - 1312612I know what you're saying right about now: "Hey, wait a minute....I pledge generously. I cut the grass every weekend (insert grouchy noises of choice)."

But the reality is that there is more to it than money and mowing.

1. You don't provide enough money

Speaking of money, do you think you give generously to your church? Maybe you do, but maybe not.

Consider the Latter-day Saints (LDS) and other faiths/denominations that routinely give a true tithe to their church. While we may have discomfort with the theological underpinnings of a near-mandatory tithe, the outcome is visible, indeed. Just look at the well-kept grounds of any LDS temple to see the results of tithing. Or check out estimates of the corporate wealth of the LDS church and you'll quickly see no one's squabbling about where to find money to patch the roof.

"But I give in other ways," you say.

To that, I point to a small parish in Northern Virginia, one that pre-dates the civil war. Just shy of 70 years ago, that parish realized it had outgrown its current building, so it began plans for a majestic English country gothic church -- a solidly built edifice, designed to stand for the ages. A small group of parishioners mortgaged their homes and businesses -- everything they had -- to finance construction, putting everything they owned on the line.

Risky for my tastes, and probably for yours too, but the parish paid the debt off in just seven years.

Just how financially committed did you say you were?

2. Your financial priorities are wrong

Hand-in-hand with money goes priorities. Many a church has gone pews-up despite having very solid revenue. Why? Because money wasn't being spent in the right places.

The warning light here is if you're seeing too much money being spent internally, and not enough on the building and the community. To be sure, in-reach is vital for any church. But if you're finding that hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars are being spent on special events, but your roof has a persistent leak due to lack of money, or your furnace is about to fail but you can't really afford to replace it, you should be hearing the warning sirens, loud and clear.
Same for your reserve funds.

If you're not saving for the future, you're borrowing against it. And while you're at it, you're betting. You're betting that your parish will have the resources to make needed future capital investments, despite flat attendance at almost all mainline churches. In essence, you've set yourself up as your own banker, and you've structured a transaction with a large balloon payment at the end. And you've done this despite clear signs that you may not have the money when the time comes to pay off the debt. If this sounds familiar, consider that it's probably not just your church building on the line--your entire parish is at risk.

Don't gamble with your future.

3. You don't understand your budget

Another issue is awareness of the actual costs to run your parish and its physical plant.

How often do we run into people who say, "I pledge!" but pay only a few hundred dollars a year?

Of course, there are many of limited means for whom that is all that is possible, and any healthy parish must demonstrate flexibility in its pledging process.

But do you really stop to think about the costs to operate your church? For instance, a church with a $1 million annual budget must bring in almost $2,740 a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, no exceptions for days with Super Bowl games or your summer vacation. That's a lot of money, and if you're giving just $25 a week, your parish no doubt is grateful for the support, but you probably are not paying your full share. And keep in mind that we're presumably talking operating expenses here--your parish also needs to be saving for the future.

If you're on your stewardship committee, consider too whether you provide enough information for others to understand your budget and the importance of pledging. Do you provide clear textual information and easy visual charts? Do you invite your parish to think about a "dream budget" that reflects hopes and dreams and potential growth? Or do you prepare an annual budget that looks like a government production--large, detailed, and crushingly dull?

Have a meaningful budget that helps people understand the realities and priorities of your parish.

4. You're worried about the power

No, not the electric bill.

Years ago, I attended a parish that almost imploded. The issue wasn't the ordination of women (we already had a female rector, thank you). It wasn't about marriage equality, the role of the bishop, vestry elections, revisions to the Book of Common Prayer or any of the usual suspects.

The sickening, shuddering sound of the iceberg scraping the hull came when two elderly parishioners, both well-meaning and generous, decided to prune a row of wildly overgrown plants behind the church.

That's right, prune. Not remove, not tear out, not destroy.

What's wrong with that? I don't know, since the plants had become almost comically large, and were occasionally known to snag and remove sections of shingles from the roof during summer storms. But others felt differently, and soon the parish was in a knock-down, drag-out, who-did-what-to-whom uproar, with calls to the senior warden, angry letters to the bishop, and more. (Triangulation, anyone?)

Apparently, the issue was that the plants had been placed behind the church years earlier in memory of a deceased parishioner. And while the decedent's children had long since disclaimed any responsibility for the care and nurture of these plants, they reserved the right to lurk, like alligators in a golf pond, right under the surface, ready to come roaring out, jaws snapping, at the first sign of an interloper.

While the uproar eventually died down, needless to say, the episode was a powerful disincentive for future maintenance, and giving dropped precipitously in the wake of this debacle. Today, that particular parish has peeling paint, lots of deferred maintenance, lackluster attendance, and a very thin budget. Big surprise, there.

In short, if your priority is protecting prerogatives versus property, the day will come when all you have is your prerogatives, perfectly preserved and meaning nothing.

Set aside differences to make caring for your building a priority.

5. You don't have professional advice and data

This is closely intertwined with giving and priorities. To effectively care for your physical plant, you have to understand its needs and how to corollate your resources with those needs.

Knowing the needs of your physical plant requires more than just spending time at your parish. Instead, it requires a replacement reserve study, done by a professional, typically at a cost of a few thousand dollars every few years.

Correlating the remaining lifespan of your physical assets with their value and projected replacement costs, a replacement reserve study is both a highly reliable barometer of the health of your investment in your physical plant and the overall financial health of the parish. Indeed, many states require condo associations to conduct one and publish it every several years, since the study is a surefire indicator of looming financial and, often, operational issues.

Yet if you are like most parishes, you haven't done a replacement reserve study recently, if ever, or it's a back-of-the-envelope guesstimate you've done internally. If that's the case, you're on thin ice, since 6-10 percent of revenue typically is considered a healthy annual contribution to replacement reserves.

If you really do care about your church building, get the numbers. Get a professional.

Looking ahead

Whether you've largely been indifferent to caring for your church building, you've been supportive but long viewed it as the role of your parish administrator, or you've just never thought about it much at all, the recent changes and discussion about the future of The Episcopal Church offer an opportunity to revisit old issues and identify new opportunities. And if renewal and rebirth are to be effective, what better place to start than close to home, with the care and maintenance of our parish churches?

Think about it: Does your parish deserve better?

Eric Bonetti is a former nonprofit professional with extensive change management experience. He now works as a realtor.

The Martyrs of Uganda witness against sexual violence

The Martyrs of Uganda are celebrated on June 3rd. While the feast is not well known in the West, it is a big day in much of Africa. Martyrs Day on June 3 is a national holiday in Uganda. The men who were martyred were Anglican and Roman Catholic Christians and this year marked the 50th anniversary of their canonization by Pope Paul VI.

The story of their death is hair-raising. The Satucket Lectionary on the Holy Women Holy Men website says:

On 3 June 1886, thirty-two young men, pages of the court of King Mwanga of Buganda, were burned to death at Namugongo for their refusal to renounce Christianity. In the following months many other Christians throughout the country died by spear or fire for their faith.’

images.jpegThese martyrdoms totally changed the dynamic of Christian growth in Uganda. Introduced by a handful of Anglican and Roman missionaries after 1877, the Christian faith had been preached only to the immediate members of the court, by order of King Mutesa. His successor, Mwanga, became increasingly angry as he realized that the first converts put loyalty to Christ above the traditional loyalty to the king. Martyrdoms began in 1885. Mwanga first forbade anyone to go near a Christian mission on pain of death, but finding himself unable to cool the ardor of the converts, resolved to wipe out Christianity.

Their deaths was the spark that began a remarkable expansion of the Christian Gospel in eastern and central Africa. It is a story of remarkable faithfulness in the face of the violence and power of the state.

But the story of the Ugandan Martyrs has changed. Their witness is no longer remembered in terms of the resistance of the faithful to the demands of a human king. Instead, their story has been used to justify homophobia and violence . Because in addition to demanding that the thirty-two men renounce their Christian faith, King Mwanga also demanded that they submit to him sexually. As a result their story is used to justify both hatred of homosexuality in general and violence against gay and lesbian people in particular.

The transformation of their story from a story of sexual violence exercised by king into a moralistic story against homosexuality is similar to how the church of the Middle Ages, the Victorian era and even in our time, transformed the story of first Christian women who were martyred...women who were often called virgins.

In the early church there was a strong connection between a woman's chastity and martyrdom with several examples of women choosing death over rape or forced marriages, and so on.

One the hallmarks of the early church was that it was a place that accepted "widows" and "orphans," who were not simply women or children whose husbands and parents predeceased them, but who were women and children cast off by society because their bond to that society was severed either by the death of--or very often the whim of-- a man. A woman whose husband put her out and whose father and brothers would not take back was a "widow."

Similarly, the children of a man who would not accept paternity--the child of a mistress or a slave or conceived through rape or simply not accepted in the family (like an expensive girl-child)-- were put out to fend for themselves in the society of the Greek and Roman world.

Slavery was one answer to this. Not the chattel slavery that we think of, but a high-order indentured servitude. People, in short, could and did become property.

The early church offered a place and a status to women and children by welcoming and caring for the widowed and orphaned. The idea that a woman could choose chastity over involuntary sex with a person not of her choosing, and this choice was considered not rebellious but virtuous was a radical aspect of the Christian gospel. Paul's affirmation that in Christ there is no "slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female" but that all are one in Christ takes on a particularly radical and poignant perspective in this context.

In this context, "virginity" was not so much about sexual restraint as the refusal to allow others to choose when, how and with whom a woman may exercise her sexuality. Early church saints and martyrs like Cecile, Agatha and Agnes were choosing not to participate in a society that made women the property of some man, in a world where sex was a sign of domination and power instead of intimacy.

The impact of their witness was lost when chastity and virginity became more about morals and regulating women's bodies in later times but understanding their original context can help us in understanding what to make of the Martyrs of Uganda.

For one thing, in the story of the king demanding sex with these Christian captives, there is very little connection with how we understand homosexuality (as an orientation) or marriage (as an equal partnership based on mutual love and mutual commitment) or even healthy sexuality today.

Like the early Christian martyrs, what the Martyrs of Uganda refused was the power of an earthly king who wanted to demonstrate his power over these slaves--and the powerlessness of the Gospel--by attempting to have forcible sex with helpless victims. What they refused was the use of sex as a expression of power--in this case political and religious--through the humiliation of rebellious subjects. Their refusal was an affirmation that in Christ each person has inherent dignity and worth. As they went to their gruesome deaths singing and praying, they proved that God's power builds up while human power degrades.

Their witness is a powerful example today where sexual violence is widespread in conflicts all over the world.

Participants at last week’s Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, agreed that faith communities can have significant influence to end the sexual violence that still takes place all over the globe.

Faith leaders and faith-based organizations have a vital role to play in engaging their communities in both the prevention of, and response to, sexual violence in conflict..

…faith communities are often at the center of communities and able to be first responders in times of crisis. They can challenge the attitudes associated with sexual violence and address perceptions that can lead to inequality and the spread of violence.

Those who use the witness of the Martyrs of Uganda to condemn homosexual persons, or to denigrate same sex marriage or as an excuse to persecute GLBT persons miss the power of the original witness of the Martyrs of Uganda. They reduce their deaths to a story of paranoia and social control. In short, they accomplish precisely was the Ugandan king failed to do in 1886.

Instead, the Martyrs of Uganda are a powerful example of how the Church can—and does—stand against sexual violence of all kinds and in all places.

The Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns is the Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, Pennsylvania in the Diocese of Bethlehem. He keeps the blog “Fun’n’Games in the Kingdom of God.”

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