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Happy Thanksgiving
from Episcopal Café

I wrote this column eight years ago for Beliefnet.com. Daily Episcopalian is taking the weekend off. Happy Thanksgiving. See you on Monday.

By Jim Naughton

A few years ago, while I was on an academic fellowship, my family and I spent Thanksgiving with other fellows and their families. In religious terms, we were a mixed bunch: Christians, Unitarians, Jews, agnostics, and atheists.

A multi-religious dinner table always presents a bit of a problem when it is time to say the grace before meals. But Thanksgiving presents a particularly sticky situation, because it is the one occasion on which even the irreligious feel that some sort of invocation should be made. But who, or what, should we invoke?

After several minutes of communal hemming and hawing, one of the braver of our number delivered a prayer to the earth, thanking it for its bounty and seeking its forgiveness for our environmental sins. In all, it sounded more Green Party than pagan. Having crossed that hastily improvised bridge, we tucked into our feast.

But the moment stayed with me, for it illustrated what a peculiar, not to mention sneaky, holiday we were celebrating.

Thanksgiving is not a purely civic holiday like Memorial Day or Independence Day, although we are, in part, celebrating the fortitude of our Pilgrim forebears. Nor, like Christmas or Passover, does it come freighted with the content of a particular faith. Rather, Thanksgiving straddles these two categories; it is civic and religious. To paraphrase Jesus, Thanksgiving gives both to Caesar and to God.

In doing so, it discomfits believer and unbeliever equally. For giving thanks assumes the existence of one (One?) who deserves our gratitude--anathema to atheists. But giving thanks as a nation assumes that we stand before God as citizens of a country, as well as members of a faith. And that should offend anyone who believes that salvation flows from the church and not from the state.

Thanksgiving, in other words, assumes the existence of something that doesn't exist: an American faith.

On these grounds, I suppose one could argue that this holiday violates the establishment clause of the Constitution. I leave that task for some particularly dogmatic member of Americans for the Separation of Church and State. What interests me is the ubiquity of gratitude, the understanding, even among witnessing atheists, that it is important to be grateful for our good fortune.

For me, the desire to give thanks is evidence, at a minimum, that human beings are innately religious. The theologian Karl Rahner wrote that there is a "God-shaped hole" in every one of us. With Rahner, I believe that it is God who put it there.

You can take that argument or leave it. But if you leave it, help me to understand why we experience this particular species of gratitude. I'm not talking about the kind of gratitude we feel toward someone who has done us a favor. I mean the sort of global gratitude inspired by gifts we could not have known enough to ask for, or the kind we feel when matters beyond our control end well for us.

Who do you thank for your sweetheart's brown eyes; for growing up where it snows (or doesn't); for being alive at the same time as Bruce Springsteen; or for seeing your children born into a country that is prosperous and at peace?

You might argue that there is no one to be thanked. Maybe all our purported blessings are a matter of random chance. Perhaps the desire to extend gratitude beyond the human is an evolutionary glitch--a useful social trait that got too big for its britches.

Perhaps.

Or perhaps we awaken one day and realize that we are not now, and have never been, masters of our own destinies; that our successes were not entirely of our own making; that our souls magnify the Lord, whether we like it or not.

Again, you can take this argument or leave it. It is easier to believe in chance than in grace. Chance requires nothing from us. In fact, if life is a succession of random events, than any response to good fortune is superfluous.

Grace is different. In receiving grace, we are challenged to become channels of grace. This is more than a matter of a few good deeds (although those help); it is an invitation to place one's self in God's hands, and devote one's self toward what we perceive as God's ends.

Thanksgiving, then, is a call to action: a gentle poke to awaken our collective conscience from its postprandial slumber. To whom much is given, etc. etc.

In a county as religiously diverse as ours, we may never be able to express our gratitude in words that are acceptable to everyone. Fortunately, deeds work even better.

Jim Naughton is the editor of Episcopal Café.

An "alternative" province? Why not?

By George Clifford

Until two weeks ago, I strongly advocated the Anglican Communion refusing to establish a new province in North America and mandating that provinces cease violating provincial boundaries by conducting ministries or establishing congregations within the Episcopal Church’s jurisdiction.

Then I read that the Episcopal Church had spent in excess of $1.9 million in 2008 on lawsuits connected to the departure of parishes and dioceses from this Church. Daily I read about critical needs for healthcare, food, sanitation, and shelter in the United States and abroad. I see the spiritual illness and death that afflict so many. I remember that Anglicans have wisely never claimed to be the only branch of the Christian Church.

I started to wonder, Was I wrong? Why not another North American province?

Geographic boundaries, I realized, are not as sacrosanct as we who value tradition might wish they were. Within the Anglican Communion, geography has historically defined provinces and dioceses. The same is true of Anglican parishes in England, although not in most other provinces. Yet nowhere in Scripture can one find a God-given plan for the organization of parishes, dioceses, and provinces. Indeed, the whole concept of provinces seems extra-biblical. The geographic model for parishes and dioceses emerged naturally because of physical proximity, administrative practicality, and political identity.

Modern transport has invalidated the first of those three reasons why the Church adopted geographic boundaries to define parishes, dioceses, and provinces, i.e., so people could conveniently participate. The disestablishment of the Church, which characterizes most of the Anglican Communion, voided the second reason for geographic boundaries. The internet and development of online communities are diminishing the importance of political boundaries for defining ecclesial identity. All of these changes bring the Church closer to becoming more fully a seamless community of God's people.

The reality, as much as I or anyone else may not like it, is that geographical boundaries are no longer functionally definitive of Episcopalian identity. Four dioceses have already voted to disassociate themselves from the Episcopal Church and to associate with another Province. At least several dozen parishes have done the same. Numerous individuals have more quietly departed, often for a congregation that advertises itself as “Anglican.” In other words, the geographic model is irretrievably broken in the United States. Those who have left believe the divisions that were the catalyst for their move are too deep, too significant to permit dissidents to continue their Christian journeys within the Episcopal Church. One can no more coerce ecclesial unity than marital unity. Even as the Episcopal Church rightly recognizes its understanding of the Bible, theology, and ethics must change with the continuing unfolding of knowledge and moving of the Spirit, so should the Church be open to revising its thinking about ecclesial structures and polity.

A non-geographic model actually offers some advantages. In England, many communicants ignore parish boundaries to attend a parish that has the style of churchmanship or offers the programs the communicant desires. Latin American dioceses, for various reasons, have chosen to affiliate with the Episcopal Church. In the United States, parishes openly “compete” with one another, and with congregations of other Christian Churches, to attract communicants. This competition promotes quality programming, can better ministers to individual needs, and partially explains why Christianity flourishes more strongly in the U.S. than in England. Admittedly, like most things, ecclesial competition can have negative dimensions including promotion of ecclesial consumerism and clerical careerism at the expense of fidelity to the gospel.

Acknowledging the reality of multiple Anglican bodies within the geographic boundaries of the Episcopal Church would introduce refreshing notes of honesty and grace into the present turbulent controversy. This step might preserve Anglican unity by abandoning the dishonest hubris of insisting that the Episcopal Church is the only Anglican presence in the United States. Recognition of another Anglican province could provide an option for individuals, parishes, and dioceses to transfer, even as clergy now transfer from one province to another. A minority who wish to remain in the Episcopal Church but are part of a parish that wishes to transfer could establish a new parish or affiliate with an existing parish. Similarly, those in a diocese who wish who remain in the Episcopal Church after the diocese voted to realign could affiliate with an adjoining diocese that extends its borders or reconstitute the disassociated diocese.

My prognostication is that regardless of what the Episcopal Church may think or do, formal recognition by the Anglican Communion of a new province, perhaps co-terminus with the Episcopal Church or also including Canada, is inevitable. Alternatively, if that does not happen, then the Anglican Communion will persist in a state of denial, formally fracture, or authorize provinces to engage in extra-provincial ministries in the United States and perhaps elsewhere. Any new (or adapted) structure will launch with a brief surge, quickly plateau, and then linger, slowly losing relevance and impact. Those who wish to disengage from the Episcopal Church are wrong: gender does not determine suitability for ordination; gender orientation does not determine eligibility for receiving God's blessing of a faithful, monogamous relationship; etc. Truth, not error, will prevail.

Who – other than Anglicans (and only a minority of us) – cares about the structure of the Anglican Communion? Who else cares if the Episcopal Church is the sole Anglican body in the United States or if other provinces also function in the States? I honestly cannot think of any non-Anglicans who might care. Consequently, I recognized that my fighting about Anglican jurisdictional boundaries is a red herring that distracts me (and the larger Church) from the much more difficult task of the Church’s real mission, i.e., engaging in creative, life-transforming ministry. For the most part, whether a Christian belongs to the Episcopal Church, a different Anglican province, or another Church is relatively unimportant when millions are dying of physical needs and spiritual hunger. We must again move forward and cease waging an already-decided, rear-guard action.

The Rev. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He blogs at Ethical Musings.

Taking over the Church of England

By Adrian Worsfold

How does your GAFCON grow? We know that in North America it is via the New Province of North America in GAFCON. It is through separation and intended competition with the existing provinces, and some Evangelicals might try to use the possible Covenant to legitimize it and delegitimize The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada.

In England GAFCON grows via Evangelical organizations. Its strategy mimics that of what we know here as entryism. Back in the 1980s the Labour Party faced years of opposition. Its failures in government were laid at the door of its right wing by many of a socialist tendency. But the socialists themselves were failures, failure to take policy into the Labour Party when it was in power.

When Labour lost power in 1979 the socialists took their chance against the leadership, and the manifesto moved to the left; the result was a breakaway Social Democratic Party that later was to merge with the Liberals, a left-progressive but individualist party.

Some at the Marxist end of Labour wanted to go further, especially after Labour lost in 1983 with a manifesto that some called "the longest suicide note in history" - though Thatcher was parading around after winning the Falklands War. This Marxist end was known as Militant, which kept control of its own agenda, and infiltrated constituencies and impacted on policy organizations. It welcomed fellow travelers of other socialists; it hit back at the same who criticized its separate organizing. Militant took power in Liverpool, built lots of social housing, wrecked the budget and was removed from power by combinations of the government, law and the electorate.

Those who saw Labour as electable only if it reoccupied the centre ground again were forced to wrestle the party back from the socialists and Militant. They elected a moderate left leader (and right wing deputy leader). He somersaulted and stood on his head - regarding the ditching of his own past policies, and became unelectable himself, but his main effort was to remove Militant and move the party rightward. His replacement died, and then came Tony Blair, who moved the party well to the right of the SDP that had merged into the Liberals. It has taken the economic collapse to move it significantly and reluctantly leftward again.

There is a sort of equivalent battle for the life and soul of the Church of England now. One could say that the Church of England is a failed institution, attracting below 5% at best of the population into the pews on a regular basis. Other denominations barely double the figure. The last Archbishop that could speak for and to the nation would be William Temple just after the Second World War. Every one since has been something of a flop. Perhaps the worst was the Evangelical George Carey, said to be "Margaret Thatcher's revenge" after the Church prayed for both sides and not the victorious British after the Falkland's War.

Carey's Decade of Evangelism was a flop, and so the equivalent of Militant in the Church of England has been organizing. A tiny group of Conservative Evangelicals found their colleagues in the United States and saw a situation to exploit there, where the Episcopal Church has a stronger identity of inclusion. Conservative Evangelism also found ballast in some African provinces. It has used this to create a kind of international confessing Anglicanism that gives the grouping far more influence than it could have if reliant upon home numbers and theological argument. Members have organized themselves like another Militant Tendency in producing this GAFCON movement to oversee Conservative Evangelical developments. They have been helped by the stupidity of the present Anglican leadership in seeking to centralize the whole communion and shift coordinating power upwards as a way of containing differences; Rowan Williams, far from being the liberal the Militants feared, has shown his Catholic Church centralizing tendencies, and given internationalism a legitimacy that the dispersed Anglican Communion never had. This is why the Covenant should not be allowed to be born.

Why is GAFCON like Militant? Because a core group maintains control as a reaction to the failure of other Evangelicals to get their way in the wider Western Churches. It then infiltrates to force its agenda. Even at the Conference itself, that jumble of oddities called the Jerusalem Declaration was born in a back room - it was leaked even before the assembled could give it the rubber stamp. GAFCON itself was planned by annoying the local Anglicans in Jerusalem because of their opposition to its divisiveness.

In Britain came the entryism into one of the theological colleges and the scattering of much of its evangelical staff, replaced by hardliners and the agreeable. The same man, Chair of the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) has chaired the recent National Evangelical Anglican Consultation, in which, without notice, and without a right to amend, a pro-GAFCON motion was put to the meeting. The assembled would not have it, and refused to give it a vote. The result is that the CEEC will vote for it anyway on the spurious basis that it represents Evangelicals. Perhaps the CEEC once did, but as ever the hardliners continued to attend when others dropped away - it is how the entryists work.

Since then there had been blood on the floor. The Evangelicals are divided as never before. Yet perhaps they have been too charitable to those who seem to be of the same stock, and now see this.

It suits Militant types to have chaos. So longer as there is chaos, and division without, they have the control of the actual working agenda and can force it through as the only working show in town.

Like Militant these are entryists. Why? Here are the words of one of them at the NEAC 5:

"We will keep formal administrative links with the formal Church of England, but our real identity is with Global Anglicanism as defined by the Jerusalem statement and declaration. GAFCON is our connection to the Global Anglican Communion."

In other words, like the separatists of North America, these people will use the property, parishes, institutions as they can exploit them, whilst running the show for themselves. They will never let in those who are unreliable. These include other Evangelicals.

Since the NEAC the same speaker has questioned the legitimacy of one of the Evangelical groupings, but well before this the same Chair of the meeting had identified Liberal Evangelicals as stooges of Liberals proper.

It is imperative, for the good of the dispersed Anglican Communion, that the new Province of GAFCON - and it will be only the first - is not recognized as part of the Anglican Communion. The Militants want that as a wedge into the system. Some more foolish of the Open Evangelicals, desperate for a Covenant to work (there'll be egg on their faces over its failure), would 'bring in' the new Province via the Covenant. GAFCON would in turn use this, even though it regards the Covenant as useless (not confessing and toothless). It is rumored that the present Archbishop of Canterbury invited Bishop Robert Duncan to make an application for Communion membership, and he has said there can be few criticisms of the Jerusalem Declaration doctrinally (but he criticized a different centre of authority). This Archbishop also wrote the disgraceful Advent Letter of 2007 that endorsed Conservative Evangelical biblical interpretation as a means of Anglican Church by Church recognition.

In other words, Lambeth Palace hasn't 'got it' - it cannot see entryism if it came with marching bands and large banners. Well let's not be surprised about this: the present incumbent occupies another failure at the centre.

Labour recovered itself, and its internal peace, not by Militant taking it over part by part, but by ejecting it and excluding it. This is what is needed: let the separatists be really separate, to live on its own resources and not parasitically, and root it out. It might not sound Evangelical, it might not even sound very Christian, but it might be necessary all the same.

Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.

Ascetical Theology 101

By Derek Olsen

Introduction

A little bit ago The Lead pointed to a great speech given by a Roman Catholic Benedictine abbot on climate change and sustainability. To summarize, he championed a return to the roots of our moral theology. The only way to combat the environmental woes that assail us, he insists, is to return to the practice of the virtues that Christianity has always promoted.

Say what?

What virtues would those be—and what have we “always” said about them? What the heck is this “moral theology” thing anyway, and is it something that we Anglican types do too?

Moral theology is indeed an important part of the Anglican way, but we haven’t always called it that—nor communicated it clearly. So, in case you were out that day in catechism class (or skipped catechism class altogether) here’s a quick refresher on moral theology—what it isn’t, what it is, and how we do it…

There Are Several Kinds of Theology

Most of us know about theology. It’s usually complicated and boring. Not only is it complicated and boring but all too often it’s speculative too. That is, you can spend your whole life doing it and have no idea if you’re even in the ballpark or not. And that’s no fun.

Let me challenge this notion a bit with the notion that there are different fields within the over-all category of “theology”—and that the category as a whole does get a bad rap. Three fields that I want to focus on are systematic theology, moral theology, and ascetical theology.

Most of the time when people think (nasty thoughts) about theology, they’re thinking of systematic theology. This is the discipline that, according to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, “investigate[s] the contents of belief by means of reason enlightened by faith and to promote its deeper understanding.” Or, as I call it, thinking about Christian thoughts. This is the field that explores the Christian doctrine of God, tries to wrap its head around the notion of the Trinity, and deals with the theoretical links between God and creation—especially us humans. It can indeed get very complicated and very speculative. While I confess to finding parts of it boring, thankfully others don’t—because it does have an important role in our faith.

If the Christian faith is about a relationship between us and God—which I believe it is—then systematic theology asks: what are the contours of that relationship and who and what are we in relationship with?

Systematic theology is about the thoughts we think and how they ground our relationships with God.

Moral theology, on the other hand, while it interacts with some of the concepts used in systematic theology has a very different starting place and ending place. Moral theology focuses on human action—why we do what we do and the theological logic that grounds it. If the Christian faith is about a relationship between us and God, then moral theology asks: in light of that relationship, what actions should humans do or not do? In some times and places, moral theology has taken a turn towards legalism—prescribing what we ought and oughtn’t do—and many Christians including Anglicans have often shied away from these developments and have tended more towards the roots of moral theology which are found in ascetical theology. Ascetical theology and moral theology share quite a bit of common ground and the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably—but I think it’s worth teasing out a difference in order to see ascetical theology more clearly.

It’s actually this latter field of theology that Anglicans have typically embraced. Its roots are in the monastic theology that grounds our liturgies and prayer books. If the Christian faith is about a relationship between us and God, then ascetical theology asks: what habits can we cultivate to nurture that relationship?

So while thoughts are involved, ascetical theology isn’t fundamentally about thinking and while deeds are involved it’s not fundamentally about specific acts either—it’s about our habits: how we think, how we feel, and ultimately how we behave towards all of the players in the relationship—God and our neighbors (which includes the whole of creation…).

Because it’s about habits it tends to be less speculative than systematic theology; because it’s about habits it tends to be less legalistic than moral theology. The flip side, though, is that it requires not just thought or isolated actions but real transformation of our habits and that makes it much more challenging and more personally risky.

Ascetical Theology Starts with Sin

Christian ascetical theology really does begin with Jesus and Paul but was expanded upon, systematized, and field-tested in the harsh laboratory of the Egyptian desert. The early monastic movement took quite seriously the notion of embodying the demands of Scripture and worked hard at the practical science of Christian perfection—in so far as that’s possible. The basis of ascetical theology, then, comes from these monastic roots particularly as systematized by John Cassian and others.

The monastic teachers inevitably started with sin. That is, if we go back to our definition of ascetical theology—what habits nurture the relationship with God and neighbor—the monastics found that it was much easier to identify the negatives—those habits that prevent us from nurturing a mature relationship with God and neighbor. Assisted by good things that they learned from Greco-Roman Stoic philosophy (after all, we Christians didn’t invent the notion of healthy relationships…), the monastics found that the great majority of the countless ways that we injure ourselves and each other can be classified under eight broad headings which they called the principal vices:

• Gluttony
• Lust
• Covetousness
• Anger (used as a technical term for an attitude—not a feeling)
• Sorrow (ditto)
• Acedia (an anxiety or weariness of the heart)
• Vainglory
• Pride

(Another way of grouping them is the Seven Deadly Sins which bundles Sorrow and Acedia together into “Sloth”)

Remember, these are broad headings that describe the ways that we distort our relationships. Just because “Lust” makes the list doesn’t mean that these can be rejected with a dismissory, “Oh, he thinks sex is bad—we’ve moved beyond that now…” Rather we need to recognize that the ways that we use and express our sexuality can and do damage relationships—just as how we consume can, or how we think about and act towards other people can.

We’ve All Got a Favorite

All of us participate in all of these vices to one degree or another. And, many of these tend to interconnect with one another. However, the monastics discovered that most people tend to favor one or two of these more than the others. You have to deal with them all sooner or later, but you’ve got to tackle the big ones first—and “the big ones” are different for each one of us. I’d suggest—returning to the abbot’s speech that touched this whole thing off—that societies are no different. While we can think of a whole host of ways that Western society enacts each these eight vices, I’d suggest that the one that is presently most lethal is gluttony.

The Western way of life is consuming ourselves to death—and we’re taking the rest of the world with us, too.

But There’s a Fix

Thankfully the monastic experimenters didn’t just identify and classify problems, they worked on solutions too. After identifying the habits that get us into trouble, they studied those habits that can counteract these destructive tendencies. These are the principle virtues:

• Temperance
• Chastity
• Prudence
• Justice
• Fortitude
• Faith
• Hope
• Love

Just as the vices are interrelated and are broad categories for a host of acts, the same is true of the virtues. The monastics taught that to grow in one virtue was to grow in all of them since all of them point to and are wrapped up in love. Love is the sum of the virtues.

Sometimes specific virtues can be used to counter certain vices. For instance, temperance can directly oppose gluttony—but this rarely succeeds if we attempt the virtue by itself. Love is the sum of the virtues, and if we find that we are enacting one of the virtues in a way that doesn’t exhibit the others and that doesn’t ultimately lead us into love, chances are we’ve figured out another way to call vice virtue! Temperance without justice, without hope, without love, may not be temperance at all but repression masquerading as virtue.

We need to cultivate temperance on a societal level, but to do it without justice, hope, and love would be to make our problems simply different and not better.

We’re Not Alone Either

By this time the little Lutheran who lives in my brain is jumping up and down, waving his hands wildly, shouting “What about grace! Isn’t this just works-righteousness by another name!”

Thankfully, no—it’s not. The monastics insisted that no part of this process of transformation can occur apart from God and apart from God’s grace. After all, this isn’t about self-improvement, it’s about relationship-improvement and the One to whom we relate wants this to work out even more than we do. God’s grace begins, assists, and completes the process, but there’s still a role for us to play too. In one memorable part of John Cassian’s writings a student asks that if God begins and ends it, what’s left for us to do? The older monk gently corrects him with the wry remark that things with beginning and ends have middles too—and that’s where we come in. God offers us grace but we have to recognize and accept it too. God constantly offers us ways to improve our relationships with him, with our neighbors, with the whole creation—but we’ve got to take him up on it.

We’re not saved by cultivating virtue, by forming holy habits. We’re saved by God’s free gift of grace. But God invites us to improve the relationship, not to just let it lie. That’s the point of ascetical theology—to help us form the holy habits that make the relationship deeper, stronger, and more dear.

Holy habits are the habits that build love, that build compassion, that build respect. And those are the qualities that we need as individuals and as societies if we expect to make a difference in our world. Climate change, sustainability—those are just pieces of a much larger mess that we’ve all participated in creating. Just as the Abbot of Worth suggests, maybe these habits are what we have to offer the world.

So ascetical theology really is an Anglican thing to do. It may even be an American thing to do… But deeper than that, it’s the Christian thing to do—to respond to the grace that God freely offers. To take our relationships with both hands and to do the hard work of embracing holy habits.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

God's treasure

By Greg Jones

Jesus teaches in the parable of the talents that all people are blessed by God with some of His treasure. That we have all been blessed with something which belongs to God. That we have all been entrusted to care for what is God's in us.

Because God isn't looking for a creation of puppets, whose every action God controls. God isn't looking for robots, created to do exactly what God says. No, God has created a universe and from it He is working to build a household of members who do, who act, who unleash God's blessings they have stored within. Each according to ability.

Yes, Jesus teaches that when we do something faithful with what is God's (entrusted to us) it makes God rejoice and it makes us bigger. When we put God's treasure to work for God's purposes it transforms the creation, and we grow from strength to strength.

Yes, it's important to really hear Jesus' words - notice that the rich man does not give the slaves anything. He's not giving them his treasure, in some inequitable, deterministic or arbitrary distribution of who gets to keep more. No he's entrusting it to them, so they may steward it, care for it, work it -- do something with it on his behalf according to ability to do so.

The reward for faithful service is the same for all regardless of the amount they 'produce' for the Lord. The reward is to enter into joy, and to grow and grow in so doing.

In the same way, what treasure you and I possess if it is of God at all, if it is good, true, and faithful, is not ours to own, but rather ours to take care of on behalf of God.

God didn't have to - because he chose it in love, he poured himself into nothingness and created the world. And up we rose. He poured out a creation from Himself. In utter and total self-giving, God created the universe, and has entrusted us to do similar works of creation and self-giving according to our own ability and relative size.

We can't make something out of nothing. But we can make something of God's grace if we choose. The parable of the talents teaches that we can take what treasure God has freely offered us to tend and make something happen.

Or, as the parable teaches, we can also bury God's free will offering. We can hide God's grace inside lives of fear and self-concern and anxiety. We can and are free to shrink, and reduce, and ultimately even disappear. We can hold on so hard to our private resources that the tightness of our grip strangles our very soul. Yes, we can ... do nothing.

But, we don't have to. Christ's parable of the talents says that God is infinitely full of free will offering (of love, of grace, of blessing) and if we do likewise and pour out in faith what we've been entrusted with, there will be more to come.

Jesus teaches that if our cup of blessing is full, and we pour it out, it will be filled again. Likewise, if our cup of blessing feels dry, and we hold it out in faith, the members of Christ's body are called in faith to fill it in encouragement and mutual edification.

Yes, Christ is the free-will offering of a God who rejoices when we share as he shares, when we love as he loves, when we make something good happen from what he has trusted us with.

Enter into the joy of your Lord - do something with God's treasure that is in you.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ('Greg') is rector of St. Michael's in Raleigh, N.C. A husband and father, Jones is also the author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004), and the bass player in indie-rock band The Balsa Gliders - whose fourth studio release is available on iTunes. Jones is a graduate of Sidwell Friends School, the University of North Carolina, and General Theological Seminary - where he serves as a General Convention-elected trustee. He blogs at fatherjones.com.

The passion of the Holy Land

By John Bryson Chane

Karen and I recently returned from a 10-day journey to Palestine, Jordan and Israel. This trip was not your usual pilgrimage to the Holy Land but rather an opportunity to spend time with the new Episcopal Bishop of Jerusalem, Suheil Dawani, whose diocese spans Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Syria and Palestine. I can assure you that what I saw, heard and experienced has brought me to a place where I can no longer sit back and assume that in time all will be well in that troubled part of the world.

Looking back for a moment: In 2003 I joined Jim Wallis of Sojourners, two Anglican primates, five Church of England bishops and leaders from four mainline Christian denominations in the U.S. to meet with then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, and urge him not to support the U.S. effort to undertake a pre-emptive military strike against Iraq. We urged patience, the use of soft power and the further support of high level diplomatic talks. We were not successful. But the Prime Minister begged us to return to the U.S. and urge the President to move forward aggressively with the Road Map for Peace, an effort to solve the Israeli Palestinian conflict. All of us agreed that without solving this conflict, the Middle East would forever be a seething caldron of war and discontent and would also be a breeding ground for the growing forces of indiscriminate global terrorism. Upon our return the President refused to meet with this broad, representative religious community to discuss the Road Map and the rest is a history that we are living with today.

We as a nation pride ourselves on being a great democracy, a “city built on a hill.” And we generally focus on several key ingredients that define a democracy: living by the rule of law and respecting and upholding human rights, especially the right to worship as one chooses. The current condition of Palestinian Christians that I observed in the Diocese of Jerusalem makes me question whether we as a nation are holding Israel, our trusted, democratic ally in the Middle East accountable to these standards.

The West Bank, as occupied Palestinian territory, continues to experience the illegal building of Israeli settler housing. Almost 1,000 new units are being built in Maale Adumim, a settlement in the hills just East of Jerusalem. In Giv’at Ze’ev, another one of the settlements that rings Jerusalem, a new 750-unit building project has been approved. Requests are on the table with the Israeli government to build 350 new homes in Beitar Illit very near Jerusalem. Literally hundreds of new homes are being added to existing settlements in the West Bank; all illegal, all on occupied, Palestinian land, and all built while the Israeli Government casts a blind eye. These settler houses are distinguished by their sturdy construction, red-tiled roofs, manicured lawns and suburban feel that resembles a California housing sprawl. As one drives between Jerusalem and Jericho, huge apartment complexes can be seen, rising high on a hill in occupied land, a painful reminder of broken promises. These settler houses and apartment buildings, constructed by Israel on occupied land, are a violation of international law. The 1907 Hague Convention clearly states that an occupying power may expropriate land only for the public use of the occupied population. Taking West Bank land indiscriminately, as Israel has done, is a clear violation of international law. I ask the question: Is this the behavior of a democracy that lives by and cherishes the rule of law?

Karen and I visited the land owned by Daoud Nassar and his family; more than 100 acres that have been in his family since 1916 when purchased by deed from the Ottoman Empire. The Nassar family has legal right and claim to the property located about 6 miles southeast of Bethlehem in Palestinian occupied territory. It is now in the middle of an area that in 1991 was declared by the Israeli Government as state property. A large illegal Israeli settlement less than 1,000 yards away has emboldened Israeli settlers to come onto the Nassars’ property brandishing rifles and shotguns, firing them and threatening the owners with death if they do not move out. Settler bulldozers have plowed a road through a portion of the Nassars’ olive grove, and have blocked the only road that gives entrance to their house and property with huge boulders. And with the support of the Israeli authorities the settlers have prevented the Nassars from being able to drill wells for water, or connect to available electricity. The settlers say the land is theirs because God gave it to them, and not to the Palestinians. Known as The Tent of Nations, the Nassars’ small farm is a now a center where pilgrims gather to support the family in their quest to end Israeli harassment and the daily threat of a land grab. After spending time at the Tent of Nations and hearing the story of abuse and constant harassment over property that is legally owned and deeded, I ask the question: Is this the behavior of a democracy that lives by and cherishes the rule of law?

While visiting Gaza, on an Israeli permit issued to the Bishop of Jerusalem, I was exposed to a Palestinian territory cordoned off like a prison for those who live there. I have visited many countries in Africa and Latin America steeped in poverty. Gaza is equal to them all. Donkey carts now are beginning to outnumber motor vehicles, as gasoline and diesel fuel is rationed by Israel through the Hamas government to 10 liters by permit every two weeks. Our Episcopal Hospital in Gaza is short of medicines because of Israeli prohibitions, and the hospital can only operate on electricity for eight hours a day because of shortages. I celebrated the Eucharist in a church next to the hospital that still has a gaping hole in the roof left by an Israeli rocket that exploded in front of the altar and left the interior strewn with lathing and plaster. In my protest to the Israeli embassy I was informed it was an unfortunate accident of war. There would be no compensation for damages. The hospital administrator informed me that last year eight patients from the hospital waiting to cross from Hamas-controlled Gaza into Israel for emergency medical care died while waiting for clearance to cross the border to Israel for treatment. I ask the question: Is this the behavior of a democracy that lives by upholding and cherishing human rights?

If you are a non-Jerusalemite Palestinian Christian wishing to enter East Jerusalem for religious worship or pilgrimage, you must have a permit and those permits are difficult to get. Because of these prohibitions, 3 million Christian and Muslim Palestinians are being denied rightful access to their holy sites in Jerusalem, even during religious holidays. Because of restrictions and the obscenity of the separation wall which encloses it, Bethlehem has become a ghost town, with shops and businesses shuttering their doors and with religious pilgrims from other countries the majority of those who walk the streets and eat in the restaurants. I ask the question: Is this the behavior of a democracy that lives by protecting and upholding religious freedom and the right to worship as one pleases?

I am appalled that the Palestinian political movements of Fatah and Hamas play off against each other at the expense of the Palestinian people and their welfare. Their power struggle to control so much of so little is shortsighted and certainly not the way to raise up and strengthen political leadership in order for Palestine to be an active player in negotiating a fair, two-state peace settlement with Israel. The fracturing of Palestinian political leadership and the failure of the U.S. to work with Israel in brokering a two state solution, claiming Jerusalem as a shared holy city for Jews, Christians and Muslims and supporting land swaps for the Palestinians in places where illegal settlers have moved is a moral failure.

Jews, Christians and Muslims have the moral obligation to denounce violence as a solution to any and all disputes between Israel and Palestine. No one has the right to take the life of another in the name of God, and no one has the right to take another person’s land in the name of God. Palestine must have the right to be established as an independent state in possession of territory contiguous with Israel. And Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state contiguous with Palestine. Israel must return to the 1967 borders established by the United Nations with appropriate compensational territory granted to Palestine for land not returned to Palestine in the peace agreement for reasons acceptable to both parties. The holy city of Jerusalem must be a shared holy city for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Anything less violates the ancient traditions of these three Abrahamic faiths and violates their histories as contained in their holy books.

Politicians seeking the highest office in the land who wait on the results of our Nov. 4 presidential election must have the courage not just to speak out in their unequivocal support of Israel, but must also speak out and condemn violations of human rights and religious freedom denied to Palestinian Christians and Muslims.

I support with conviction the right of Israel to exist as a free state, unencumbered by indiscriminant violence and the threat of attack engendered by those who would wish to do her harm. But I am appalled that there has been little or no discussion by presidential candidates about the devastation of the Palestinian economy as a result of Israel’s construction of the security wall. I, as a Christian, am unwilling to remain silent as Palestinians are humiliated, their human rights are violated, their lands are taken from them and they are forced to immigrate to other countries because they feel that they and their children have no future in their ancient homeland. Faithful Jews, Christians and Muslims who do not speak out on these unacceptable circumstances are guilty of the greatest crime of all – the crime of silence! The same is true of our political leaders.

I am reminded of the ominous reflection contained in Jesus’ parable about the landowner and the vineyard. “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the Kingdom. The one who falls on the stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

The Rt. Rev. John Bryson Chane is the Bishop of Washington.

Homecoming Sunday

By Kathy Staudt

For my church’s 50th anniversary celebration we held a “homecoming” party recently, inviting back former clergy and active members who had moved away, for an evening of food, wine and mingling, a wonderful slide show of our history, a hymn-sing and some remarks from former clergy. The program for the evening was deliberately loose and simple. The point was to come together and to enjoy seeing one another again.

And the evening was full of the usual family-reunion exclamations: “How are you! Look at you! How you’ve grown! You haven’t changed! Wow! Here you are! Here we are! And, since this was across generations: “If only x (not here) could see us now! I really want you to meet x! It’s hard to believe you’ve never met, you’ve both been so important to me!” And of course, the greeting heard most commonly, that evening “It is so good to see you!”

“It is good to see you!” The experience of being together belongs to something that goes even deeper than the conversational details of questions like “How has your week been?” “What are the children up to?” “How’s work/what do you do for a living?” Even without specific personal information, there is something holy about the presence we are for each other when we gather for church. The familiar faces, and companions in worship, tell us something about who we are and what we belong to. I believe it is our way of expressing and experiencing a growing culture of ubuntu that concept that has been held up as a model in our conversations about the Anglican Communion. Ubuntu is the awareness, essential to African culture, that “I am because we are.” In his book God Has a Dream, Archbishop Tutu writes, “The first law of our being is that we are set in a delicate network of interdependence with our fellow human beings and with the rest of God’s creation. . . ubuntu is “the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and inextricably bound up in yours.” (God Has a Dream, p. 25)

“It is good to see you” It is good to be together, because each of us is shaped by what the other brings. Ubuntu, I have come to believe, is an experience, rather than a theological concept; I have learned most about it simply by worshiping with people from various parts of Africa, who make up a large proportion of our congregation now though we started life, 50 years ago, as a suburban “white-flight” congregation like many others in the suburban DC area. At our festival celebration, Bishop John Chane described our congregation today as “ the face of the Anglican Communion,” and this rings true. The welcome we gave each other at our homecoming weekend stretched across generations, cultures and races, reflecting the increasingly multicultural history of this congregation and of the larger church we belong to. It reminded me, repeatedly, about God’s dream for us and who we are called to be as church, both locally and internationally.

“It is so good to see you!” When we say the to each other on Sundays, or at a reunion, we are not just making conversation. “I see you” is in fact an African greeting. To see each other, gathered for church, is to see who we are in God’s presence. We sing together, with great enthusiasm and expressiveness; we gather at the altar, and we recognize in these experiences glimpses of who God calls us to be as a human family. Even though there is little we fully agree on, even though we have our conflicts, anxieties, financial issues and prejudices, there is at the heart of our common life an awareness that being together has shaped us, each of us and all of us, in our journey with God We are learning, slowly, that church is about welcoming one another and being transformed, sometimes radically, by each other’s experience. We are learning that what draws us together, in song and prayer, worship and common mission, is greater than the differences between us.

“This is what heaven will be like!” one old friend remarked, as more and more familiar faces appeared at the homecoming party. But even more moving for me was the simple joy of being together at this event. It offered a glimpse of how we live into the Dream of God in this life. At the hymn-sing, full of old favorites, we sang the truth about ourselves in God’s eyes: “O God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come,” we sang. “Come, we that love the Lord, and let our joys be known,” we sang -- “we’re marching through Emmanuel’s ground. . , to” the beautiful city of God.” We’re not there yet, but we are on the journey together, and we continue to grow from being together. It is good to celebrate that, each Sunday, as at our home-coming -- good to be together, Good to see everyone again!

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt (Kathy) keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

Lost in the supermarket

By Lauren R. Stanley

SPRINGFIELD, Va. – Grocery stores in this country are incredibly amazing places; really, they are. They’re light and airy and spacious and have literally tens of thousands of items for sale.

But they’re also incredibly scary places. They’re light and airy and spacious and have literally tens of thousands of items for sale. Which makes them very scary indeed for those of us who don’t have regular access to them.

So I have this love-fear relationship with grocery stores. I love to go to them and see all the wondrous items they have: fresh meat, fruit, vegetables, cereal, teas, coffees (oh, the smell of the coffee aisle!). But I fear going there, too, because they overwhelm me: Why do we need all those varieties of cereal? Where, pray tell, is the tea? And how can I possibly choose from all the varieties of apples?

I’ve just come back from three months in Sudan, living in a small town called Renk. It’s growing rapidly, with the return of thousands of Internally Displaced Persons, but it has very little in the way of food, especially fresh vegetables and fruits. There’s running water on a sporadic basis only, and it’s not clean. Electricity generally comes from generators for a few hours at a time. The roads are dirt, most homes are mud huts, most roofs are thatch. Life there is very, very basic.

So whenever I return to the United States, I find American grocery stores pretty overwhelming. There are simply too many choices and it takes time for me to adjust. I waited five days after my return before going to the store. I used up the last of my travel toiletries: toothpaste, shampoo, soap, baby oil, ear swabs. Much as I wanted to resupply, I couldn’t bring myself to face the complete overload that I knew awaited me there.

But then my little tube of toothpaste, which was turning a tad bit … um … yucky from all the heat in Sudan … began to flatten ominously. So I finally had to give in and face the great boogieman, the American grocery store.

The store I went to recently underwent a renovation, making it even bigger, even brighter, even more spacious. And it had even more items to sell than before. Just looking at all the fresh produce made my head swim. Apples! Oh, my, nice crisp apples, such a difference from the mushy ones in Renk. Bananas! Look how big they are! Five, six, seven kinds of lettuce … what a change from jejeer, the bitter greens we eat. Only the tomatoes didn’t faze me; we have a tomato farm on an island in the White Nile, so fresh, beautiful tomatoes, up to six per day, are a norm in my life.

Then I saw the cereal aisle … how in God’s name can we have so many varieties? Why? (Note: All those choices didn’t stop me from buying a box …)

And on and on, up some aisles, skipping others. Buying only those things I thought I needed, trying not looking at all the options. Every once in a while, I’d forget to keep my eyes averted and would see rows upon rows of pastas, or canned soups, or soaps, and I’d feel a moment of almost panic. Then I’d remember my list, pick one item, go find it, and move on.

Whenever I try to explain American grocery stores to my friends in Sudan, they don’t understand. They think I’m making it up. I’ve shown them pictures, even, but still, they can’t believe that Americans would have so much food in just one place, with so many choices to make. I have this dream of bringing a bunch of my friends to America just so I can take them on a tour of our grocery stores. It would be great fun to see their reactions, but then again, I’m worried that even one quick trip to the store might overwhelm them completely.

We are blessed in this country with an abundance, an overabundance, of goods. We have more choices than we can possibly need, more than we even can handle. In reality, we have too much. I know that by the end of my three months here, I’ll be fully adapted to all this abundance. Then I’ll go back to Sudan for another three months, and when I return next summer, I’ll have to work out this whole love-fear relationship all over again.

My prayer is that one day, I won’t have to do through this anymore, not because we have any less here, but because one day, there will be at least a modicum of abundance in Sudan as well.

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an Appointed Missionary of the Episcopal Church serving in the Diocese of Renk, Sudan. She is a lecturer at the Renk Theological College, teaching Theology, Greek, Old Testament and English, and serves as chaplain for the students.

Wisdom and Hilda of Whitby

By Greg Jones

The concept of God's wisdom in late Jewish and early Christian Scripture is one with feminine overtones: the female name Sophia actually comes from the Greek word for wisdom. Similarly, Gloria is both a female name and a Latin word meaning the shining light of God's presence. This resonates with me, as a son whose mother it was taught him about the Gospel, and brought me to church faithfully each Sunday at St. Columba's in the mid-1970's.

To me there is something indeed "feminine" about the Spirit of God - as well as an obviously maternal dimension to the ever-abiding, ever-caring, ever-comforting presence of the God who gives us both first and second birth. This is what I teach to my parishioners, my friends, and my youngsters. This is what I will teach my daughters.

Importantly, I teach this not merely because it is my personal preference theologically, but because it is a part of the full Christian tradition, and rooted in the Scriptures themselves.

Consider the following verse from Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-25: "There is in [Wisdom] a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle. For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things. For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty."

I am reminded thus of the example of Saint Hilda of Whitby, whose feast day is November 18. She is the 7th century abbess in whose monastery was held the famous Synod of Whitby. For many Anglicans, the Celtic period ends in our tradition around the time of the Synod of Whitby. Hilda assented to the decision of the Synod of Whitby that Roman forms should replace Celtic ones, despite her Celtic Christian background. Her faith and wisdom guided her to make a compromise for the sake of the maximum degree of unity in the Christian household.

Bede writes that Hilda was deeply and widely revered for her wisdom and care for her own flock. He writes: "So great was her prudence that not only ordinary folk, but kings and princes used to come and ask her advice in their difficulties and take it. Those under her direction were required to make a thorough study of the Scriptures and occupy themselves in good works."

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ('Greg') is rector of St. Michael's in Raleigh, N.C. A husband and father, Jones is also the author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004), and the bass player in indie-rock band The Balsa Gliders - whose fourth studio release is available on iTunes. Jones is a graduate of Sidwell Friends School, the University of North Carolina, and General Theological Seminary - where he serves as a General Convention-elected trustee. He blogs at fatherjones.com.

Prayer in a time of anxiety

By R. William Carroll

It’s no secret that these are troubling times. I’ve found myself talking, writing, and preaching a great deal about how we might be faithful in such times by what we do. In an editorial for the Covenant Journal, I found myself urging both political engagement that serves the common good and conscientious stewardship of finances:

If you belong to a congregation like ours, you are probably facing some difficult budget choices as you enter a season dedicated to financial stewardship. As an outsider to your congregations, I would urge those of you who can to consider giving more. There will be anxious people who tighten their fists, and there will be others who need to trim back on charitable giving of all kinds in precisely the hour when it is needed most.

In the congregation I serve, my own stewardship sermon relied heavily on the Convention address of Thomas Breidenthal, the ninth bishop of Southern Ohio, one of the best sermons I have ever heard. You can download a copy of it here. In that sermon, Bishop Tom reminded us that it was at the time of the Great Depression, that Bishop Hobson, the third bishop of our diocese, established the Forward Movement and that he did so as a way for those in the grip of poverty and despair to begin moving forward together, day by day. He also reminded us that it was in the aftermath of the Second World War, with Europe on the brink of starvation, that our diocese helped establish the fund that became the Presiding Bishop’s fund for World Relief, now known as Episcopal Relief and Development. He also used an image that I found quite compelling. He told us that we are called to be like trees at a time of drought: to sink our roots deeper (in prayer) and spread our branches further (in service).

Having already tended to the branches in several different contexts, I would now like to turn to the roots. I do so in precisely the same spirit as my earlier calls to action. For Christians, action is always rooted in prayer. The heart of this prayer, of course, is corporate worship, above all the Eucharist, in which through the Church’s Spirit-graced act of giving thanks, the Lord Jesus gives himself to us anew and draws us ever more deeply into his dying and rising. It is here, above all, that we become rooted in the vine, so that the branches might bear fruit. It is here, above, all that we find strength to expend ourselves for our neighbor, because Jesus, in his Body and Blood, has given himself for us.

But it is also necessary in times like these, to clear space for personal devotion, both in the context of the community’s celebration and in private. We need to ask for God’s help for ourselves and intercede for the needs of others. There is a danger here, however, because this praying can become just another form of action. We also need to sit still and listen for God. We need to empty ourselves of the many thoughts, to let go of the many distractions, and pay attention to the still, small voice of God.

One reason we are so anxious is that the problems we confront are bigger than we are. There is no obvious place to begin. If we thought too much about the challenges that face our country and the world right now, we would find ourselves overwhelmed and unable to act. The problem with prayers of petition and intercession is that they lie far too close to action. When we pray like this, we are in danger of asking God to help us with our priorities rather than asking how we might get in on God’s.

In true prayer, our roots need to go deeper, or we will never find the living water for our desert journey. We will not find the serene joy and power to face the difficulties of the present moment with confidence. Nor will we even know what to ask for. To intercede effectively, we need to do so from a posture of listening for God—of radical availability to the Holy Spirit. We need to break in to the heavenly throne room, in a way that’s only possible if we relax in God’s bosom and discover how deeply and completely we are loved.

Another reason we may be anxious is that the present crisis is unveiling to us the depth of brokenness in so much that we formerly took for granted. Above all, it is revealing our own brokenness, poverty, and finitude. Only in the near presence of God and in the light of God’s countenance can we face the mess we have made of our lives without shame or fear. The contemplative tradition, with its insistence that we listen to God with no expectation for how God will answer, has much to say to us in times like these.

For Christians, contemplation is never an end in itself. It is meant to serve love. Centering prayer, to name one form this tradition takes on the contemporary scene, must never become “self-centering prayer.” But to rush to action, or even to petition, without taking time to hear God’s painful silences and bask in God’s loving presence, is just as dangerous as a contemplation that turns in on itself. In paying attention to our relationship with God our Creator, we receive guidance and renewal for times like these. More than that, however, we also receive the greatest gift of all, quiet confidence that our Being is not in the end our achievement but instead a gift from God’s most generous hands.

Friends and family may let us down. We can lose our job, our home, and even our life. Even our young and gifted president-elect, in whom so many of us have placed our trust and hope (pray for him!), can and will disappoint us. But still the love of God abides.

The Rev. R. William Carroll serves as rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio (Diocese of Southern Ohio). He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He co-edits The Covenant Journal with Lane Denson, and his sermons appear on his parish blog.

Blue Christmas--reprise

This essay by Ann Fontaine originally appeared on the Café last December, early enough for us to note the growth of "Blue Christmas" ministries, but not early enough for our readers to consider whether their parishes should offer such a service. We are re-publishing it now so that the idea will be fresh in people's minds as Advent approaches.

By Ann Fontaine

Cries of “Merry Christmas!” and non-stop caroling contrast with the feelings of many people at this time of year. For those suffering from the recent or impending death of loved ones and for those whose families are in crisis, it can be a very isolated and dreary time. Every greeting and every song reminds the grief-stricken of how unhappy life is at this moment.

Many churches have begun to recognize that Festivals of Lessons and Carols, celebrations of Christmas, and children’s pageants do not meet everyone’s needs. To fill this gap churches offer a Blue Christmas service, a Service of Solace or Longest Night. People who are not having a very merry Christmas and friends who support them are invited to come and sit with one another in a liturgy that speaks of the love of God for the grieving.

Many of the worshipers who gathered for our Service of Solace at St. John’s in Jackson Hole, Wyoming during the week before Christmas did not have a church home. Christmas vacationers who came to ski or snowmobile were attracted to the silence and space apart from their days on the mountain. We offered a variety of music and silence interspersed with readings from Scripture and prayers of solace and hope. Each person was encouraged to bring readings to share, photos or objects of remembrance

Sitting together in the warm log church in the midst of the deep star spangled dark of the Rocky Mountains we gained a greater knowledge of the One who loves us in sorrow and joy. We learned that even strangers can share life and love. We discovered we are not alone.

A closing prayer from Ted Loder, Guerillas of Grace:

O God of all seasons and senses, grant us the sense of your timing to submit gracefully and rejoice quietly in the turn of the seasons.

In this season of short days and long nights,
of grey and white and cold,
teach us the lessons of endings;
children growing, friends leaving, loved ones dying,
grieving over,
grudges over,
blaming over,
excuses over.

O God, grant us a sense of your timing.
In this season of short days and long nights,
of grey and white and cold,
teach us the lessons of beginnings;
that such waitings and endings may be the starting place,
a planting of seeds which bring to birth what is ready to be born—
something right and just and different,
a new song, a deeper relationship, a fuller love—
in the fullness of your time.

O God, grant us the sense of your timing.


Liturgies for a Service of Solace, Longest Night or Blue Christmas can be found at The Text This Week.

An example of a liturgy and a story of the experience is here at The Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Kaeton's blog.

Compassionate Friends is a resource for those whose children (of any age) have died.

Many hospice organizations offer bereavement groups at all times of the year.

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps the what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

Can private virtue be public vice?

By Sam Todd

My parents were very difficult to shop for at Christmas. They already had everything they wanted, let alone needed. My wife and I now find ourselves in the same situation. We are not the consumers department stores were hoping for this Christmas.

A lot of other consumers are not either. ‘“Consumers have thrown in the towel” commented Nariman Behravesh, chief economist, at HIS Global Insight, on the 3.1 percent drop in consumer spending between July and September, the first period of decline in 17 years’ (Newsweek, 11/10/08, p. 25). In previous economic slow downs the American consumer was the hero; he kept on spending even when businesses were cutting down on investment and hiring. But our hero used up his savings and then some. “The personal savings rate dropped from 11 percent in 1982 to almost zero by 2005. … By 2006, household debt was 134 percent of personal income” (Ibid. p. 28).

The consumer began following the very bad example set by his government. The 1988 Vice-Presidential debate is most remembered for Senator Bentsen’s ambush of Senator Quayle: “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Etc.” But what most struck me was his response to Quayle’s lauding the prosperity of the Reagan years. “I can give you prosperity too,” Lloyd said, “If you let me write billions of dollars of hot checks” (or words to that effect). Increasing government spending while decreasing its income (taxes) produced a fool’s paradise.

The American consumer was not so foolhardy as the financial geniuses running great investment banks and brokerage houses who made extravagant bets on dubious securities with borrowed money. The consumer simply put more consumables than he should have on his credit cards. Now he is pulling back. And the world trembles. Can the American economy survive if we only buy what we need? What will happen to that part of the advertising industry which makes its living persuading us to buy things we do not need with money we do not have?

I have had numerous conversations with people who, like me, were merely inconvenienced, not devastated, when Hurricane Ike hit Texas in September. We had revealed to us how much we could do without. Our needs are rather modest. We all need food but not nearly so much as we have been eating. Phil Graham accurately, if indelicately, pointed out that America is the only country in the world where millions of poor people are fat. We all need clothes but not nearly so many as we own. Is the dress which was smashing last year really not fit to be worn this year? And of course we can only wear one outfit at a time. Our present cell phone, TV, iPod, automobile is quite serviceable though not the latest model.

God knows, I am not against wealth but it is worth asking what it consists of. If you Google the richest man in the world, you get names like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Carlos Slim. Here are some other answers. An anonymous rabbi said, “The richest man in the world is the one who is content with what he has.” But can the auto industry survive my contentment with my car?

Henry David Thoreau wrote: “that man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest” (Journal 3/11/1856). But will frugality doom the economy? Paul Krugman, who won the Nobel prize in Economics this year, explains the paradox of thrift, “how individual virtue can be public vice, how attempts by consumers to do the right thing by saving more can leave everyone worse off. The point is that if consumers cut their spending, and nothing else takes the place of that spending, the economy will slide into a recession, reducing everyone’s income” (New York Times, 10/31/08, p. A27). So deficit spending by the government which was once profligate is now a necessity.

John Ruskin had a notion of riches which will not wreck the economy. “That man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others” (Unto This Last, Sect. 77). Ruskin’s definition would certainly fit Christ. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (II Cor. 8:9 RSV).

“Once in royal David’s city…he came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all, and his shelter was a stable and his cradle was a stall; with the poor, the scorned, the lowly, lived on earth our Savior holy. …And our eyes at last shall see him, through his own redeeming love; for that child who seemed so helpless is our Lord in heaven above; and he leads his children on in the place where he is gone” (hymn 102 vv. 1, 2, 5).

Meanwhile my wife and I attempt to share the wealth by participating in an alternative gift market which many parishes sponsor. Instead of giving me a tie I do not want, for $35 Sara can, in my honor, buy a goose for a family breeding a flock of them (Episcopal Relief and Development catalogue item FS2301). She is easy to shop for too. I wish the Heifer project had been around when my parents were.

The Rev. Sam Todd is dean of the IONA School for Ministry and retired associate rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston. This column will appear in the December issue of the Texas Episcopalian.

Making sacred connections

By Andrew T. Gerns

[Easton Hospital is the only for-profit hospital in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, and is the hospital located nearest my parish church. It is a 369-bed hospital owned by Community Health Systems of Bentwood, Tennessee, and employs a pastoral care staff of one. There are part time paid per diem chaplains who together work a total of 20 or so hours a month and these are funded through the contributions of area congregations. As a member of the community board that supports chaplaincy at Easton, I was invited to speak to the Pastoral Care Week luncheon for chaplains and the volunteer clergy, lay pastoral visitors and office volunteers who make the pastoral care program at Easton Hospital work. Also present on October 29, 2008 were community clergy, hospital senior and middle management. Of course, the views expressed here are my own and not that of the hospital or the department.]

This may come as a surprise you but as of this morning I have 166 friends. At least according to Facebook. I mention this because we live in a world and in a culture that is aching for connection and will just about anything to find it.

Facebook allows me to have some connection, many fleeting and some fun and a few intense with people from all over the globe. Depending on how a person uses this social network, I can know their little peeves (One fellow said this morning that he wished that people knew about ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you.’ There is no doubt a story behind that one!) or their trials (A woman asks for prayers for her husband) and their whimsy (someone else just poked me and my niece in Vermont just threw a sheep at me). We all see connection and human beings are every bit as creative in finding ways to build connection (not all of them healthy) as they are in building protective walls and safe distances.

All of us embody the contradiction of “come closer” and “stay away.” Very few of us keep our balance. We can be like Ebenezer Scrooge who, before his conversion, was described by Dickens as a man whose very mannerism telegraphed to strangers and even dogs “keep your distance.” And literature ancient and modern describes the pitfalls of uncontrolled intimacy. We need and crave connection and yet we spend a lifetime learning how to navigate it.

It’s easy to see why. Connection brings up all kinds of things. The list begins with intimacy and relationships, and moves on to our sense of self, the dignity of life, our purpose in living, what meaning we make of and draw out of our lives. The list goes on and on and on. What Frederick Buechner once said about sex is true about our quest for connection and so the ministry of health care: it is like nitro-glycerin. It can either heal hearts or blow up bridges.

So we create distance. We talk about everything but the risk of connecting with the volumes of hurting people who come through these doors. Listen to our language. It is the language of distance and diminution. We find ourselves talking about “patient days,” and “staffing levels” and “FTEs” and “customer experience.” We worry about outcomes but don’t know if a person was meaningfully touched. We define our caring around not only the metrics of clinical norms but the hard realities of the economics of health care.

In what is perhaps the greatest distancing behavior of any culture anywhere, we have over a period of decades moved health care from a moral obligation borne by the community to a commodity to be packaged and marketed. And just so no one feels picked on, know that I am talking about the whole enchilada: both the tax-exempt and the for-profit world, from the local doc-in-a-box to modern medical mega-malls. I am talking about insurers and providers, both governmental and private. Talk of margin and profit, the volumes of regulations, HIPPA and JCAHO and all the policy books in the world are a cover for the fact that we are afraid of the connection we crave but cannot contain.

We have done far worse. We have sliced, diced and packaged our need for connection and compassion put it on the open market.

The movement from compassion to commodity has been a long time coming and I see no sign that this is going to change anytime soon.

This is why you pastoral caregivers are so very important. You serve as a tangible reminder of something deeper that is going on in this place no matter how short the stays, how managed the care, how contained the costs and how measured the outcomes. You show us the value of unconditional human connection. You show us that first and finally, the work of health care is to care for the person who is physically, emotionally and spiritually un-whole. You bring wholeness and hope to the stranger and the neighbor because finally, the least among us is us.

Harvard University President Drew Faust gave a morning meditation at that school’s Appleton Chapel last September during which she described the hymns she remembered from her youth including this one:

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colors,
He made their tiny wings.

Written in 1848, (Faust says) the words to this hymn are steeped in Victorian romanticism, extolling the glowing colors of each little flower, the tiny wings of each little bird. Its rather treacly sentimentality and continuing popularity in a far more cynical age moved Monty Python to parody:

All things dull and ugly
All creatures short and squat
All things rude and nasty
The Lord God made the lot.

Each nasty little hornet,
Each beastly little squid
Who made the spiky urchin?
Who made the sharks? He did!

Opening flowers, singing birds matter. Urchins, squid, hornets, and sharks matter too. All creatures, great, small, dull, and ugly matter.

And we all want to matter and we all fear that we don’t. On a very basic level all of us fear that we mean nothing to anyone; not to God, not to our parents, not to our spouses or partners, not to our neighbors and co-workers. This weekend, Christian churches will celebrate All Saints Day, a feast devoted to the fact that before God we all matter, we all have a purpose and none of us are forgotten.

But we need frequent reminding.

Once when I was a clinical chaplain, the hospital where I was decided to have a weekly support group for men who were in cardiac rehab. They were re-booting their lives after a near miss with cardiac death through exercise, diet, lifestyle changes and the nurse who ran the program thought having an hour session with the chaplain might be a good idea. All of us “specialists” had our one-hour shot at education and encouragement. It was fun. Once, I found myself in a group of diverse men who mostly didn’t know each other except that during my time with them we discovered that every single one of them was a combat veteran of some war. World War Two, Korea or Viet Nam. Army. Navy. Air Force. Wehrmacht. Yes, one of the group was even, in his youth, on the other side. Stephen Spielberg had just released Saving Private Ryan, so memories were effervescent and being uncorked all over the place. So I was privileged to hear their experiences and their memories while these men talked, often for the first time, about what it was like to be under fire, to be so close to death and sometimes the bringer of death.

Once the bottle was uncorked, I was struck by the sense of connection of these men who had a shared experience that could only live in story and deep memory.

One of my first pastoral encounters was as a twenty-year old studying abroad in England. As a religion major at Drew University, I had the chance to study theology in Oxford. There was a catch, I had to act as if I were studying for ministry. That meant mandatory chapel and it meant field work. Rather than send some college kids to a parish where they might break things, they sent us to place where we could do no real harm. You guessed it: they sent us to a hospital!

There I met a man from Uganda. I don’t remember his name, but I will never forget him because I was so very helpless. This was the era of Idi Amin and this man was a judge who had been kidnapped, beat up and maybe tortured. He escaped Uganda with his life but had lost complete touch with his family and friends…all now enemies of the state. What could a suburban American kid who never lacked for anything possibly say to such a man?

It was there that I first learned the promise of Ruth who as a widow said to her widowed mother in law “where you go I will go. And your God will be my God.”

I was in seminary when AIDS first hit Manhattan. I found myself sitting with people who were dying for no apparent reason. I was forced to learn very early that this was no time for empty, high-minded theology or critical moralisms. When partners were prevented from sitting with their dying loved ones or when people were abandoned out of fear, this was precisely the time to hang in there and seek connection. “Where you go, I will go. And your God will be my God.”

We who work in this place may find this stuff both fascinating and routine but for the average patient it is scary, it is unexpected, it is lonely. To the people who come here this is not a place of routine but a place of danger. Which means that it is full of meaning and story and hope and dread that often has no place to go except to a person called “chaplain” or “pastoral caregiver” or “pastoral volunteer” or “clergy” who can take the time to connect and to listen.

The New York Times recently had a front page story about chaplains who go around the city visiting dying people in their homes. It is a wonderful piece. Everyone here should buy one or log onto nytimes.com and read it. When I read it last night, it reminded me of a classic picture of Jesus found in many of our churches. It is of Jesus standing outside a door and knocking. In most of these renditions, there is no knob. Our fear of connection causes us to close the door. Our need for connection may cause us to open the door just a crack. And the person who is invited into that closed room is the face of God. The person who lets us in is sharing a tentative prayer of hope that maybe, just maybe they are not forgotten. Could it be, they pray, that I matter?

To the extent that we clergy, chaplains and pastoral caregivers are successful, to the extent that the ministry of chaplains is cultivated and allowed to grow, our work is a fundamental, often unconscious and sometimes irritating, reminder to every single person in every single job in this hospital that we are not just selling a commodity. No, we are not fighting for market share! We are not here to beef up the margin or return value to the stock-holders. There is no “product” here except compassion exercised with skill.

By hanging a sign out front that says “hospital” and opening the doors to all comers, we have dared to take on the sacred work of remembering the forgotten, caring for the weakest and healing those who are broken in body, mind and spirit. We are doing this on behalf of a community who trusts us to navigate places most people would rather not think about. We are doing the impossible: we bring the best skill and the best tools and the best education to crises faced by ordinary people. We do the impossible by bringing compassion, connection and reverence to human beings when they are the most vulnerable.

The only metric that tells us we are succeeding is the sense of connection we find when we bring our best to people when they are at their worst. That metric is often shrouded in holy mystery and resists neat expression in Excel files.

The connections you make are costly and much more real than a friend on Facebook. The connections you make are the difference between a good hospital and a great hospital.
Everyday you confront and hold hands with matters of life and death on behalf of us all. There is nothing more sacred. Thank you and may God go with you in all you do.

The Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns is the rector of Trinity Church, Easton, Pa., and chair of the Evangelism Commission of the Diocese of Bethlehem. He keeps the blog Andrew Plus.

No fear served here

By Heidi Shott

About ten years ago a rector from a tony suburb of Boston told of a relationship his church’s youth group cultivated with a Hispanic Pentecostal youth group in a neighboring community. The city next door, once a booming New England mill town, was now struggling – poor in every way it is possible to be poor: bad schools and bad housing, high crime and high unemployment, broken windows and broken playground equipment.

After a few months of back and forth between the youth groups, the Episcopal priest invited the Hispanic pastor to have lunch with him at a restaurant downtown near his beautiful, historic church. They had great a conversation about ministry and the challenges of preaching the Gospel in the context their own communities. They talked about the teenagers in each congregation and all they were learning and sharing. Every couple of weeks, the pastor would drive over the few miles to have lunch with the priest.

One day the pastor said, “Come over to my neighborhood and I’ll introduce you to real Mexican food. There’s a great place. It’s where the people go to eat.” The priest readily agreed.

“When I pulled up - I have to be honest here - I was a little apprehensive. This was a rough neighborhood and the building looked a little dicey. No sign, guys standing on the corner looking at me—a white guy in a collar. Then the pastor pulled up behind me and I was relieved. We walked in together and had the most amazing lunch,” the priest explained.

“I told him of my apprehension and, to my surprise, he laughed hard and then got serious.”

“How do you think I feel every time I walk down your Main Street to meet you for lunch? The looks I get as a Latino man walking down the street of your fancy town. People on the sidewalk look at me, like, ‘What are YOU doing here? What are YOU going to steal?” Man, I’m afraid of going to your neighborhood. Now you know how it feels. Don’t you know that your town is scary?”

The priest told us – a clergy friend and me, there for a three-day site visit as members of the Bishop Search Committee – “that lunch opened my eyes.” He gestured out the window of his office, “How could this town ever be frightening? Well, now I know,” he paused and looked at us intently, “and now I’ll never forget.”

Last Thursday, I went out to lunch with the Rev. Virginia Marie Rincon, the Hispanic missioner in the Diocese of Maine. Our diocesan office is in downtown Portland and generally “going out to lunch” means walking around the corner to any one of a dozen restaurants.

“You want to go some place with good Mexican?” she asked.

“Well, yeah.”

“Okay, we’ll have to drive then. I’ll pick you up.”

I couldn’t help but think back to the conversation I’d had with the Massachusetts priest in 1997 and hope we were going some place I wouldn’t have had the nerve to go on my own. But, no, it was a normal looking restaurant next to a Thai take-out near the outskirts of the city.

Inside Virginia Marie greeted the waitress in Spanish and offered menu suggestions. While we waited for our food, we told some stories about ourselves. Even though we’ve known each other for eight years or so, my new role as Canon for Social Justice is bending the arc of our ministries much closer. It’s time to know one another better.

She told me of her next appointment. “An 80 year-old woman from Chile is here visiting her son and she broke her hip. Her visa is up this week and her son is afraid INS will deport her, so I’m meeting with him and the immigration lawyer. I didn’t think they would deport an old lady with a broken hip, but the lawyer says, these days, they might.”

By now we were in the car heading back to the diocesan office. It was raining but warm for Maine in November. “Is fear the default emotion, Virginia Marie? Is that what people feel all the time?”

“Oh yeah,” she said without hesitation. “That’s why what I do is so important. They trust me, la Reverenda.” She turned from the road to look at me, “Maine can be a scary place.”

A few days before lunch with Virginia Marie, I stopped by the Cathedral to take some photos for a brochure about a diocesan ministry called the St. Elizabeth’s Essentials Pantry.

A class of fifth graders from Falmouth were getting ready to hand out essential items to about 200 families, items that aren’t covered by food stamps: toilet paper, soap, ziplock sandwich bags filled with powdered laundry detergent, and ten packs of diapers when the pantry gets a donation. Some members of one of the rotating volunteer teams from a local Episcopal congregation were at a table with donated toys, others were organizing winter coats.

A teenage boy who comes to help because he has two study halls first thing on Tuesday mornings was writing down the language of each person waiting in line: an elderly Russian woman with her kerchief, a Sudanese mother in a colorful but unseasonable dress. I was standing against the wall taking notes when I saw a young couple stop by the toy table. “Can we have this?” they asked gesturing to a kid’s bike.

“Sure,” I said. This wasn’t my show, but I knew it was up for grabs for anyone who wanted it. “Do you want to set it aside for now.”

“Take it for Xander,” said the woman whose accent belied a dozen or more generations living along the coast of Maine. But, as they were figuring how to get the bike, one of the fifth graders behind the table demonstrated his familiarity with television game shows.

“Or you could have this instead!” he said, holding up a complete set of Legos in a self-contained box. “This is cool.” The young man’s eyes lighted up at the perfect looking set of Legos. His eyes said, ‘I just nailed Christmas morning.’

“We don’t want the bike, after all” the young man said as he reached across to take the box from the boy, who glanced back at me with happily raised eyebrows.

The boy’s town, Falmouth, is one of the wealthiest communities in Maine. I suspect it’s a scary town for most of the people milling around the Cathedral undercroft this day. But this day, this boy - and his classmates I hope - learned something about driving out fear, both his own and that of others. And the absence of fear leaves space for other things, good things, like hope.

Recently I googled Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Of course, I found it, but also a great deal more in his prescient speech titled, “Where do we go from here?” delivered in August 1967 in Atlanta. He spoke of a divine dissatisfaction:

So, I conclude by saying again today that we have a task and let us go out with a "divine dissatisfaction." Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds.

Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.

Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in a decent sanitary home.

Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality, integrated education. Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity.

Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character and not on the basis of the color of their skin.

Let us be dissatisfied. Let us be dissatisfied until every state capitol houses a governor who will do justly, who will love mercy and who will walk humbly with his God. Let us be dissatisfied until from every city hall, justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Let us train our hearts and minds to be dissatisfied with fear, our own fear and especially the fear known by others who walk along beside us everyday.

Heidi Shott is Canon for Communications and Social Justice in the Episcopal Diocese of Maine.

Claiming our moral authority

By Richard Helmer

"We have no moral authority in this town," said a local minister in a closed-door ecumenical meeting shortly after I was called as rector of Church of Our Saviour. What followed were a few knowing chuckles around the table. Spurred on by worried parents in my new parish and a youthful naiveté, I had brought up the subject of sports practices and games pulling our young people away from Sunday morning Christian education and worship, with no clear ecclesiastical remedy in sight. We’d mulled over all the alternatives: Sunday afternoons were for additional games, rest, or homework. Sunday evening was for more homework. Saturday night was preparation for the game, or the ever elusive goal of "family time.” Weeknights were a maze of extracurricular and school-related activities (read: even more homework). Maybe a churchless society becomes an overscheduled society. Maybe an overscheduled society becomes a churchless society. "Should we write a letter together to the local paper?" I wondered aloud, prompting blank stares from my new colleagues.

Another pastor at last responded by noting that the Jewish community had come together a few years before to protest the crowding of sports into the Sabbath. They got some traction, but not much. The local Christian churches, on the other hand, had simply rolled over in reaction to the proliferation of teams and the encroachment on Sunday mornings. We apparently had even less “moral authority” over secular affairs than did our Jewish sisters and brothers.

I chewed on this for quite some time both in prayer and in conversation. Lacking moral authority seems to be the sum of all fears. It smacks of the irrelevancy that every Christian leader dreads, that every struggling faith community must confront in an ostensibly post- or even anti-Christian society. I looked across the yawning chasm between the Gospel and militant secularism and nearly despaired. Not seeing any tenable action to take that would bridge the chasm left me with the gnawing question that often appears from the pens of our harshest critics: If the church, or at least somewhat credible Christians, have no moral authority anymore, what then? Shouldn’t we just throw in the towel? Had we at long last sold our children out to the tide of secularism?

Soon after, our largely affluent, suburban community was gripped by a teenage suicide. A local high school student joined the hundreds of people who, over the course of several decades, had jumped off the Golden Gate bridge. Our small parish youth group spoke about Clive's death and made mention to our youth minister that his was only one of a series of recent deaths in the local school system - to drinking, drugs, or suicide. One of our youth members opined that there would be a month of triage at school: therapists, counselors, and experts would descend upon the student body for a few weeks. Then the subject of Clive’s death would fade from attention and fall off the priority list...until the next tragedy added to the already overpowering sea of shared pain and bewildered grief.

In the ensuing months, a 19-year-old graduate of the high school, while home from college, overdosed at a party. His non-religious memorial, led by his own parents and teachers, was held a week later in the high school theater, which was jam-packed even in the height of summer vacation season. I was awestruck by the finger-pointing and despair that was given a platform to speak during the memorial. But what utterly silenced me was the rampant co-dependency and addiction evident in the room. This wasn't the realm of the individual, which I had learned to understand and perhaps fathom. This was corporate, communal, and widespread. Josh was yet another canary in the coal mine, the next in line to go over the edge, which was even celebrated in a letter from one of his teachers that was read to the assembly. His picture and impish eyes in the memorial bulletin haunted me from an office bookshelf for the next month. We at Church of Our Saviour had to act. If not us, who? But how?

"We have no moral authority in this town." The words stuck in my head, playing over and over like the refrain to a cheap song.

To hell with it, I finally decided both figuratively and literally, and I called the counseling staff at the local high school to discuss the situation. Expecting resistance, I was instead greeted with a surprising "When can we meet?" In a week or so, with a group of parishioners, I sat down with the counseling staff, who welcomed us with open arms. They were practically running an ER on top of the usual academic counseling, with high-powered parents on one side, harried students on the other, no time and scant, mostly gutted state resources at their disposal. Could the church start helping organize the community? Could we step out and begin the hard work of breaking down barriers between institutions? Could we help rebuild a community of support for our youth over and against the isolation and addiction that was consuming so many?

We said yes, and within a year we had gathered together a variety of church leaders, non-profits, and health professionals into a coalition. We were before the city council helping advocate for a social host ordinance, so law enforcement could at last hold parents accountable for serving alcohol at youth parties in their homes. We were setting up community forums for parents and teens to talk about the pressures and dead ends of adolescence and an affluent, success-driven culture gone pathological for its children. We were reopening a conversation that had long been silenced by shame and fear: about the loss of human dignity in our young people that was fueling addiction, depression, and self-destruction.

When a 17-year-old member of a neighboring Episcopal parish jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge this January in an impulse suicide, we joined Casey’s parents and her priest, in witness to the board that oversees the world-renowned landmark. On what began as a recent ho-hum Friday, I found myself present in a history-making meeting that made international headlines. The bridge board, after decades of carnage, finally set aside the laissez-faire myth of "they'll do it somewhere else," heeded the pleas of religious leaders, countless family and community victims, and the mounting evidence of the psychological and psychiatric communities, and agreed to seek funding for a suicide barrier. The "silent cult of death," as a mentor and colleague deemed the pattern of complicity and suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge, was at last starting to break, and the church had played a part in that sea change.

Moral authority is an odd thing. Claim it as an abstraction, and no doubt we'll be laughed out of the town square in this day and probably in any age. My learning as I dug through the accounts of the New Testament in search of Christ's example, was that Jesus and his earliest followers never went into a town or village waving their moral authority credentials in people's faces. They simply began to heal the sick, restore sight to the blind, and proclaim the Good News.

Their example was telling us all we really needed to know: When we respond from the heart of our faith directly to the world's deep need for healing, we will find all the moral authority we need.

After sharing this with the parish I served, I was awestruck one morning when a parishioner stuck her head in my office door to thank me and say that she and her family had agreed not to sign up for any sports teams that practiced or played on Sundays. Church was that important to them.

The chasm, I realized, between church and secularism, the path to the church’s moral authority, was bridged already...by God's grace. All we have to do is walk across and invite others along.


The Rev. Richard E. Helmer, a priest, pianist, and writer, serves as rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His active leadership in the church includes interfaith, ecumenical, and wider church organizations, especially Episcopal Asiamerica Ministries, stewardship, youth advocacy, and ethnic and multicultural ministries in the Diocese of California. Richard’s sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, church politics, music, and the misadventures of young parenthood at Caught by the Light.

AD 597 and why it matters

This is the fifth of a series, 7 Dates and Why They Matter for the Anglican Faith. Read previous installments.

By Derek Olsen

Pious legend tells of Pope Gregory the Great’s walk in the market one day. He encountered some blonde slaves being sold there. Upon inquiring who they were, he was told “Angles”, but replied, “Angels of God shall they be.” Asking of their king, the response was “Aelle”; he responded “Alleluia! for they shall learn to praise God.” Upon asking their tribe, the reply was “Deira”; he replied “they shall flee from the wrath (de ira) of God to faith!” Thus, we are told, Pope Gregory resolved to send missionaries north for the conversion of England. Hailed by some as the moment of the nation’s salvation, castigated by some as the beginning of Romish errors, St Gregory’s sending of Augustine to become the first archbishop of Canterbury in AD 597 surely ranks among the dates that all Anglicans should know.

The mission eventually sent by Gregory, headed by Augustine who would become the first Archbishop of Canterbury, was intended to be a mission of peace, spreading the Word of the Prince of Peace. Instead, it touched off a firestorm. The Church of England was born into a power struggle where bishops battled against one another, invaded one another’s territory, refused to acknowledge one another’s authority, and appealed to far-off pontiffs, all underlain by centuries of imperialism and ethnic strife. You see, the mission to the English began in AD 597; the British Church had already existed in the islands for some 350 years before.

While we’re used to thinking geographically, the early medieval world thought ethnically. And the ambiguities between geography and ethnicity were major sources of conflict. There are three major players in our story: the Celtic Britons who were the inhabitants of the islands when the Romans first came, the Scots who were another Celtic people who lived in Ireland and colonized parts of modern Scotland that they wrested from the Picts, and finally the “English” who were a loose confederations of families and clans made up of a number of Germanic tribes, preeminently the Angles (from whose name we get England and English), the Saxons, and the Jutes.

Christianity came to Britain at the end of the second century through the Romans and a church was established there with the development of a fused Romano-British culture. This society fell with the coming of the English in the fifth century. Fierce pagans who slaughtered, killed, and settled, they displaced many Briton nobles to Brittany (hence the name) and Wales (“Welsh” is actually the English word for their foes and was used to mean both “foreigner” and “slave”). The Britons who did not or could not flee lived as a conquered people and hated their English overlords. The bishops of the Britons, therefore, took a dim view of the missionaries sent from Rome who came to covert their foes and who claimed to hold spiritual authority over the islands—including authority over the British bishops.

The great historian of the evangelism of England—and our primary source for what we know of the era—was the eighth century saint, the Venerable Bede. While a careful compiler of sources and a skillful author, he can hardly be called objective; English by birth, a monastic biblical scholar by training, his history is consciously modeled on the Acts of the Apostles and the conversion of his people is, for his narrative, the key to the peace and prosperity of the islands.

Bede’s history is, in many ways, the story of three churches and their conflicts with one another as well as the pagans they were attempting to convert. Of these, the entrenched Romano-British church comes off the worst; Bede lays most of the fault for the ensuing conflicts at their doorstep for their refusal to evangelize their invaders. He paints the picture of an insular church, distrustful of the English and of Gregory’s missionaries, who abrogated their responsibilities to preach the Gospel to the outsiders and who insisted on holding beliefs contrary to the wider church, focusing specifically on Pelagianism and using the wrong date for celebrating Easter (a matter clarified at the Council of Nicaea).

The Scots’ Celtic church was viewed much more favorably by Bede. While they too held the wrong date for Easter and kept other suspect customs (their monks wore their hair like druids rather than keeping the Roman tonsure), they had a great evangelical zeal and produced great saints and ascetics who taught the Gospel to the people with humility and diligence, converting Scots, Picts, and English alike with no reference to nationality. Too, they ordered themselves around their monastic communities; Celtic bishops were monastic abbots first and foremost. While the Roman missionaries landed in the south of England, the Celtic church started in the north, evangelizing modern-day Scotland and working their way down through Northumbria. Bede’s appreciation for them is due at least in part to his identity as a Northumbrian.

Lastly, the English church converted by the Roman missionaries who claimed authority from and the support of the larger Western Church and its papal head are cast as the heroes by Bede. As in the Acts of the Apostles, signs and wonders abound at the hands of the holy men and virgins of Bede’s history. While they encounter setbacks and martyrdom, their possession of the truth assures their success and Bede is able to bring his history to a satisfactory conclusion, giving an idyllic (and not entirely accurate) view of an England at peace with itself and turned towards God.

Bede pays careful attention to the founding documents of the English church. His history preserves a number of letters sent from Pope Gregory to Augustine of Canterbury and others who participated in his mission. The hallmark of these letters is an evangelical pragmatism; certain passages in them have often been noted by students of Anglican history and rightly seen as keys to the church’s later character. In response to Augustine’s query on liturgical matters, Gregory responds:

“My brother, you are familiar with the usage of the Roman Church, in which you were brought up. But if you have found customs, whether in the Church of Rome or Gaul or any other that may be more acceptable to God, I wish you to make a careful selection of them, and teach the Church of the English, which is still young in the Faith, whatever you have been able to learn with profit from the various Churches. For things should not be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things. Therefore select from each of the Churches whatever things are devout, religious, and right; and when you have bound them, as it were, into a sheaf, let the minds of the English grow accustomed to it.”

Gregory’s instructions display an awareness of and a respect for the formative power of liturgy. He encourages not a liturgical free-for-all nor a permissive scheme of mix-‘n’-match, but an initial opportunity for the new archbishop to carefully select those practices that will be most fitting and most edifying to his mission, selected from the riches of Christian tradition, as a firm foundation for the new church. Liturgy matters; spiritual practices matter—for they form the faith in the body, lips, and heart as well as in the mind.

In a letter to the abbot Mellitus (who was to become the first Bishop of London) Gregory offers more pragmatic council with an eye to evangelism concerning pagan temples:

“…the temples of idols among that people should on no account be destroyed. The idols are to be destroyed, but the temples themselves are to be aspersed with holy water, altars set up in them, and relics deposited there. For if these temples are well-built, they must be purified from the worship of demons and dedicated to the service of the true God. In this way, we hope that the people, seeing that there temples are not destroyed, may abandon their error and, flocking more readily to their accustomed resorts, may come to know and adore the true God.”

The practice of creating churches on pagan holy places was not novel—most missionaries to Northern Europe did the same. The difference here is a moderation: the usual practice was the complete demolition of pagan structures, not their re-consecration. This also seems in line with another departure from standard missionary procedure. Bede relates that while Augustine’s first royal convert, King Ethelbert:

“was pleased at the faith and conversion [of great numbers of his people] it is said that he would not compel anyone to accept Christianity; for he had learned from his instructors and guides to salvation that the service of Christ must be accepted freely and not under compulsion.”

In a time when conversions by the sword were more common than not (and that is a dark part of our heritage that we must acknowledge), this passage offers a refreshing change. Despite a zeal for conversion brought by Augustine and his comrades, this zeal was tempered by the realization that methods matters. The ends—even holy ends—do not justify any means.

Thus, AD 597 is a date that every Anglican should know. Augustine’s great mission to Canterbury, the founding of our central see, and the conversion of the English is a key event in Anglican history. Augustine’s mission—and Pope Gregory’s authorization of it—extends an evangelical pragmatism throughout matters of liturgy and mission. At the same time, the English Church was born in the midst of ethnic and factional strife, strife that simply moved to a new key with successive waves of Scandinavian and Norman invasion and devastation. This beginning was no golden age of peace and tranquility, but rather mixed up in the confusion and complexities that characterize incarnate life.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. His full-time calling of keeping up with two adorable girls and his wife, an Episcopal priest, is complicated by his day-job as an IT Consultant. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

What does God want?

By Greg Jones

What does God want? I mean really - what's God looking for in people? What's he want from us?

The Bible says - the prophets and apostles and martyrs and saints say - Jesus says - and we say it every Sunday - that what God wants is us. Starting with nothing, God made us for himself. Yes, God wants us.

When we turned away - and became subject to evil and death - God sent us gracious voices to show us the way back home. Yes, God wants us.

When we seized His place in our lives - claiming His center for ourself - He came right on into that anthropocentric world we'd made as One of us - and said, "See I am lord here too, come, follow, enter my kingdom." Yes, in Grace, God built us, built us a household, and all because he wants us.

To be with Him, to Love Him, to become more and more in an eternal companionship. Yes, God wants us to come home - to belong - to have significance in His house. That's what Leviticus is talking about where it says, 'Be holy for I am God, I am holy." It means, "I made you, be with me, for you are my beloved."

It's what Jesus repeats in the summary of the Law in today's Gospel - the message of total love: of God, neighbor and self. And it's what Jesus alludes to by describing a messiah not merely the kingly son of David, but a messiah who is from, with, and IN, the Holy One of All.

God wants in, my friends, with us, for us, and between us. But do we? The answer is probably, "Sort of?" "Sometimes?" "Maybe?" God wants to love, honor and cherish us, but we're not so sure we'll return it. To Him, or any other, perhaps even to that 'inner other' of the potential human self.

Yes, with all that He is and all that He has, Christ honors us: but we've got cold feet.

But, you know, our feet might be cold, but we who attend the weekly feast of thanksgiving, who have gone to the chapel, and who are at the altar with Christ, and that counts for something. We go to be with our savior, and thankfully, shaky as we are: He's not shaky at all. The Good News is that our bridegroom, Christ, has enough love to make up for what little we bring to this marriage of humanity and divinity known as the
Church.

Yes, we're here, in the Church, not only before God's altar, but in God's house, and our bridegroom has brought us home, and we belong here, and have significance here, because with His great, "I am," and our feeble "I will with God's help," we have become one in Him and He in us.

We're his. Emmanuel, which means God with us, has joined us to God and each other. Alleluia.

But let me say, though we go weekly in celebration of this sacred communion relationship, God is not looking for wedding presents. No, God's not looking for our gifts - because God gave them to us in the first place, and God knows where they are right now.

God's not looking for our gifts, God's looking for our promise, love and commitment. God's not looking us to give Him anything, God's looking for us to use what He's given us for the good of the Kingdom He's trying to build with us.

Friends, God has already paid blood for your soul in Christ. Christ is looking now for your promise to join with Him, in promise, in commitment, and to build up His household.

Those who share the love and gifts God has given, can do mighty acts in times of trouble. That time is always now, and this sacred household and our divine partner want us to be fully involved - right here at home.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ('Greg') is rector of St. Michael's in Raleigh, N.C. A husband and father, Jones is also the author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004), and the bass player in indie-rock band The Balsa Gliders - whose fourth studio release is due on iTunes this month. He blogs at fatherjones.com.

Healing tears

By Margaret M. Treadwell

Question: I began thinking about the tears I experience regularly in my own life as a woman, wife and mother. Although not exclusively so, are there some tears more common to our experience as women?

“A woman’s tears express her greatest truth,” goes an old adage. The above question reminds me of a woman whose first clear memory occurred on Christmas Eve when, as a 5-year-old, she sleeplessly waited for Santa Claus. Hearing a loud crash downstairs, she was certain he had arrived. She jumped out of bed, crept to the landing, and silently watched her mother weeping as she sat on the floor next to her drunken father who had knocked over the Christmas tree. At that moment, this little girl vowed never to cry, let anyone else see her cry or appear helpless like her mother.

Instead, she spent much of her youth trying to fix her father and later worked to keep the peace in her own dysfunctional marriage. She managed her pain by staying in perpetual motion – raising her two children as if she were a single parent, volunteering, going to church and exercising – but doing little else to create and follow her dreams.

Until her son began to struggle in high school and her pain became great enough that it could no longer be denied. Willing to do anything to help her child, she finally was able to end her vow and over time let a trusted therapist see her tears. She began to realize that in blocking her tears she had been unable to fully communicate with herself and had become sick. As the sickness worsened, it had spread to other people.

The first step in healing was to allow her tears to flow freely while acknowledging that they represented huge feelings and emotions she had been unable to express in words. Gradually, she was able to ask as she cried, “What are my tears about at this moment?” At first, she was surprised to find that crying was her expression of unarticulated anger. Sometimes she raged at others who had wronged her, but more often she was furious and disappointed in herself. As she became more astute in her own diagnosis, she was able to get beneath her anger to discover it was masking the fear and anxiety she had denied in order to survive her chaotic childhood in an alcoholic family where it was dangerous to appear vulnerable.

Naming and talking about her tears opened doors of understanding and compassion necessary for her healing. As she came to respect her tears as a friend in her process of self-examination, she used them to go deeper in understanding the losses, failures, rejections and hurt in her life. Sometimes it seemed that her situation was growing worse instead of better in therapy and that she could drown in her tears. But with her faith, prayer, courage and a continued desire to change, she developed more appropriate ways to express her anger, fear and loss and then to take better stands for herself. “Who in my life am I pleasing by not doing what I want to do?” she asked.

One Thanksgiving she was able to say to her father, “Pop, I don’t like it when you drink and pass out every holiday. Are you going to stop this Thanksgiving and Christmas, or would you prefer for me not to come home?” And when he gave his promise but drank anyway, “Pop, I meant it. Are you going to stop drinking this holiday or shall my family and I leave now?” No longer the small child crying inside while observing from the upstairs landing, she said, “I always thought taking a stand was conflict I wanted to avoid, but I learned that it is simply taking a stand and how empowering that can be. I don’t think Dad liked it, but he absolutely respected me when I spoke from my heart with integrity.”

Tears can become a sign of strength when they are honored as a pathway to our deepest feelings and clarity. Jesus asks in the healing parables, “What do you want me to do for you?” And when a person wants with all her heart to be healed he says, “Go; your faith has made you well” (Mark 10: 51-52). But sometimes work is required to obtain clarity, recognize our need for God and know that we do truly want to be healed. “So I say to you, ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened,” says Jesus (Luke 11 9-10).

When was the last time you cried, and what were your tears about?

Margaret M. (“Peggy”) Treadwell, LCSW -C, has been active in the fields of education and counseling for thirty-five years. Following a long association with Dr. Edwin H. Friedman, during which she served on his faculty, she co-edited and helped posthumously publish his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

"My dad died"

By Donald Schell

Wednesday, Day 1: hearing and telling, “My dad died”

5:30 a.m. New York time, my phone wakened me. It was my wife, Ellen, calling from San Francisco. 2:30 a.m. there. She said it simply, ‘Donald, your dad has died.’ I heard it but had no idea what to do next. Ellen spoke to my stammering silence, ‘Come home now, your mother needs you.’ Clarity.

Downstairs in the lobby, I told the night clerk I was leaving - “I have two more nights, but I’m leaving now. My dad died.” More than check-out: I needed to tell someone.

When I caught a cab, I told the cabbie, “JFK,” and as he pulled out added that I was grateful for his service because my dad had died. At the terminal I thanked him again and tipped extra, a thank you? Or penance for beginning his day with a death? Maybe both.

At the airport time dragged (or seemed to stop) until we got called for boarding. Soon we’d be airborne and I could sleep and maybe wake up closer to knowing dad had died. My quick silent prayer on the jetway surprised me – “Dad’s death is enough for the family to deal with just now,” I explained to God. Then stumbling over which of the children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews would be flying to California on other flights, simply added, “Keep us all safe.”

I leaned my seat back, closed my eyes and welcomed merciful sleep, but an hour and half later, much too soon, I woke up thinking, “I’m flying home because my dad died this morning,” and wondering whether any of the other passengers were flying home for a funeral.

The man next to me began light chat that eventually went to his work, and when I learned he was a physician like my dad, I wanted to tell him. I must have been looking for the opening. “My Dad was a doctor too. I’m flying home because he died this morning.” My voice didn’t break.

He asked how my dad had died and invited me to talk about him.

For some months Dad had been worrying about a cluster of small physical ailments and mental lapses. Ever the physician, he was putting pieces together and wondering if he’d begun a decline (and what it would mean for him and for my mother).

My new friend wanted more diagnosis. I told him about Dad’s heart history, his childhood rheumatic fever, the damaged heart valve that had to be replaced twice, and his bypass. Combining his history and his dying in his sleep, my companion said it sounded like a heart attack. We agreed it seemed like a quick, easy end to a long good life.

I told him how dad’s flying a B-17 in World War II made him want to become a doctor and spend the rest of his life saving lives if he could. Then we landed.

I drove the hour south to San Jose repeating aloud, “My dad died.” I stopped the dark mantra when I left the freeway, then started it again when I pulled into the driveway of my parents’ house, now “Mother’s house.”

Mother welcomed me with a hug and tears. Ellen too. Dad’s absence was a silence in the house. Ellen told again how she and our daughter had driven down at 3 a.m. and what a good job my brother had done. He’d been down visiting mom and dad for dinner and had stayed overnight in their guestroom, so he was there for mother when she woke to find dad not breathing.

When Ellen arrived Dad’s body was still on the floor where my brother had done CPR until the paramedics took over and then stopped it. Ellen had pulled back the sheet to see Dad’s face. She told me he’d looked like himself, surprisingly peaceful after the CPR, very still, but with a little color left in his cheeks and not yet cold. Now his body was downtown at the funeral home. It would be cold. He’d been dead for just over twelve hours.

I wanted to see Dad’s body. The funeral home insisted they needed two days to ‘arrange the features’ and ‘prepare for a viewing.’ I was frustrated. It had seemed simpler with Ellen’s dad.

Ellen and I stayed over at mother’s house. We slept in the guest room under the Monet prints Dad had found so fascinating. “I think the impressionists understood how the optic nerve and the brain work together to see,” he’d said. At dinner that night we’d been seven. We’d set the funeral for the following Friday. Drifting toward sleep, I thought, “It was our first dinner here without Dad.”

Thursday, Day 2: remembering

I spent the morning writing an obituary. Harold Newton Schell, October 30, 1921-October 15, 2008. Remembering felt good. After lunch Ellen and I drove back to San Francisco.

Friday, Day 3: tears

I woke in the dark – Ellen wasn’t in bed. I listened. She was writing on the computer in the next room – keyboard sound…then sobs. She caught her breath and was back. She’d wakened and decided to write something about dad –

‘Harold was my father-in-law for 33 years. My own father died when I was 29…my father-in-law’s heart had dodged a lot of bullets, as a premature infant taken by Caesarean section from his mother who was dying of brain tumor, from rheumatic fever that damaged his heart valve as a child, from two heart surgeries to replace the damaged valve and then replace the worn-out replacement fifteen years later. That good, faithful, wise heart loved so much and endured…that good heart. Shakespeare came to mind, Horatio’s words at Hamlet’s death: ‘now cracks a noble heart.’ I cannot think of a human being of whom the word ‘noble’ is more appropriate than Harold Schell. ‘Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’

Horatio’s ‘noble heart,’ she told me, loosed her tears, imagining what courage had kept dad going and living well for so long, before ‘it cracked.’ Heartbreak. She’d lost her second father.

My older daughter and her partner arrived from England. Driving down to San Jose again, we each told our stories of the last two days, how we each heard of Dad’s death, our travels now converging, and more tentatively stories of him.

At the viewing an attendant showed us into a hushed, windowless room. Dad’s body lay in a draped cremation casket covered with a colored satin sheet up to his neck. When we scheduled this, they’d offered to dress him, but mother said, ‘No, please don’t. He’s dead.’ Dad would have enjoyed the Monet print they’d hung on the wall above him, but his “arranged” features look like someone else pretending to be him. This face they’d made from his flesh had lips pursed in a tight thin line. Even in sorrow or deep thought, his living face seemed ready to smile.

I wanted to speak to a body I knew. What here was familiar? I studied his chin. It looked right, despite the face above it. Then I lay my hand on his forehead and knew this is what I was looking for. I must have done this when I sat on his lap as a child. I knew every contour of the skull beneath the cold skin. I closed my eyes and spoke it silently to myself, “It’s him. No – his body, not him. He’d dead.”

Another crowd at mother’s house for dinner. Fortunately the church kept delivering food.

Saturday, Day 4: space

The flood of sympathy notes amazed me with vivid descriptions of his character, some from people who had only met him a time or two. More friends than I’d realized knew the man I loved.

Sunday, Day 5: Church and Mother’s birthday

Too soon after Dad’s death, it was Mother’s birthday.

My mother still works half-time as a Presbyterian minister, but this first Sunday after Dad’s death she wanted to go to a church where no one would know her. We went to a colleague’s church. Tears.

After church fourteen family members gathered in a hotel downtown to eat and celebrate mother’s birthday. We did actually celebrate with plenty of food and more talk. She welcomed the feasting, though with some tears.

My dad died and we can’t get enough of one another’s company. He would have enjoyed these gatherings, though at recent dinner gatherings he’d spoken less and watched more. But we felt his steady affection and, if he missed a joke, he’d ask to hear it again.

Day 6, Monday: the orphans’ club

Home again in San Francisco. I’d asked my oldest friend from college, K. to spend the day with us. Forty years ago, my first year of seminary, he was visiting when his father died five thousand miles away – I remember the distance. Mine died when I was three thousand miles away.

We gathered in our kitchen, my old friend, my daughter and her partner, Ellen, and me. One by one I ask for the stories of lost parents, stories I already know. K. talked about his father’s death and why his father hadn’t told him he was dying, and about his mother’s death, and about the feelings that linger. Ellen told of hearing about her father’s heart attack, how he collapsed on the dance floor at a wedding rehearsal party, when she was also three thousand miles distant. My daughter’s partner talked of the slow disease that had wasted his father’s mind and body in a death that gathered family and began the grieving before the dying that made the death sadder because it was such a relief. Ellen told the story of my dad’s death again. Phone call from my brother. Drive down.

Paramedics. My daughter said she was not part of this orphans’ club and didn’t want to be soon. I promised to do my best to keep her ineligible for membership. Ellen’s dinner is a little feast, chicken and a Mediterranean rice with nuts and dried fruit bits.

For the last few days of his life Dad hardly ate anything, but he’d been losing his appetite for a year. My rock of strength who’d taught me tenderness grew thin and frail. Until I was thirty, this man whose love I knew so well never said the words, ‘I love you,’ or hugged a greeting or a good-bye. The love was evident in every way, and when I began greeting him with a hug, he seemed to welcome it, and with good-bye hugs, even began to reply in kind to my, ‘I love you, dad.’

So it was thirty years ago, that I began drawing strength from holding his muscular back in a hug. Then for the last few years, I’d felt the bony ridge of his spine and the plane of his shoulder blades beneath his sweater and wished I could pour strength back into him.

Day 7, Tuesday: weary

No energy. It was early as usual when the alarm went off, but up? Slowly. Wearily. That afternoon, like several others, I took a nap because I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

Day 8 and 9, Wednesday and Thursday: the banquet

Each day we drove to San Jose, the dinner gathering was larger. My father’s sister and her husband had arrived. More nieces and nephews too. More grandchildren – our next generation’s two priests, my son and his wife from D.C. We crowded ourselves in tight to eat. Food just kept coming.

“On this mountain, I will make a feast for all peoples, and take away the mourning veil that covers the nations.”

My dad died and we talked, told stories, and laughed. Sometimes someone cried. We talked of dad’s medical practice, family vacations, old history a generation or two back, and we pieced together our few tiny glimpses of his B-17 bomber missions in World War II. Questions we’d like to ask him sneaked up on us, and his stillness, the answers he couldn’t offer silenced us for a moment.

Day 10, Friday: the funeral

Our youngest son, my brother-in-law, and my sister-in-law made our gathering complete. Mother had asked Judy, her Presbyterian pastor colleague, to preach. I was on the platform to lead family rememberings, one of three Episcopal clergy (my son and his wife, also vested, sat by me to lead prayers). I looked out on the church where I’d grown up, where my parents and grandparents had grown up, and surveyed the faces. My Jewish son-in-law and his parents, friends from our Episcopal church in San Francisco, second cousins I hadn’t seen for thirty or forty years. Faces I didn’t know - people who would tell us afterwards that they’d been dad’s patients, ministry colleagues of mother’s.

It really was the promised mountaintop gathering in Isaiah, all peoples. This healing work was holy and deeply human.

We gathered a lot of people to remember and give thanks for Dad’s life, worked to say what we believe and see how true it rang, we cried and took the time to feel our loss. Then after a long and noisy reception (in which we just avoided reciting ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee,” which would have delighted my dad) family adjourned to mother’s house…for half a dozen large pizzas, another feast.

Day 11 Saturday: good-byes

Saturday began the good-byes. Our two sons and a daughter-in-law, two cousins, my aunt and uncle soon to follow. No one wanted to break the group, but beyond that, good-byes felt plain risky. We knew more clearly than we’d like to that every one of us was mortal.

Day 12, Sunday: my friend’s church again, more Gospel, more tears

The Gospel reading – Jesus choosing two commandments to summarize the whole of God’s law – to love God heart and soul and mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. That’s what church is for. My dad joked that no one ever truly became a doctor, and that he was just “practicing” medicine. We’re glad to be back here just practicing Christian life with our little bits and pieces of loving our neighbors and accepting their love. We drove back to Mother’s for another big family dinner.

Day 13, Monday: more good-byes

Driving my older daughter and her partner to the airport, I told them about the end of Mom’s, Dad’s and my visit with them in the U.K. eighteen months before. I told them how we’d gotten lost driving from their place down to London. The M-1 was closed and detours sent us off the main road without further directions. I was driving and Dad was navigating. We had good maps, but the old pilot for all his pride in reading them kept losing his place. At a rest stop I quietly asked mother to take over. “I can’t do that to him,” she’d said.

Our last afternoon in England, I took them to see Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe. At lunch before the play, mother wasn’t at the table when Dad said, “I was afraid one of us might die on this trip.” He was already thinking about it, watching his health, knowing he needed to make his peace. After the play he said, “Shylock was right. The Christians weren’t acting much like Christians.” It concerned him.

Day 18, Saturday: All Saints Day

A week and a day after the funeral Ellen and I drove down for an intimate All Saints Day celebration at mother’s church. Judy, mother’s clergy friend presided and Mother preached. We sang “For All the Saints” with a young M.D. colleague of Dad’s accompanying us on piano.

After the service he gave me a flu shot from the store of vaccine that the Medical Society had asked Dad to dispense, and then he told a story he said would have made my Dad smile and laugh. Only an hour before Dad’s funeral, this friend was seeing patients in clinic, and one had a cardiac arrest. The young doctor had gotten the man’s heart going again, turned him over to the paramedics, and made it to the funeral just as it began, and yes, the patient had made it.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company. He contributed "What Would Jesus Sing", and "Searching for Sacred Space" to Music By Heart, (a collaboration of Church Publishing with All Saints Company's New Music Project).

Communicating the reality of divine Motherhood

By Martin L. Smith

I wasn’t exactly eavesdropping, but I couldn’t help overhearing remarks an elderly couple were making as they wandered round the collection of Old Masters in the Atlanta art gallery. I particularly remember the husband’s brief comment, almost a growl it sounded so hurt: “So many pictures of her…”

We all know who he was referring to—Mary, the subject to which Christian art endlessly returns. Probably an evangelical brought up to suspect all visual representations of the sacred and to rely on words, words with a masculine ring to them, he could only respond with some bafflement and resentment. Why her face?

Perhaps it isn’t too early to prepare for Christmas by considering why Mary’s face is so central to the visual world of Christianity. Helen of Troy’s face only launched a thousand ships. Mary’s face is found in thousands of art galleries, tens of thousands of churches and millions of homes. However secularized the so called ‘Holidays’ are becoming, the mail that will soon be pouring into mailboxes will certainly contain some cards showing her gazing out at us, or returning the smile of her baby son. Let’s prepare to receive them with fresh insight.

We need to revisit in our imaginations the early months of a baby’s growth. For the first three months babies explore the world through their mouths. They lick and suck and stick things into their mouths. Then at three months there is an amazing shift. Babies start orientating themselves towards a person present. They seek and learn to respond to the presence of a human face. And they smile. They’ll even smile back at a balloon with a face sketched on it. The smile is born in the presence of the Face experienced as loving presence. This is what we mean by primal human experience, so utterly human and basic that it is foundational for all that comes next, something we never leave behind. And it is surely the experience in which all religious experience is rooted. In seeking God, we are seeking the Face turned towards us in love, and it was our mother’s gaze that first evoked the smile we want to give back to our Creator. The primal language of our religion recalls this gazing and smiling. In ancient Israel, worship itself was referred to as seeing God’s face. “You speak in my heart and say, ‘Seek my face.’ Your face, Lord, will I seek.” (Ps. 27) “Show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” (Ps. 80)

There are so many pictures of her—Mary, the mother of Jesus—because her face represents everything about God’s love that the face of an old Man isn’t as good at conveying. God can let wisdom shine through the face of motherly tenderness, and nurture the reality of divine Motherhood that masculine imagery is less effective at communicating. If much of our verbal imagery about the divine draws on our experience of powerful males, how appropriate that we should cherish visual imagery that complements and corrects it by conveying divine power in feminine terms. Luke’s gospel itself represents Mary as recognizing the power of her motherhood and pointing to the tremendous resonance it was going to have in the hearts of God’s faithful. “All generations will call me blessed.”

Now the world of spirituality has a very healthy awareness of our tendency to live in our heads, and this isn’t a topic for argument, but for experiment. How in practice do we react to the contemplation of icons and religious artworks that represent Mary? Have you ever allowed yourself to be touched, moved, addressed at a gut level in quiet exposure to Mary’s loving gaze? If you have been put off by bad, conventional statuary and trashy cards, have you gotten over it and given attention to truly beautiful examples?

There are many Episcopalians who have never prayed with an icon of Mary, or ever cherished or meditated on her face. Many might dismiss it out of hand as a deviation into Roman Catholic practices. But that might be a matter of spiritual avoidance rather than theological principle. There is vulnerability in contemplating the face which represents tenderness, nurture, the flame of a mother’s passionate commitment, willingness to suffer for love’s sake, beauty. Many of us, certainly many men, are armored against this. This represents a world of meaning that challenges our habitual stances of control. It returns us to this fundamental level of trusting that emerged when we were scarcely three months old. But as every spiritual director will tell you, there is tremendous potential for healing and conversion in risking a personal return in prayer to this basic level of our humanity. “I still my soul and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother’s breast; my soul is quieted within me.” (Ps. 131)

The Rev. Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba’s, D.C.

An Afghanistan Surge?

By George Clifford

Increasing violence in Afghanistan represents a significantly different problem than did the violence in Iraq. In Iraq, the recent surge in the number of United States armed forces appears to have produced results. In fact, those results are much more a function of paying Sunnis not to fight (the Awakening Movement), Sunnis and Shiites having largely segregated themselves, Shiites having at least temporarily resolved their internal differences, and growing internal exhaustion and opposition to al Qaeda perpetuated violence. Experts unanimously agree that the United States has never had sufficient troops on the ground in Iraq actually to end the insurgency. Some diminution of violence in Iraq is even attributable to the near unanimous sentiment among Iraqis that the U.S. should leave Iraq. Hence, some Iraqis have exercised restraint, postponing vendettas and attempts to grab power, hoping that the deceptive calm will encourage the U.S. to expedite repatriation of its forces.

In contrast to Iraq, the different characteristics and roots of the continuing violence in Afghanistan include:

• Although Afghanistan like Iraq has no real history as a nation its tribal and ethnic divisions are even deeper and more difficult to bridge than those in Iraq;
• Islam has historically united Afghanis who declare de facto truces in their internal disputes until they succeed in expelling foreign invaders, e.g., the Mongols, the British, the Soviets, and now the United States;
• Afghanistan’s central governments have consistently wielded little power, deferring to regional warlords;
• Geography significantly enhances the ability of Afghan warlords to grab and to keep power;
• Literacy and economic prosperity are at much lower levels than in Iraq, making establishing democracy far less likely than in Iraq (where the effort failed);
• Pashtuns, who comprise 40% of Afghanis, also live in large numbers in Pakistan yet unlike Iraqi Kurds have not achieved any autonomy;
• Afghanistan’s largely rural population adheres to a more conservative form of Islam than do most Iraqis, creating more sympathy for both the Taliban and al Qaeda;
• Afghanis take great pride in eventually ousting from their ruggedly mountainous terrain all foreign invaders for the last fifteen centuries and now view the U.S. and its NATO allies as foreign invaders.

In sum, relatively minor increases in the number of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan (seven thousand or even a hundred thousand) will not permanently alter our inability to impose the regime of our choice on the Afghanis. The Karzai government does not and has not ever had the ability to govern Afghanistan.

From a moral perspective, the U.S. needs to take several important steps. First, the U.S. must begin to speak the truth about the situation in Afghanistan. The elections did not create democracy. Without external backing (money and military might), the Karzai government would either openly function as one among several warlords or have ceased to exist. Second, the U.S. needs to focus on the primary reason it invaded Afghanistan, that is, to destroy al Qaeda. Third, the U.S., through the application of excessive force intended to protect its own military personnel, increasingly alienates Afghanis. The recent acknowledgment that an attack on the Taliban resulted in thirty plus noncombatant deaths is only one example of this. All humans are of equal worth in God's sight. A military operation that requires valuing U.S. lives above those of others cannot satisfy the just war criteria of proportionality (the good achieved outweighs the harm done) and of noncombatant immunity (only attack enemy combatants).

In view of the above, the U.S. must rapidly develop an exit strategy that will minimize the loss of life on all sides. Prolonged occupation of Afghanistan lacks both moral justification and a reasonable chance of success, however one might define that term. Concurrently, the U.S., NATO, and their international partners should employ force to apprehend or destroy morally legitimate targets (e.g., Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda training camps). This use of force must always satisfy a high moral standard (attacking only well-identified targets, inserting and then quickly removing troops once the attack is completed, balancing force protection fairly with the imperative to protect non-combatants, etc.). Adhering to this pattern of operations demonstrates that the U.S. does not want to occupy Muslim territory, does not want to impose Western culture on Muslims, but will defend itself against terrorists in a forcefully and morally appropriate manner.

The Rev. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He blogs at Ethical Musings.

A chaplain in Baghdad

Excerpted from War in the Garden of Eden: A Military Chaplain's Memoir from Baghdad (Seabury Books.)

By Frank E. Wismer III

The first Sunday afternoon that I visited St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad to lead worship was an unforgettable experience. Following the service, I was standing outside the church building, speaking to Maher Dahkil. Maher worked as a translator for the U.S. military. The U.S. military hires both linguists and translators for work with our forces when deployed internationally. Linguists are individuals who are fluent in English and can help military personnel converse with the local nationals. Translators are those who are not only fluent in English but can also read and write English and thus translate documents from or into English. Maher worked within the Green Zone as a translator at the 28th CSH. He assisted the hospital staff in communicating with Iraqis who were brought in for treatment. He also visited with Iraqi nationals who had been admitted to the hospital.

One of the things I have discovered about individuals who are converts to anything is that they are more ardent in their beliefs than those who have grown up with the things in which they believe. Maher Dahkil was no exception. Maher was a convert to Christianity from Mandeanism. [ed. note: the Mandeans are descendents of the original disciples of John the Baptist.] He possessed a burning desire to share his newfound beliefs with everyone with whom he came into contact. He explained to me that he visited the suicide bomber and other Muslim terrorists in the hospital wards and always shared his faith with them. He encouraged them to embrace Christianity and renounce their life of terrorism.

I was the only non–Arabic speaker at St. George’s when I went there to conduct services. Maher served as my linguist during worship. He would also pick me up in the Green Zone and escort me to the church in his 1983 beat-up white Toyota sedan (I’ll come back to his car in a bit). As I said, I was speaking with Maher following my first Sunday conducting services at St. George’s. It is customary following worship that groups of people will chat with each other to catch up on one another’s activities. I spied a small group of people chatting rather loudly about some topic, turned to Maher and inquired, “Maher what are they talking about?” He responded, “I haven’t got a clue. They’re speaking Aramaic.”

Aramaic was the language of Jesus. I was taught in seminary that it was a dead language and lost forever to the world. But here in Baghdad I had just worshipped with people who still speak the language of Jesus. I felt as if I had been transported back into the Bible. I was living in the land of the Garden of Eden with people who spoke Aramaic. What was even more incredible is that the person who was my translator had not that long ago been a follower of John the Baptist. This was the adventure of a lifetime!

My Sundays in Baghdad followed a daily pattern. I conducted an Episcopal-Lutheran-Anglican service at 0730 hours in the chapel at the palace. I then led a general Protestant service at 1000 hours at the palace. On Sunday afternoons, Maher Dahkil, a translator who had converted to Christianity from Mandeanism arrived at the palace to pick me up and secret me out of the Green Zone to St. George’s Anglican Church. I conducted a 1600 hours service there and then went to Maher’s home for dinner following the worship. Since the service at St. George’s was always two hours long and dinner followed, I didn’t generally return to the Green Zone until about 2100 hours. Actually, my Sunday routine began at noon on Saturday. For it was at about noon on Saturday that the struggle within me started regarding whether or not I would be putting
my life on the line by going to St. George’s the following day. Traveling out of the Green Zone always carried with it the possibility for injury or death. And worshipping with a Christian Community in Iraq was also cause for concern. Churches were being bombed and Christians murdered at church on Sunday by terrorists. The decision to go to Church in Iraq is not simply a matter of what one is to wear or a question of whether or not one feels likes going. It is a life-and-death decision that places one in a very precarious position. I would be traveling out of the Green Zone in Maher’s old Toyota.

We in the United States take for granted that the automobiles we see on the road are safe to be driven. Cars that are imported by individuals into the U.S. must meet government safety regulations. If one were to buy a car in Europe and then have it shipped to the United States, many upgrades would need to be made before it can be registered to be operated. This is not the case in Iraq. Not only was Maher’s car old, it was a wreck! The windshield had a number of cracks running lengthwise. The doors didn’t all open, and the lights didn’t work well at night. Lord knows what else was the matter with the car. It was certainly not a vehicle that one could trust on a long journey.

Maher would appear across the street from the palace in his car. I would hop in wearing civilian clothes, and he would drive me out one of the Green Zone gates to the church. Chaplains do not carry weapons, so I had no means of defending myself against armed attack. Moreover, by leaving the Green Zone with Maher unescorted by security or military personnel I was violating all force protection protocols. The thing I worried about the most in contemplating my weekly pilgrimage to St. George’s was not being killed. It was the possibility of being wounded or kidnapped and held for ransom. Had that happened, I would have been a world of trouble because I knowingly violated U.S. policy! After I arrived at St. George’s and greeted members of the congregation, the turmoil I experienced about going to church vanished. I was with a wonderful community of Christians who were dedicated to their faith and their Lord. Once I was caught up in the worship, all fears vanished, and I was pleased that I’d determined to lead worship for one more week. I do remember one Sunday, however, when Maher called to inform me that he would be unable to travel into the Green Zone. The gates had been locked down for security purposes in response to a recent attack. When I learned that I wouldn’t be traveling to church that day, I must admit that I was relieved.

One Sunday following church, as I ate dinner with Maher, his wife, and his daughter and son, explosions erupted in the neighborhood around Maher’s house. We all went up on his roof to see what was going on and saw a number of fi res in homes on streets nearby. Later I was to learn that a terrorist had intended to attack the Green Zone with a dozen rockets. He was rather inept at his trade, and all the rockets landed in Maher’s neighborhood. What immediately dawned on me is that our security personnel at the entrances to the Green Zone would be on heightened alert. What if Maher’s old Toyota had bad brakes? What if we could not stop when ordered to by the Iraqi and American soldiers? I’d end up getting killed by my own folks! As it turned out, Maher’s car did halt at the checkpoint, and I was permitted to walk a mile and a half back to the palace.

Two events stand out in my mind during the eight months I led worship at St.George’s Anglican Church, Baghdad. The first occurred at Christmas time, andthe second just prior to Easter. The two events were similar in nature. I had just finished leading the service, and the women of the congregation were bringing their children forward for me to bless them. Suddenly at the entrance to the church fifteen Muslim women escorted by two Muslim men appeared. They had been across the street at a wedding reception for a Muslim couple and had seen the light on the cross of the church lit up. They left the reception and came into the church looking for blessings on the newlyweds from Jesus. I think that they wanted some sort of icon with Jesus’ picture on it to take back to the reception.

The other occasion that stands out in my mind took place in much the same manner as the visit by the women from the wedding reception. This time five Muslim women entered the church at the end of the service and were near the entrance looking for something. I asked Maher to inquire of them what they wanted. He reported back to me that they were members of an extended family all living together in a two-room apartment. And guess what? They were having trouble getting along with one another. They had come to the church seeking blessings from Jesus and the Virgin Mary. I asked Maher to speak with them and find out if they would like me, the Christian priest, to pray with them. In a moment he returned with the women and we formed a circle in the nave of the church, and I prayed for them in the name of Jesus Christ and asked his blessing upon them and their family.

Then something very strange and unexpected happened. One of the women for whom I had just prayed stated through Maher that she had been having back pain for years and would I pray for her for healing. I asked Maher if it would be all right for me to lay hands on her while praying. There was no way in the world that I was going to touch a Muslim woman without permission!

She gave her assent, and I laid hands on her and prayed. I don’t know how what I said in English translated into Arabic. I can tell you that Maher’s translation was quite a bit longer than my prayer. It was evident that he knew exactly what Arab women expect to hear proclaimed in a prayer and had loosely translated what I said. Following my prayer another of the women asked that I lay hands on her and pray because of some other ailment. Again Maher translated
what I had said and went on for quite some time.

The Rev. Frank E. Wismer III, was a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve from 1982 to 2008. He served as the senior chaplain for the Coalition Provision Authority from April 2003 to May 2004. This article is excerpted from War in the Garden of Eden: A Military Chaplain's Memoir from Baghdad .

All Hallows

By Derek Olsen

A cold wind flaps my coat-tails and whirls a cloud of dead leaves about my feet as I walk my elder daughter to the bus stop. They rasp voicelessly on the concrete and my thoughts finds them a flock with words, warnings, pleas, spoken—but not understood. A passage of Homer flickers to mind: Odysseus, sword drawn, keeping the rustling flock of shades at bay from the invigorating blood of the black sheep that gives back voice to a fallen comrade, to an ancient prophet, to the hero’s mother—strangers joined only in death. For the dead have been on my mind.

It’s only natural, I suppose—in the most literal kind of way. As the sun rounds another corner, the hours of night overtake the day; the vibrant star’s light dims to watery wintry shadow and, harvest passing, the fields fall fallow—corn stubble awaiting a blanket of snow. The signs of the earth turn to sleep or death. With signals like these it’s only natural my pagan precursors identified the passage from day’s supremacy to night’s to be a passage between worlds, a time when the dead souls return to be blown about our lands toothlessly muttering words, warnings, pleas to the living. With the coming of Christ to the British Isles, the soul cakes were offered to wandering strangers rather than the family dead; flickering faces lit visitors rather than turning away spiteful spirits. For All Hallows’ Eve and All Hallows and All Souls replaced and displaced the former pagan feast.

All Hallows—or All Saints as we know it now (the Latin “saints” replacing the Saxon with the same sense)—is something of a confusion in these latter days. Who we remember, what we remember, and why has been blurred: sometimes on accident, sometimes on purpose. All Saints, All Souls, and the difference between them lie at the intersection of the Church’s musings on Scripture, on the Church Expectant, the Church Triumphant, and the overarching principle of the baptized dead knit into the living Christ.

All Hallows is for the Church Triumphant, those spirits and souls of the righteous who already rejoice in the ineffable splendor of the appearance of the glory of God. For these are those who already harmonize in the great chorus and who unceasingly lay down their petitions before the Throne, praying for we who yet linger here.

All Souls is for the Church Expectant who rest from their labors, who sleep in the earth awaiting the last trumpet when the earth shall flee away, the sky roll like a scroll, and our great company shall throng to the judgment seat.

Images fill my mind, of the Great Judgment, the Last Day, snatches of songs, paintings half- remembered from medieval books on penitence and prayer. Pre-modern in aspect, pre-modern in assumptions, a pervading truth permeates the scenes. It shall not be as they envisioned, it shall not be as I envision and yet…

And yet…

My mind turns to the font and the flood for this is the center of this belief that yea, though they die, yet shall they live, knit to the marrow, the sinew, the bone, knit in the body of the Living Christ. Held in the mind of God, held in the heart of God, whatever our state of wake or rest we are hid with Christ in God.

Today we walked amongst the dead.

As sunlight filtered through fallen lives, my girls and I sat with gravestones.

Walnuts lay thick their husks and shells, and we sat and filled bags—much to the squirrels’ chagrin. Down on my knees, I dug out the walnuts, cleared them away with the rest of the parish volunteers. My flirtatious five-year old finding a friend, laughed and skipped as she gathered the shells, laughter pealing like little bells over mossy stones and markers. The other, tired, threw herself upon a marble slab and stared at the sunlit sky. At first I tried to hush and shush them, to remind them of the reverence due this place, and then I thought of the music of voices and of how they rang in this silent space and remembered that we walked among friends. And a trumpet sounded its clarion call, the sound drifting over the waiting stones, but it came from the organ inside of the church that lay at the center of the stones—tuning for the day’s second service. St. Paul’s words then came to my mind: “Sleeper awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.”

No Homeric scene this with the blood of goats and shades that mutter and warn. There is blood, it gives life—but not as the old poet sang. For the cup that we share and the loaf that we break is a sharing in the life of our God. And here in the church-yard we gather as one—those on high, those in sleep, those awake—and we gather at the table that is an altar and a tomb and we share in the mysteries of God. For the communion we share links the living and dead, finds all those knit together in Christ, and invites us to share in the promise of that place, a life hid together in God.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. His full-time calling of keeping up with two adorable girls and his wife, an Episcopal priest, is complicated by his day-job as an IT Consultant. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc.

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