Good Riddance Day

By Jean Fitzpatrick

Everybody knows about the ball dropping, but Good Riddance Day in Times Square is a newer tradition, only two years old. "SHRED YOUR BAD MEMORIES – EVERYTHING FROM WORTHLESS STOCK CERTIFICATES AND DEPRESSING BANK STATEMENTS TO PHOTOS OF OLD LOVERS AND DEAR JOHN LETTERS – IN THE HEART OF TIMES SQUARE," read the invitation on Craigslist. For just one hour on December 28, shredders were stationed along Broadway between 45th and 47th Streets, near the snazzy new TKTS booth, where New Yorkers or tourists could discard any distasteful, embarrassing or depressing memories from 2008. Passers-by could also write their bad memories on stationery available onsite and watch them get shredded. Or you could post your message online to be printed out, shredded and carted away for disposal or recycling. "Because sometimes," said the Times Square Alliance invitation, "you just need to let go."

And let go they did, getting things off their chest with all the spontaneity New York inspires in residents and visitors. One woman shredded a photograph of her ex-fiance posing with his current girlfriend. A Brooklyn man brought a picture of his appendix, taken after it was removed during emergency surgery. A woman visiting from San Diego used the onsite stationery to write "strife with my family," and her 13-year-old daughter wrote "getting bad grades on report cards." Another woman shredded a printout of her boyfriend's email breaking up with her. A Yankee fan shredded a poster of the Boston Red Sox: "I hate them," she said. "It felt good."

This year's Good Riddance Day saw the addition of a sledgehammer "to pulverize all those bad memories away." You could bring a broken cell phone or DVD player and a Times Square Alliance worker in protective glasses would smash it to smithereens.

The event was "part early-spring cleaning and part public exorcism, without the benefit of a cleric," The New York Times "City Room" blog noted in its coverage of the event's 2006 inauguration. A clean slate for the new year. Can we learn something here? People may be attending church less, but they are apparently still attracted to public rituals, at least those that speak their language. What are churches offering to help people let go of pain? Shredding and sledgehammers are a far cry from the reverent Anglican tradition, of course, although the Psalmist would certainly have understood that Yankee fan's desire to destroy her enemy. But what if we held a service that responded to our human need to transcend hurt and disappointment, one whose sole purpose was to welcome newcomers to the overflowing, unconditional love of God? Most of the churches I know happily welcome dogs and cats and goldfish from miles around for an annual St. Francis Day blessing. Does anyone out there celebrate the New Year by offering a similar ritual for human beings? A simple service that conveys acceptance and forgiveness and hope?

I can already hear my clergy friends protesting: that's what every service is designed to do, it's what confession is all about, it's what Advent and Lent are for, not to mention Good Friday, Christmas and Easter. But judging by our declining numbers, it's not clear that the word is getting out. Many nonchurchgoers still seem to think religion is about getting up too early on a Sunday and either getting scolded or sitting through a dull service that doesn't speak to their real-life struggles or longings. My public library does a better job getting the word out about its Amnesty Day.

I say it's time to launch a Hit the Spiritual Reset Button service. How about it? And we can advertise it on Craigslist.

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst and a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth and has a website at www.pastoralcounseling.net.

The currency of trust, the currency of faith

The Daily Episcopalian will be the Somewhat-Less-Frequent Episcopalian during the Christmas holidays.

By Adrian Worsfold

There is a closer relationship between the worlds of finance and religion than we might imagine.

My ten pound sterling note says: I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of Ten Pounds. This once meant gold; what's more important, and what actually functions, is the promise. Money is trust and relationship, and when it breaks down so does the economy.

Life is full of encounters, and the economic encounter is the one where we pay money hoping to receive goods or services we think are of greater or equal value as the money we hand over. Profit or surplus is the name of the game at every transaction. So it is with work: is my work worth more than the wage? Plus, money allows us to defer products and services: to save, invest and consume with a greater surplus because it is functional at times different from the restrictions imposed by barter.

However, something else happens at exchanges: we develop relationships of mutual dependency. This happens in small towns between customers and traders, but it also happens multinationally. The theory of the European Union is that if every economy is tied in together and we have common identities through economic activity, then no country in the EU would ever fight another country in the EU. It pushes old tribal boundaries outwards through exchange.

This binding effect is an extra product of our economic activity: and binding is religious.

When we go to a group meeting we do exchanges of interest. I used to be a member of a camera club and also a painting group. The camera club was contemporary-technological, individualist, competitive and male; the painting club was old-technology, collective, supportative and largely female. Each of these had a different binding effect, of different qualities, but both arguably instrumental and specific. We give materially to such groups and receive a benefit, and associate with the like minded.

Now religion should be an overview, and not specific. It involves material giving, but should involve too a hoped for gift. Of course much religion is specialist, dogmatic, narrow and focused on its gathered number, not unlike the camera club or painting society. I would argue that this reduces the sense of overview, and that something much more communal should be aimed for.

There is another parallel too. Like the ten pounds is a promise, the material itself being worthless, also the handshake of the Peace, and the tokens of the Eucharist, are pretty worthless actions or tokens in themselves. The discs are nutritionally nil, and the wine is not the sort you'd have at parties. But there is an intention and promise attached, and the simple gesture and worthless tokens bind one another together, and give the impetus to go out and serve the community.

There is a further parallel of our time, too. Too much money, and you get (simply) inflation; clip the coinage, and you get a lack of trust. I'd suggest that too many gift-exchange rituals reduces their impact, and that rushing them and lack of reverence does too. Also, if we continue to express beliefs that actually contradict what people actually believe in day to day living, then that reduces the trust in the product too. We should be careful that we don't have the religious equivalent of the lack of trust as in Lehman Brothers.

Our religious meeting houses are quite precious places, because of what they represent. They are like assets, and real assets that are involved when we carry out ritual gift-exchanges. If these assets are debased, by undermining what is precious, either through church politics emphasising internal superiority and, again, excessive claims to truth, then that false expansion of claims and self-importance will be exposed. It is very dangerous to trade on purity over pollution (moral superiority), because when the scandals come (as they do) the bubble bursts and the mess is everywhere. It takes a long time to clean up.

One of these phenomena is evidenced in the UK in the rise of importance of the church car park, if there is one. Ideally, the church is in a parish and there is a reasonable walking distance. Some drive, of course. However, in some places we see the development of, in particular, evangelical and charismatic churches where cars park after considerable journeys across cities and over country. Such churches advertise their numbers as evidence of success. Yet, where these expansions happen, we see a churn effect on similar churches in the area, where they too seem to be 'doing the right thing' but struggle as groups of religious drivers change their destination car park. The expectation of growth and more growth, often centred around these expanding places, simply does not equate with the overall figures of attendance in society. Bubbles of expectation will burst.

Such churches often complain that they gather the money and send it to the diocese, and other churches of different theologies spend it. It is by no means as simple as this, but the issue is whether such surplus churches want to see a broader coverage, or keep surpluses to themselves. There may be strings attached, say of dogma and belief, but such holding back debases the connection between communities and churches, a relating to people as they are rather than to a specific kind of gathered faithful.

There is a common theme here, that runs between the operation of exchange and the realisation of gift-exchange, and it is that of trust. When trust is sufficiently weakened, the system collapses.

There is always mistrust in the system; there are crooked and distorted parts of the economy and in the world of churches and religion. Nevertheless, there is that moment, the undetectable moment, when the marginal event takes place, where a system comes crashing down. What was once inflated then has to deflate before matters can begin again, with a new equilibrium to be found at a lower level than before.

Some people have tried to bring down The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada by persistent campaigning and misrepresentation. Now that there has been a separation, the currency of TEC and ACC can be re-established. We will see just how relevant and continuous the separators will be. They will continue, even when separated, to attack the former home (as a means to recruit), but this is likely to be their own obsessive debasement, and they will be seen more widely to be a peculiar sect that cannot let go. The bigger body continues, and tries to engage with broader currents in society and build up trust with that society. It is what all Churches have to do - connect - and do it without inflation of whatever kind as they carry out their gift-exchange activity.

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 where he explored this issue in greater detail.

The Missing Magnificat

By Deirdre Good

Is it merely clergy-centered myopia that omits Mary's song of praise, the Magnificat, from the Eucharist on any Sunday in the year, never mind Advent or Christmas? After all, we are following Luke's story of Jesus' nativity centered on two related pregnant women, Elizabeth and Mary and their husbands, Zechariah and Joseph. In it, Luke describes the angel Gabriel's visit to Mary to announce that she would give birth to a child before she had sexual relations with her husband. This puzzling feature of Luke's story is confirmed by the angel's news of the miraculous pregnancy of her elderly relative Elizabeth. After the angel departs, Mary goes immediately to verify the news of Elizabeth's divinely engineered pregnancy. Then she sings of God's elevation of her lowly status as the means of the exaltation of the humble through the coming of the Messiah:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed;
the Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his name.

He has mercy on those who fear him,
from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm
and has scattered the proud in their conceit,

Casting down the mighty from their thrones
and lifting up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good thing
and sent the rich away empty.

He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
to remember his promise of mercy,

The promise made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children for ever.

Of course, clergy, professional religious, and some lay people say the Magnificat in the Daily Office -- a time when few people are in church, and fewer reciting it at home. In this setting it functions as a canticle of praise, and one of the few occasions when a women's voice is used as a vehicle for the universal voice of all believers. But why does the Church's Eucharistic lectionary neglect this powerful song of praise on Sunday, the one day of the week it might actually reach the laity?

Is it because the account of Jesus' birth has dramatic implications for male agency in the gospel and even in Christian tradition? Karl Barth, the great Protestant theologian notes: "the male, as the specific agent of human action and history with his responsibility for developing the human species, must now retreat into the background.." And even as male agency is silenced and diminished in favor of divine action in the story of Jesus' birth, others who have no reproductive role such as widows and eunuchs are raised up in Luke-Acts. Far from being "dry trees," widows and eunuchs are powerful models of faithful persistence and confession. The widow of Luke 18, for example, pleads and then faces down the resistant judge and she succeeds in physically threatening him enough to render a decision in her favor. It is she, not the judge, who embodies divine power. The Ethiopian eunuch makes the first confession of faith in Acts, especially if we read Acts 8:37 (missing in some translations but known in the second century to Irenaeus): "Then Philip said, 'If you believe with all your heart, you may.' And he answered and said, 'I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.'"

Mary's Magnificat publicly celebrates in a prophetic voice God's mighty deeds in the immediate past. In one Bible study group, when I pointed out that Mary knew stories of God's intervention in Hebrew Scriptures because she was a devout Jewish woman, a woman exclaimed, "I've always wondered where she got what she sang!" Mary prophesies that reversal is characteristic of divine intervention in human affairs, that God's concern is for the lowly and despised. She celebrates God's power to act on behalf of those marginalized and ostracized to the extent of casting the mighty down from their thrones. Why don't we encounter this powerful message in our central liturgies? Why doesn't the Hymnal 1982 have a metrical setting of the Magnificat in its Advent or Christmas section? After all, without Mary's assent and prophetic witness, there wouldn't be an incarnation - or a Christmas! -- at all.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. Her blog is called On Not Being a Sausage.

Hesitation before the holy

By Andrew Gerns

As I write this, I am finishing up my annual Advent & Christmas trip around boundaries of the parish. Like many priests and deacons in all kinds of places, I have been going around bringing communion to the home-bound members of the parish. The Sunday after Christmas, lay people will fan out across this same parish taking with them the poinsettias that at the moment adorn our chancel.

There is a strange dance that happens in preparation for this trek: some people eagerly welcome my arrival, some resist; some are glad, some are hesitant. I have been here long enough to know which person will welcome my call, who will be polite, and who will call the ‘morning of’ and tell me that they cannot receive me and that they will call me when they can.

Here is the funny part: they will gladly accept the flower and, like the disciples that Jesus sent out in pairs, the people who bring them will come back chattering excitedly at having been received and how appreciated the flowers were and what a wonderful conversation they had. It is a strange dance. I will accept the plant but not the sacrament. I will welcome a mom and her daughter bearing a poinsettia but not the priest, deacon or lay Eucharistic minister bringing the sacrament.

As the Orthodox might say: It is a Great Holy Mystery!

It’s a mystery I’ve contemplated my whole ordained ministry both in parishes and as a chaplain. In the hospital world, it was a constant battle to get admissions registrars to routinely ask patients for the “religious preference” of patients. (This always struck me as a strange way to phrase it. All I can think is ‘Well right now I am mad at the Episcopal Church so today I prefer….Buddhist…or some profitable cult.’ Why not simply ask “Do you go to a church, synagogue or mosque? Would you like us to call them?”) When they did ask ‘the question’, usually about 33% of patients would offer “no preference” or if they had one would not permit us to tell their pastors that they were in the hospital. And yet….when we chaplains would visit these same people, we found that not only was there an often rich spiritual story and that very many of them were, at least tangentially, connected to a community of faith. Often they would tell us that just didn’t want to “bother” the pastor.

The mystery, my dear Watson, is this: why is there such a disconnect between the initial question and ultimate response? The answer is elemental but not simple.
I am not sure how, but I think that this pattern is connected to another pattern that we chaplains could nearly always count on: that the really good conversations rarely began until after the “closing” prayer has been said. Sometimes this occurred because of the need of the patient and chaplain to clear away the religious agenda. That having been done, real relationship can happen.

More often, though, I have come to believe that prayer is a more effective opening of the heart than mere conversation. The pastors, clergy, lay visitors and chaplains who come in solely to dispense a sacrament or a ritual or a scripted word of comfort and then leave as soon as their token is confected are missing out on something: that the strange combination of silence, listening and symbols have power to unlock a person’s soul. One only needs to be quiet and wait.

People are protective of their souls. And well they should be. There are thousands of reasons why a person may not want to open, or even be conscious of, what’s going on in there. It may feel like something rolling and sloshing inside us that we can barely contain. If we open up that space, even for a second, then who knows what may come out?

It is not good to pester people even in the guise of being pastoral. I believe that pastoral caregivers should respect a person’s choice to receive or not receive pastoral care, and that is true both in the parish as well as in the hospital. I also don’t believe that we should paint ourselves into corners.

My personal inclination to take people at their word when they say “not now.” But then the task becomes listening around the edges for the other ways they communicate their concern. Like the other day, a person going through a particularly rough out-patient course of treatment is pretty evasive when I want to initiate a visit, but she always manages to “drop in” at the office on some kind of errand and just happens to mention to the parish secretary what is going on in her treatment. And when that happens, I have learned to smile, nod and then about 24 hours later make a phone call that sounds like a check in but is subtitled “Roger, tower, message received.” The trick is not to get anxious about either their choices or the possibility of my inaccurate perception. Checking in every now and then may be all that’s required.

It may be that the initial hesitation may be nothing more than a bushel covering a light. Here’s the challenge: it is usually not for me to rip away the bushel because in my impatience I might snuff out the candle. Maybe it is enough that the person tips back their own bushel just enough to let me see the light leak out just for a second. Not all of us are ready to turn those bushels into lamp-stands.

Which brings me back to the Great Holy Mystery. Why is it that the average person, the average believer, doesn’t tell the admissions clerk about their faith community? Why do some shut-ins and sick parishioners hide their ailments from their priests and deacons? Why do parishes search committees insist on calling “pastoral” priests, as long as they are “pastoral” with someone else? I believe it is because they are, on some non-verbal level, deeply aware of what’s going on—and are terrified to go there. It is all we can do to manage this physical ailment, the personal problem or whatever it is that’s pre-occupying us right now. Let’s not complicate things, okay?
So why persist? Why bother calling a person to ask them if they would like my visit and Christmas (or Easter or just “plain old”) Communion when I know they will say “let me call you when I am ready” and seem never to be ready? Well, for one thing, the request itself is holy. It is a small, momentary reminder that God and God’s people have not forgotten this person and even if the request doesn’t go anywhere, it is good to be remembered. And that’s why it’s okay that people might take the plant and not the priest, because something holy is happening there, too.

Maybe they want to just see me and not my communion kit. Maybe just checking in is enough.

Besides, you never know, they might say “yes.” Something might cause them to break through their functional fear and put aside their hesitation. If they do accept the invitation and if everything goes right and if God shows up (and God always does) then maybe something good will happen. Something mysterious. Something holy.

The Rev. Canon Andrew T. Gerns is Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Easton, Pennsylvania, chair of the Evangelism Commission of the Diocese of Bethlehem, and keeper of the blog “AndrewPlus: Fun ‘n’ Games in the Kingdom of God.”

The Christmas pageant

The Daily Episcopalian will be the Somewhat-Less-Frequent Episcopalian during the Christmas holidays.

By Peter Carey

Growing up in the church, I found one that one of the most powerful times in the year were these seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. While Easter may be the more central feast of our faith, for me, the present seasons had more weight. Perhaps it was the sense of anticipation, the sense that while we know that Christ has come, we also have a deep sense that the fullness of that gift has not yet been fully realized. Perhaps it was the way that the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament readings wove together the sense of longing for the Messiah. Perhaps also it was the tangible reminders of the Advent Wreath, the colors of the vestments, and, yes, even the garish Christmas decorations of the stores.

I think, however that the richness of this season was dependent upon that wonderful, and yet so chaotic, practice of putting on the Christmas pageant. St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Middlebury, Vermont was and is a vibrant church in a small college town where the Christmas pageant was a big deal. The pageant had the whole cast, from Mary to the wise men, to scads of shepherds to angels, to scores of sheep, to a donkey and a cow. The readings of the Christmas stories from Luke and Matthew alternated with the traditional hymns of Christmas. The pageant was fun for kids, and was (as I now appreciate) a ton of work for the adults in the church, and was a set- up for all kinds of chaos. In my own experience, in that first pageant, I had a hot and smelly paper mache donkey mask on my head, and struggled to see the “babe wrapped in swaddling clothes”. Each year, I was able to try on a different role, progressing through being a shepherd, to a wise man, and finally Joseph.

Beyond the cuteness and the fun, what the pageant offered was a space for us to experience the story of Christmas. Whether it was as a donkey nearby Mary and Joseph, or as an Angel proclaiming, “Fear Not,” the pageant carved a place within this holy narrative even for the likes of us. While the costumes sometimes smelled, and were uncomfortable or ill-fitting, they jump-started our imagination. In the midst of the holy chaos of those Christmas pageants spaces were opened for us to see and experience the Christmas story in a real and tangible way, and spaces were opened for us to experience God in our midst.

As I have experienced a couple dozen Christmases since then, I remember the smell of the paper mache, sitting on hand and knee as we sang “Away in a Manger,” and my own imagination was lit with the Holy Spirit in that pageant. Whether we have the chance to dress up as a character in one of these holy plays, we still have the chance to pray for the gift of imagination as we reflect upon the gift of the Incarnation, not as some far-off experience or something that only happens to those blessed people. God has opened up a space even for us, even in our own chaotic and busy lives, in these holy, and yet sometimes difficult seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. May we have the eyes to see, and the ears to hear, and the imagination to experience the gifts that been lovingly and freely given to us.

The Rev. Peter M. Carey is the school chaplain at St. Catherine's School for girls in Richmond, Virginia and is also on the clergy staff at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Richmond. He blogs at Santos Woodcarving Popsicles.

The discipline of waiting in a go-go world

By Jean Fitzpatrick

Le Trung, a Toronto inventor, has built himself a robot girlfriend. Aiko, who speaks about 13,000 sentences in Japanese and English, can do the cleaning, mix his favorite drink, and read him the newspaper headlines. She does algebra, trig and geometry, and tells the weather in foreign cities. Did I mention she has silicone breasts? Apparently after a heart attack Le Trung worried that he'd need someone to care for him in his old age. He couldn't wait to meet a real, live woman. Just couldn't wait.

These days in my psychotherapy practice, I'm hearing a lot about waiting. "How long am I going to feel this way?" says one woman, grieving after her fiancé left her and acutely aware of her biological clock's ticking.

"When will I meet someone I can have a real relationship with?" says a gay man sick of the dating scene.

"It's tough, not knowing yet what he'll decide, where we'll end up," says a woman working hard to mend a broken marriage. Nobody has raised the idea of creating a silicone robot. Mostly they're longing for a flesh-and-blood person to share coffee and a bagel with before rushing off to work, as long as they're lucky enough to still have a job. They're looking at the empty side of the bed and longing for someone to fill it with warmth and connection.

I can't say anybody has mentioned Advent. Too bad, as most of us have noticed, that the idea of a penitential season before Christmas doesn't play too well with ordinary civilians. Thanks to centuries of bad p.r., the whole idea tends to sound to the average person experiencing loss like a church plan to kick a person who's already down while everybody else is out whooping it up with Christmas sales and eggnog. Even Advent as a time of inner preparation for the joyous birth of hope leaves some people cold; when times are hard, it's not always easy to imagine oneself into the story of the infant in the manger. The hope of Christmas morning can sound like the ultimate bailout plan that collapsed.

In today's culture, when we find ourselves waiting -- not getting what we want -- most of us think there must be something wrong. Aren't we supposed to make things happen for ourselves? Aren't we supposed to be all that we can be? If I'm waiting for something I don't have yet, am I a loser? We end up angry, off-center, as though we've been robbed of something.

We all have experiences of dislocation and loss, of course, every single one of us. Every human life includes experiences of not-having, of not-there-yet, of doors closing. Absence, loss, and emptiness all drizzle like rain on the just and the unjust, and sometimes they pour. That's when it's helpful to recall, as Bill Tully pointed out in a recent, eloquent message to his flock at St. Bart's, that the Advent reference to coming signals not only the imminent birth of the babe in the manger, but points us toward end times and ultimate concerns. While we wait, we have a chance to feel the ground under our feet, to discover and experience what the Buddhist clinical psychologist Tara Brach calls the "sacred pause" and weave it into daily life.
Most of us find less-than-healthy ways to take that pause. People who have quit smoking often tell me that what they miss is those languid moments of time away from activities during the day. I just discovered that "The pause that refreshes," a phrase that's been running through my mind lately, was Coca-Cola's advertising slogan in none other than 1929.

When we stop trying to avoid the emptiness or thrash around in it or fill it up, and instead honor and walk with it -- with all the heaviness and slowness of a pregnant woman bumping along on a donkey -- we discover that we are not alone. Finding our way through the anger and hurt and fear, we are freed to simply feel. And watch. And wait.

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst and a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth and has a website at www.pastoralcounseling.net.

Advent anxiety

By Richard Helmer

December 1st hit with an unusual intensity this Advent, as the beginning of the season coincided with the secular realization that Christmas was coming, the economic woe was deepening, and the apocalyptic messages deep in our tradition were stepping forward. In the days since, I’ve spent a great deal of time talking people down from climbing walls, while watching and listening to them exercise the anxieties that have become too many to number.

It’s tempting to grump about the general state of people right before Christmas – the greater clamor of car horns, impatient traffic, exasperated shoppers, shallow commercialism, overly-exuberant holiday lovers, and children who melt down before their exhausted parents in store aisles and on street corners. Unresolved family dynamics show up at the table – whether God’s or our dining room’s. Some people around us who have been on edge all year go over at this time. Many of us working in or otherwise connected to the Church get to see all this happen and more in all its dramatic Technicolor. And then we are asked or expected to help pick up the pieces.

Even the Church itself seems to be suffering from an overly developed Advent anxiety this year. In early December, enormous attention turned to a small group of schismatic Anglicans who declared themselves the new province in North America. It’s a new province only because they say it is. Yet that’s enough to garner international headlines and worry some (yet again) that The Episcopal Church, if not the Anglican Communion, is at last collapsing.

As I watch the angst-ridden scampering and posturing, I keep returning in my prayers to that prescient phrase from the Night Prayer in A New Zealand Prayer Book:
“It is but lost labour that we haste to rise up early, and so late take rest, and eat the bread of anxiety.”

This defines not only what’s been going recently in ecclesiastical circles, but in the greater world of markets and global economics. That world is now becoming thread-bare, revealing underneath it the deeper threads of Advent: the recognition that things as we have known them are coming to an end. John the Baptist is calling us into the spooky wilderness across the Jordan. We are like Mary as an angel shows up in our chamber to announce we will carry impending judgment in the form of a tiny child. We are like Joseph when we are confronted with righteous plans shattered by inescapable scandal, and then we must try to make a compassionate decision.

It took me until this Advent to realize that anxiety – far from being a perennial nuisance – is an essential part of this season. It coincides with all the world collapsing, the failure of sound reason, the growing darkness, and all our best-made plans falling to pieces. Advent anxiety connects with our most profound fears that we don’t really have it figured out, whatever “it” is. Advent anxiety unwinds our sorry identity with our work or our success or our overinflated sense of virtue and self-righteousness. And it reveals the bread of anxiety we have been eating quietly and thoughtlessly all this year.

In our parish, our petitions each Sunday begin with these words: “As we wait. . .” Not even “As we prepare. . .” seems quite right, for anxiety paralyzes some of us spirituality this time of year. We can barely pray our way out of the gloom, let alone exalt the valleys and lay the mountains low. There are many ways to wait, after all, and one of them is with great anxiety.

But I wonder at the bread of anxiety, as it courses through us individually and as a community, leaving us necessarily empty and hollow. It shakes loose all of the indigestible and half-baked idolatries that have consumed and filled us to his point. It breaks our hearts open and creates a yawning chasm of need for true comfort and reassurance. It gives free reign to our skepticism, doubts, and bewilderment and reveals the carefully hidden shadows in and among us for all the world and even God to see and perhaps heal.

In a deep way, Advent anxiety opens up a womb among us for the Christ-child to enter. So far from rejecting it, we must move through it, if we are to embrace the peace of Christmas and the new life that it promises for a world of endings all around us.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer, a priest, pianist, and writer, serves as rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His 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.

The Baptist could tell it

By Greg Jones

Maya Angelou tells a funny story about a woman in a call-and-response style African-American church service, who had an interesting response to the Word of God - if only I could remember in which book she does. I'm getting older. But as I remember the story, one Sunday a large woman with a flower hat and a big white purse sat up front in church. As the preacher got going, she began to respond to his words with "Mmm-Hmm's," and by saying out loud: "Tell it!" As the sermon progressed her "Tell Its" got louder. Pretty soon, she was standing up, waving her hands, and crying out, "Tell It!" When she got so worked up she could no longer stay in place, for she was so connected to the sermon, she approached the preacher, and with a final "Tell It" she swung her arms wildly, and knocked him over.

Well there is something about John the Baptist which just "Tells It" too. Here was a man who took his work for the Lord one-hundred percent seriously. A prophet whose whole being was like a trumpet that the News of the Kingdom came blowing right through. A man who cared neither for his appearance nor his diet. A man who said what he was called to say, no matter what the consequence. A man who was loud and raw, and without interest in personal wealth or honor.

The Bible says that John the Baptist prepared the Way of the Lord in the Wilderness. He's the one Isaiah said would come and would identify the Messiah. John the Baptist was the great pointer to Jesus, the one who baptized him and said, "you are the One."

Here was a man who preached the Truth, and made even his enemies say, "Tell It." What he told was that God was coming into the World as the savior.

What about us? Can we ever "Tell it"? Do we ever even try? Part of Advent is waiting and watching, but I believe another part is trying to tell the Good News of the coming of the Lord.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ('Greg') is rector of St. Michael's in Raleigh, N.C. and the bass player in indie-rock band The Balsa Gliders - whose fourth studio release is available on iTunes. He blogs at fatherjones.com.

Christmas and the ethics of celebration

By Lauren R. Stanley

New York City is a lovely place to be this time of year. Decorations everywhere, lights, lights and more lights, big, colorful signs, special displays in store windows (and special areas set aside on the sidewalks so you can move slowly from window to window) …

It’s fascinating and delightful and designed to bring a smile to your face.

And, like so much else about America, it’s overwhelming and comes with completely unintended consequences.

I love the decorations, truly. I love driving down streets in Virginia and seeing them; coming to New York City at the height of the season is a special treat.

But every time I see the lights, the decorations and the special window displays, that one part of me that is grounded in dirt-poor, dirty Sudan rebels. I wonder at all the money that is spent, all the electricity that is being used (do stores have to put special money in their budgets to cover the added electricity for all those beautiful lights?).

Every time I have this feeling, I realize how much I don’t want to feel this way. I don’t want to be one of those people who live overseas in poor lands who rant and rage at all the excess that is America. After all, I am an American. I’ve lived the majority of my life in this country. I’ve put up the lights and decorations myself; granted, never to the extreme I am seeing on this little trip to New York, but still … this is part of my heritage, my culture, my history.

I remember stringing the lights myself. I recall wonderful nights spent trimming Christmas trees. I’ve decorated my own home and the homes of others. This is part of who I am.

But now my circumstances are different and I live in a small town in South Sudan, where we only have electricity a few hours a day at most, and would never dream of using it for tiny colored lights flashing on and off, changing colors …

Never mind the fact that I am an Episcopal priest, with a current theological focus on Advent, not Christmas. I’m not ready for Christmas yet, because I need this time to move through this season of waiting and watching faithfully.

So in the middle of the wonderful, bright, flashy displays that I see while walking the streets of New York, I struggle. I want to find a place within myself to enjoy that which I see, the gifts that are being offered to me, without forgetting the other part of my life, the one grounded in serving Christ in a faraway place where we don’t have enough of anything, much less the extra needed to decorate lavishly.

Alas, I haven’t yet figured out how to find the balance I seek. I still don’t know how to feel the joy of the season, accelerated as it is by this society, without feeling the angst at the wasted money that, to be honest, we all know could be put to better use.

It’s not that I don’t want to figure this out. I really do want to go Christmas shopping for the children in my family and in my friends’ families, wee ones who expect to get something and for whom a “donation has been made in your name” card isn’t going to cut it. I want to search out the toys, the books, the gift cards for music, and wrap up those gifts nicely and see the joy on the kids’ faces when they find that something special under the tree.

At the same time, I want to make sure I raise enough money to help those in need in Sudan, to take care of my “family” there, to be able to buy medicine for the sick and food for the hungry and clean water for as many people as possible.

But the balance that allows me to enjoy as well as serve – to serve as well as enjoy – still eludes me.

This feeling of being out of balance isn’t limited to New York or Christmas lights, either. It pervades all portions of my life, and is among the biggest struggles I have.

Recently, I watched a TV show in which a doctor/humanitarian in Africa returned to the United States and fell ill. He was ranting and raging about how we actually have all the money we need to care for the sick overseas, how we have the medicines stockpiled in this country, but won’t share them at a cost that poor Africans can afford. When this character took ill, he used his illness to call attention to the poor and needy overseas. He was grandstanding, and knew he was grandstanding, and he was willing to do whatever it took for this cause in which he believed so passionately. Even I was at least a little bit offended by his tactics. He was, I thought, going too far, turning himself into too much of a celebrity.

But part of me worried as well: Am I like that? Do I push too hard (this character truly engaged in ethical emotivisim to make people do what he wanted them to do)? Am I perceived as too “one-track,” unable to see the need elsewhere in this country and around the world?

By the end of the show, I decided that I wasn’t quite like this character, that I have a bit more balance, that I talk more about hope than despair – that I am not “just like him.” That was a comforting thought, but I realize I may have come to that conclusion simply to salve my conscience. Perhaps I am avoiding truths I don’t want to look at too closely.

All these thoughts swirl through my head as I wander the streets of New York these days. I see the displays and smile in wonderment, both at their beauty and at the complete waste of resources that could be much better used for those in tremendous need. And I wonder, too, at how to balance my need for beauty and joy in my life with my need to help those in greater need. I have no answer for this dilemma, not yet.

If nothing else, I do know this: My emotional struggle isn’t going away any time soon.

Which might not be a bad thing after all.

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.

Holy Chaos, or: What Episcopalians can learn from Baptists

By Emily M. D. Scott

I think that it is safe to say that my church, The Riverside Church, is in a Holy Chaos. Our interdenominational congregation (American Baptist Churches, USA and United Church of Christ) housed in a towering gothic Rockefeller-funded Nave on the border of Harlem and the Upper West Side, has never seen anything quite like this.

On his first Sunday as our new Senior Minister, The Rev. Dr. Brad R. Braxton descended from the pulpit, said a few words to our organist, and walked with purpose toward the pews. He told the congregation that this was the beginning of building a relationship of trust between pastor and people. And then he invited them forward. The Riverside Church had an Altar Call. People came forward to pray; they came forward to convert; they came forward to join our church. The liturgist of this assembly—and a cradle Episcopalian—I sat watching quietly and eagerly from the chancel. I felt something slip in me. It felt like a key in a well-oiled lock, unlatching and releasing, the door sliding ajar.

Each week now, our worship offers a Time of Invitation: a time for congregants to come forward and pray with clergy. As you can imagine, this new ritual has sent our congregation spinning in a number of different directions. Did you see what happened? a few of them said to me. Did you feel that? Did you see all those people come forward to pray? I told them that I did, and I had. Something was happening.

Two weeks later, I watched as Dr. Braxton led our congregation, all 1,000 of them, in singing Were You There When They Crucified My Lord. The spiritual was not listed in the bulletin; he led the song in response to the words of our guest preacher that day. Sitting on the front pew, my heart seemed to lift in my chest as the congregation, singing unaccompanied for the first time I’ve heard, tentatively found the melody, then, without effort, broke into a gentle harmony. At the end of each line we found a place of quiet, breathed as one, and sang on.

Each night as I pray for Riverside, I see in my mind’s eye a great wind that rattles the doors of the Nave from the outside. Suddenly the doors slam open and the wind, an almost visible force, sweeps through the church, sending dust and loose papers flying. The wind is fresh and seems to carry with it a warm, clear light. Each Sunday I arrive at work, the air seems fresher. The light filtered through our stained glass windows seems warmer. Even the stones, arching up to our vaulted ceiling, seem to hum.

I’m not sure about all of this, congregants have told me. A lot of people in this church left these traditions behind. That’s why they came here. They don’t want to go back to doing church like that. It seems to me that a lot of folks end up in the Episcopal Church for the very same reason. Many Episcopalians are refugees from other denominations, painfully excluded because of who we are or what we believe. For a long time, we left the Church. When we came back, we knew we needed to be part of something progressive, where we would never be told that God’s love excluded us. We also live with a visceral reaction to the language of the church we grew up with. We can’t bear to be around anything that feels like that place where we were so badly wounded.

I think my pastor, Dr. Braxton, would caution us not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Reading the opening chapters of Luke last night by the light of the Christmas lights strung across my apartment, I was struck by Gabriel’s words to Mary as he tells her she will bear God’s son. “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Mary asks the angel. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you,” comes his reply.

When have you been overpowered by the Holy Spirit? When have you felt God’s spirit overshadowing you, weaving together a work of God in the depth of your being? I know you have felt it – that moment when you are overcome with the beauty of life, the grace of time slipping through your fingers. In that moment, God is not only all around you, but within you, knitting together her hope for your life in the deepest place in your body.

Growing up at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle I felt that Spirit descend on me with earth-shattering force, most often as the new fire of the Easter Vigil was lit, or when the priest exclaimed, “Christ is Risen!” I’ve felt that undeniable sense of God in quiet places, tasting the familiar cadences of the Prayer Book as the light slipped away from the world each evening. I’ve seen Jesus dancing along with my friends as we circle the altar at St. Gregory of Nyssa. The Holy Spirit swirls over us as we move, dipping and dancing along with us. Like you, God comes to me in different ways and in different places.

But this Altar Call has me thinking. Watching Dr. Braxton lead worship, I am aware in a way I never have been of the work of the Spirit in worship. After singing Were You There, and praying with the folks who came forward that week, Dr. Braxton eased us right past the recessional hymn. We didn’t sing it at all. There’s a sweet spirit in the room, he told us, and asked our musicians to begin the postlude, as the clergy made their way to the rear of the Nave. It was the right way to end the service – the moment demanded it. Urban Holmes wrote that good liturgy leads regularly to the edge of chaos, a regular flirt with doom (Theology and Religious Renewal). These past weeks in worship, I’ve felt myself clearly standing dangerously on the edge of a precipice – nothing below me but God.

How often do we trick ourselves into believing that if we do everything right – if we use the right words and process the right way and bow at the right moments, God will be present in our worship? How often do we deceive ourselves into, as Aidan Kavanaugh so incisively wrote, “tam[ing] the Lion of Judah and [putting] him into a suburban zoo to entertain children (On Liturgical Theology)?

And how often to we believe, as we stand in the Narthex among the acolytes and choir members, that the cataclysmic Spirit of God just might thunder into our sanctuary, cracking open our familiar and comforting practices, and change the very lives of the people to whom we minister? How often do we trust that someone might be healed, that someone might be saved? How often do we trust our own ability to be the lighting rod to God’s presence and touch?

I ask these questions that we might stop and consider for a moment our visceral responses to the diversity of Christian practices. For just as worship that invites an emotional response from the congregation can be turned toward manipulation, worship that proceeds “by the book” can turn toward idolatry. Both traditions require leadership that is faithful and honest: that does not run rampant with the power of the pastor, and does not become convinced that our pageantry can control a living God.

Riverside is in a Holy Chaos. Letters are written, conversations are whispered, arms are crossed. It’s hard to accept change. It’s also hard to accept that you might not be the one in control. I know what it’s like to be convinced that if you do everything right, have everything just so, say the right thing at the right moment, God will smile and nod and say “well done.” But that’s simply not the case. While we’re fussing over the linens, over getting things right, God is sitting in a chair in the back of the room, wondering when we’re going to start listening to her. Just stop. And listen. And pray. That’s all she wants.

Emily M. D. Scott is a lay liturgist and an Episcopalian. She is currently the Director of Worship at The Riverside Church in New York City, and the founder of a budding church called St. Lydia’s, which meets weekly in Manhattan. She is a graduate of Yale Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music.

Death by shopping

By Melody Shobe

There’s a news story that I just can’t seem to get out of my head. It’s not the one about the current economic crisis, or the recommended bailouts. It’s not the one about the new president-elect and his selections for cabinet positions or hypotheses about what he’s going to do once he takes office. It’s not the one about splinter groups of the Episcopal Church. It’s not even one of the many stories about disease and poverty and civil unrest in Africa. It’s the one about a Wal-Mart in New York on the morning after Thanksgiving.

Maybe you heard this story. Here’s how it goes. In the predawn hours of “Black Friday,” Jdimytai Damour arrived at Wal-Mart. He’d only recently been hired there as a temporary worker for the holiday season to try and make some extra money to buy Christmas presents for his kids. Across the street from the Wal-Mart, a throng of shoppers had been building all night, filling sidewalks and stretching across a vast parking lot. The store was scheduled to open at 5 o’clock, and many of these shoppers had arrived hours before so that they could be the first to take advantage of the Black Friday sales.

Around 4:55, the crowd of more than 2,000 had become a rabble, and could be held back no longer. Fists banged and shoulders pressed on the sliding-glass double doors. Ten workers inside, including Mr. Damour tried to push back, but it was hopeless. The doors shattered against the onslaught, and the crazed shoppers surged through in a blind rush for holiday bargains. Caught in the melee was Mr. Damour, who was thrown back onto the black linoleum tiles and trampled in a stampede that streamed over and around him. Fellow employees and onlookers attempted to move into the onrushing crowd, but were thrown back. By the time rescue personnel got to his crushed body, Jdimytai Damour was dead. Hundreds of people had stepped on his body on the way to grab their purchases.

The crowd that trampled Mr. Damour was not rushing toward a food relief convoy. They were not starving as a result of some catastrophic drought or flood. This mob that broke down the doors of that Wal-Mart in Long Island was after discounted televisions and the hottest new toys. One person present at the Wal-Mart told a reporter that when the store managers announced over the PA that all shoppers must vacate the store because someone had been trampled to death, she heard several people remark flippantly that that they had waited a long time to get those bargains and weren’t going anywhere.

I am not sure what, exactly, has made this story stick so firmly in my mind. It was an awful, tragic death, but there were hundreds of thousands of other awful, tragic deaths that day. It wasn’t even a big news story; I had to search around to find it after someone told me about it. So why, of all the things that happened on Black Friday, is this the one that I can’t seem to shake?

I think, in part, this one stays with me because it hits pretty close to home. I am outraged and saddened by the tragedies happening in Africa and India that same day, but they seem very far away. The economic situation and the bailout numbers seem so large and distant from my experience to be ridiculous. I don’t have any stock, I’ve never lived in the developing world, I don’t know what it is like to be at war. But I waited in really long lines—more than once—to get the new iPhone when it came out. I went to the bookstore at midnight to get more than one of the Harry Potter books. I, too, have been bit with the bug of wanting to have a thing, a superfluous, silly thing, so badly that I would do crazy things for it.

What stuck with me, what appalled me about the Wal-Mart story, was that it could have been me. I’ve never pushed and shoved and been a part of a mob, but I could have been. The Wal-Mart story convicted me, as one of the wealthy people living in this wealthy country who has everything I could ever need and still wants more. It reminded me of what I am capable of, and cried out for me to confess my complicity in a society where these things happen.

I think this story also stuck with me because it is so apropos for this holy season of Advent. While the rest of the world tells me that it is already Christmas, that I should shop until I drop and sing out “Joy to the World,” the church tells me to wait and listen and watch. While the world tells me about the promise of Santa Claus to come, the church tells me to walk the pathways of the desert to hear the cry of John the Baptist in the wilderness. While the world shows me manger scenes with the Christ child already in them, the church reminds me that I are waiting and watching for the Christ who is yet to come. Thinking about Mr. Damour’s life and death has made me hear the readings for Advent in a new and different way. I have heard Isaiah tell me that Advent it about looking at the world and seeing it for what it really is, a world that is broken and desperately in need of salvation. And I have heard John the Baptist urge me to look at myself, and honestly acknowledge that I, too, am a part of that brokenness.

Because then, and only then, will I really be able to feel the longing for Christ to come into the world and save it. Then, and only then, will I be able to experience true joy when he actually does.

The Rev. Melody Shobe is a stranger in a strange land; she's a southerner now living in Rhode Island and working as Associate at Christ Church, Lincoln. She and her husband, the Rev. Casey Shobe, stubbornly continue to insist that "y'all" is much better than "you guys."

Mass-produced madness

By Luiz Coelho

Nobody can resist the capitalist Christmas madness. After all, everybody loves presents (some love receiving them even more). Some, who have children, might be engaged in the well-known pilgrimages to different malls and department stores, with whole-page toys lists (which usually include the most expensive and recently released toys). Other, more fortunate, have the possibility of actually choosing what to buy and give to their beloved ones. In both cases, however, many of our Christmas gifts may bear the ubiquitous tag: “Made in China.”

All of us, especially in these times of economic hardship, have wondered why all of a sudden, every single manufactured good seems to be made on the other side of the world. However, such reality only jumped to my eyes when, right after doing some religious shopping, I realized that even the statue of the Virgin Mary in my hands was also made... in China.

Suddenly, several questions came to my mind. How was the plant that produced the statue set up? Who made those little statues? Were they Christians? Probably not. But did they have any clue of what they were doing? I am scared to admit the answer is once again: probably not. And this leads me to the striking conclusion that even objects of devotion that are so dear to us are now produced in the coldest way possible.

In the last three months, my artwork was focused mainly on studying the Baudrillardian concept of hyperreality, applied to the visual arts. Such exploration will probably go on for years, as I more properly dig into the equivalent contemporary visual arts style. As an initial result, however, this exploration led to two series of paintings that expose the overwhelming presence of mass made imports on our shelves nowadays.

One of them, composed of twelve 12 inch by 12 inch acrylic paintings on panel depicts random objects which can be bought at any supermarket or department store, with their tags “Made in China” exposed to the viewer. Most of them were really made in China, but some others had their tags deliberately changed, in order to engage the viewer with the not-so-unrealistic possibility of having such objects really made in an environment of mass-production. At the end, is it possible to realize with certainty where an item is made?

made_in_china_set.jpg

Allow me to relate such topic to our initial discussion: Christmas and other religious gifts. Not so long ago, gifts – especially fine ones – were still produced in a way that somehow honored their final purpose. Imported products were frequently of very good quality, and different regions and countries were known for their fine crafts. That was the way, after all, that designer brands started. Nowadays, however, even local businesses rely heavily on cheap imports, mostly from China, that cover almost every single type of possible products.

My point here is not to criticize China, or imports from China per se. In fact, for centuries, the West has imported high quality goods from China. What worries me is the kind of reaction we should have to ubiquitous cheap imported products – especially at a time it is very hard to find alternative options. These products generally come from far away lands, and often look better, and “more real” than their hand-made and unique predecessors. Nevertheless, they do not point to any real past, and are the mere sub-product of industrial plants built only a few years ago. Human rights concerns, and the depletion of local companies, which cannot compete against the cheaper imports, are also issues that must be addressed, especially by people of faith, who theoretically espouse values of economic justice.

I do not have any pre-conceived answer to this problem and I am pretty sure that any “boycott” can be easily be forgotten after listening to the plea of a child who dreams about the newest electronic toy. Even everyday shopping duties, and objects that are necessary to modern life (such as computers and cell phones) force us to “close our eyes” and not question the evil we might possibly be supporting. But is there a way of implementing more responsible shopping practices, especially at Christmas, when we feel so compelled to look for sales and cheaper gifts? And, in the long run, how can people of faith help change this scenario? Are we still relevant enough to do something? What would Jesus do in this case, after all, especially since this is his birthday?

A new province? Not likely

By Phillip C. Cato

Much of the discussion, some of it quite impassioned, about the prospects of a new Province of the Anglican Communion being established in North America misses the mark.

In the Boy Scouts you are taught, when attempting to see an object in the dark, to look to the side of the area where you believe the object to be and the object will become more visible. There is, I believe, a wider applicability here.

Blogs, newspaper, and periodical articles have focused attention on the legality of parishes, dioceses, clergy, and bishops breaking away from the Episcopal Church, or on their announcing that they are putting themselves under another bishop’s or province’s jurisdiction. Not much is made of laity doing this because the laity has always been able to move around with impunity.

Objections have frequently been raised that the clergy who are departing are in violation of canon law and the promises that they made at their ordination. Parishes and dioceses are said to be in violation of their legal ties to the larger entities to which they belong, and which, in many cases, established them.

A lot of the discourse revolves around the issue of who owns the church property, and, for the moment, the property goes with the majority in this dispute. Dioceses are aggrieved, and have filed lawsuits, very expensive lawsuits, to retain what they claim to be their property.

All the talk about separation and schism creates anxiety among clergy and the laity and some bishops feel obligated to find ways to reassure them, claiming that the likelihood of these breakaways receiving permission to establish their own province is very unlikely. The bishops and other commentators even count potential votes among provincial leaders, betraying their own anxiety in this matter.

Much of this fretting is, in my view, the consequence of excessive concentration on the details of this de facto schism and its potential spread. The inability to see the real issue results from looking straight at it in the dark.

Look to the side. When you do, it will become apparent that there is no need to stampede or die of fright.

Long ago, I learned that in a strident controversy, it is instructive to grant the adversary their point in its entirety, and then step back and look at it as calmly as possible. Those who take strong and unbending positions are, more often than not, not all that sure of their claims. Else, why all the energy being put into the defense? The next step is to ask the question, “If they get their way entirely, what would the world (or my world) look like?” If necessary, the next question is, “Can I live in this world?” [There are more steps but they are irrelevant in this case, as will become clear.]

In this instance, I have concluded that the last question is not necessary. We will not have to live in that world, not because someone, like the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Anglican Consultative Council, will not allow it to happen. We will not have to live in it because the proposed province is completely untenable.

A philosopher might say that it will collapse because of its internal contradictions; the truth is more mundane and banal.

In this province, as proposed, we find strident Evangelicals, Charismatics, Anglo-Catholics, those who allow for the ordination of women to the priesthood and those who regard this as a metaphysical and theological and Biblical impossibility, those who were ordained and consecrated in the canonical ways of national churches in the Anglican Communion and those who have received express consecration in total disregard of any canons, those who are conflicted over the theological issue of Baptismal regeneration, those who have flirted with Rome and those who are of a radical Protestant bent, and a notorious collection of massive egos, unlikely to concede much in the way of theological, ecclesiastical, or Biblical views. All have shown complete disregard for their ordination vows and canonical obligations, and lay claim to property they do not own.

In your most generous imagination, can you conceive of such a coalition surviving? I cannot.

Looking to the side, and seeing the object in the dark, I feel quite reassured.

The Rev. Phillip C. Cato is a retired priest of the Diocese of Washington. His current work is in bioethics, for the National Institutes of Health, and professional ethics.

John and "the immersion
of mind change"

By Greg Jones

I would like to think that if I had lived in Jerusalem in the Anno Domini 20s, I'd have gone out to see John the Baptist in the Wilderness, for baptism and the forgiveness of sin. I'd like to think I'd have known I needed that repentance, that cleansing, that forgiveness. What about you? Wouldn't you like to think you'd be in that number; gone to see the Baptist in the desert; gone to wash away old ways and take on new ones?

Despite the popularity of the old book, I'm OK, You're OK -- I don't believe that. I am not O.K. And neither are you. Not on our own. Not as we are. Not without the Grace of God. As Mark explains in the first verses of the first chapter of the first Gospel -- the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ for all people happens when Grace works within us, making way for God's mercy to get through.

I'm referring to John's 'baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.' If you do a hyper literal translation of the Greek text of Mark 1:4, it says John announced "immersion of mind change." Immersion of mind change. John the Baptist says the way to wholeness in God's Kingdom, for salvation of body, mind and soul, requires an immersion of mind change, to put off sin and death.

When we submerge our life in God's, when we turn away from self-love and go toward God's love, that's when we become disciples. Have you taken that plunge yet? To seek a new life God's river? The call to take this plunge begins with baptism, but importantly extends to everyday renewal of the full baptismal covenant, with its affirmations about the Faith and the Mission of the Faithful.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ('Greg') is rector of St. Michael's in Raleigh, N.C. and the bass player in indie-rock band The Balsa Gliders - whose fourth studio release is available on iTunes. He blogs at fatherjones.com.

Get ready

By R. William Carroll

At my parish's Alternative campus and young adult ministry on Friday nights, we often sing both sacred and secular music. On the sacred side, we sing a variety of hymns from the hymnal, some Taize chants, and an occasional piece of praise music. On the secular side, James Taylor and Cat Stevens come to mind.

I mention the mix of musics, because I’ve had some very different melodies running through my head all week as I’ve pondered our reading from Isaiah. The fortieth chapter is one of the most beautiful in the whole book. Martin Luther was surely correct when he commented that from this point on, the prophet begins to do nothing but preach the Gospel.

The sacred music this chapter calls to mind is obvious enough. I can hear the string section now. It’s a couple of portions of Handel’s Messiah. Namely, “Comfort ye, my people, saith your God.” And “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” There are some other verses from our reading that Handel also set to music, but these are the two I’ve got stuck in my head. Meditating with Handel on these texts puts me in an Advent frame of mind. It brings me to that state of expectancy that I mentioned last Sunday, the one where we wait for the Lord in an active, vigilant manner. When we listen to music like this, we can come right up to the threshold of Christmas, without actually stepping in. By the way, if anyone has cheated and put his or her foot in the door, the “Advent police” would like to speak to you after the service.

Now, in the second week of Advent, our waiting becomes still more active, as the Baptist appears on the banks of Jordan with his piercing cry: “Repent,” he says, “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.” As he does in all the Gospels, John is quoting from Isaiah to explain his ministry as a forerunner. He does not negotiate with us. He does not ask us. He comes in God’s name and speaks the word of the Lord to us. It came to Isaiah before him and has now come to John himself. “Repent,” he orders us. “Turn your lives around." “Prepare the way,” he shouts. “Christ is coming soon.”

In their original context, these words had to do with the return of God’s People from their exile in Babylon. So many of them had been dragged away from their homes, when the Babylonians came and conquered Jerusalem in 586 BC. In the aftermath of defeat and exile, the prophet’s words announce what God is going to do. The People may be fickle and inconstant. They are like the grass which withers away. But the Lord God is coming with might. The living GOD is about to act.

Whether the People do their part or not, every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill be brought low. Whether they prepare the way or not, they shall soon be going home. Whether they are found worthy or not, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. Why? Because the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

As Isaiah describes the Lord’s Advent, he uses images that combine strength and gentleness. The stark imperatives of the prophet’s preaching and the certainty that God’s words will come to pass are juxtaposed with the injunction to “speak tenderly to Jerusalem” about the forgiveness of sins and the vision of God the shepherd feeding the flock. On the royal highway, God will gather the scattered lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom. God will gently lead the mother sheep and bring the whole flock safely home.

Nearly six hundred years later, John the Baptist applies Isaiah’s preaching to a new situation. Though they are back in the Promised Land, the People of Israel are again mourning in exile. They share the condition of lost and fallen humanity. They are in need, once more, of redemption and liberation. Pagan armies are once more in the land, as the Romans occupy Judea. The promise about a shepherd is the promise of a king. It concerns the Son of David. God is about to answer the People’s yearning by sending them the Messiah. John is aware of his unworthiness. He is not worthy to untie the shoes of the One who is coming. And yet he has come before Jesus, to prepare the way. Although he has been sent to baptize with water, the Lord himself is coming soon. And he will baptize with the Holy Spirit—the mighty, life-giving Spirit of God.

Last week, I mentioned that the waiting to which God calls us is like that of an expectant mother, longing for the birth of her child. It is also like that of an expectant couple, waiting to consummate their marriage. Both images fuse passion and tender love. Pregnancy, and especially labor, can evoke fierceness in women. But, when the child is born, the fierceness often gives way to an indescribable tenderness. The desire for physical union can involve the strongest and most unruly of passions, and yet at its best it unites us in enduring bonds of love.

That brings me to the secular music that I’ve not been able to get out of my head all week. It’s from Motown actually. Maybe that’s because, like so many Americans, I’ve got Detroit on my mind. I’d like us to imagine this song in the way medieval mystics interpreted the Song of Songs, as if God were one of the lovers and humanity the other. If anyone is offended, let me just say that I’ve toned the sermon down. The first version I wrote appealed to Marvin Gaye. The song I have in mind doesn’t have too much in common with Isaiah except perhaps the sense that Someone is coming, ready or not. Though they didn’t write it, the most famous version of the song is perhaps the one by the Temptations:

I never met a girl who makes me feel the way that you do. (You're alright) Whenever I'm asked who makes my dreams real, I say that you do. (You're outta sight) So, fee-fi-fo-fum Look out baby, 'cause here I come.

And I'm bringing you a love that's true.
So get ready, so get ready.
I'm gonna try to make you love me too.
So get ready, so get ready 'cause here I come.

At Christmas, the longing of a thousand generations is finally satisfied, as God comes among us in mercy. In the Incarnation, the union of God and humanity is consummated, as God (who has longed for us and sought us out for countless ages) at long last becomes bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. And we, who have given our hearts to many others, are united with the one and only Lover who’s faithful and true. God is the persistent Lover of us all. And God is indescribably beautiful—confident, attractive, tender, and strong. Advent is a pivotal point in the love story between God and humanity. It’s all about the courtship of the human race with our one true Love—the one Love in whom all our other loves become lovely. Like any courtship, this one aims at transformative union—one far more intimate than marriage.
There is much joy in our union with God. So much joy that, if we really think about it, we can hardly wait. Even now, the Church’s heart is racing. And the faces of the saints are flushed with anticipation.

So look out baby, here God comes. Get ready.

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.

Advent anticipation

By Derek Olsen

One day at the beginning of a new semester a student caught me after my class on the Church Year. She came from a non-liturgical Black Church tradition and found the discussions of the liturgical year and its practices fascinating, but still a bit foreign.

“So, the Resurrection of Jesus and the sending of the Holy Spirit are at the heart of our faith, right? Why cram them into one little season? I mean, we celebrate them every single Sunday—why wouldn’t you?”

“You’re absolutely right,” I responded, “That the Resurrection and the Spirit are too important for just one season. And I’d add in the Incarnation and the Crucifixion as well. These are at the heart of our faith and we’d be misunderstanding it if we weren’t keeping them central all through the year. Actually, in the Episcopal prayer book,” I said, gesturing to my ’79 Book of Common Prayer, “Every Sunday is kept as a feast of the resurrection and every Friday is kept as a memorial of the Crucifixion.”

“Okay—then how exactly do the seasons fit in then?” she asked.

“Think of the seasons as lenses,” I said. “We always proclaim the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection and the sending of the Spirit, but as the year progresses, we look at all four through the lenses that the seasons give us. It gives us different and more rounded perspectives when we can look at the Resurrection through the lens of Advent—that is, seeing it from a position of waiting and expectation. It means something else to look at the Incarnation through the lens of Lent—knowing that in the midst of our limitations, finitude, and sin that we have a Lord who was willing to take on limitation and death on our behalf. So looking at them through the whole year we get a better sense of the wonder of each of them.”

I think about that exchange often when we change liturgical seasons. It reminds me of the work that I need to do as we pass from one liturgical time to another. Every season I need to take my own advice to her and spend some time pondering what the seasons reveal about the whole of our faith when we take the time to connect the dots.

I love Advent. It’s our great season of eschatology, the season when we contemplate and await the in-breaking of divine power into our little worlds in a way that prefigures the great consummation in which we are fully joined into God’s reality. We consider the historical moments that have given us glimpses—the Annunciation and the Incarnation. We consider the poetry of promise in the words of the prophets who proclaimed the terrifying presence of God and the immanence of his coming in oracles and visions. We consider the promised Second Coming and the consummation of Christ’s victory. We consider our readiness to be a people who dwell in the very presence of God. And all of these considerations—pointed primarily towards Christmas and the Incarnation, yes—give us new eyes to see not only the Incarnation but the rest of God’s redemptive action as well.

One of the ways that the prayer book has helped us to do this is with the collect for Advent. In the English 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the collect for the First Sunday of Advent is appointed to be read after the Collect of the Day throughout the season. Every day at Morning and Evening Prayer, every Sunday through the four Sundays of Advent, this prayer would be read to keep Advent before our eyes. While our prayer book doesn’t do this, it’s an admirable custom that I’ve found profitable. Here’s the collect:

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Neatly weaving together images from Romans 13:11-14 (the Epistle used on this date for over a thousand years) and Luke 21:25-31 (the Gospel for the Second Sunday) with the themes of both the Incarnation and the Last Judgment, this collect stands as one of Cranmer’s greatest compositions. In the space of a few words, it captures the essence of the season and directs our spiritual course for the time—reflecting on the darkness that we put into action and praying for the grace that will change our darkness into light to be ready for Christ at his coming—as a baby at Bethlehem, as Judge on the last day, and as Savior into our waiting hearts.

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.

Closer to daybreak

By Heidi Shott

In my dream we were sitting around the table in a staff meeting at the diocesan office. A colleague announced that someone had discovered five snakes in the basement of the building. The Bishop turned to me in his empathic way that suggests he knows he's asking something difficult but that he feels you're up to it, and said, "Heidi, will you take care of that?"

I gulped and tried to muster the courage to say, "I'm the wrong person for the job."

"Mom?" I recognize this voice.

Colin, my son, my love, my beautiful child. Many times over the years I've chosen to ignore this nighttime voice. If I do that, I know it will return in five minutes just as plaintive. The sooner I answer, the sooner we'll both get back to sleep.

I throw off the covers and stand up. Scott turns onto his back, breathing loudly -- the Breathe Rite Strips he has so much faith in doing a poor job of it. I walk down the dark hall into Marty's room. Colin is on a mattress on the floor. Since he's been sleeping in his brother's room he hasn't been wakeful, so I'm a little pissed at this beckoning but also a little relieved to be sprung from snake retrieval duty.

"What, Col?" I ask.

"Bad dream," he says.

"It's almost daybreak," I lie. "It'll be light soon. Go back to sleep."

"Okay."

Back in bed I press the light on my travel alarm to read "3:35." Compared to the time between the building of the Egyptian pyramids and this very minute, it IS almost daybreak. I close my eyes and wait for the other shoe to drop. A few minutes pass.

"Mom?"

Back in the bedroom I lay down crossways at the foot of his mattress and say nothing.

"Don't talk," he says. "I don't want to wake up Martin." We settle down. After a moment Colin tosses a spare pillow my way. He has his tempur-pedic pillow that he blew his whole wad of Christmas and birthday money on at Brookstone.

We settle down again, but after 15 minutes I begin to get cold and restless with my legs hanging off the side. He knows I'm about to leave.

"I'm getting cold," I say.

"You can climb in with me."

"Co-lin."

He knows I'm trying to be patient. "It would mean a lot to me," he says. "It would give you an opportunity to spend time with your son."

At this I smile and climb under the covers with him. It is very warm; he's like a little furnace. He offers me a corner of his tempur-pedic, a remarkable gesture.
We settle down and I begin to think about all the people I know who have probably been wakeful this night: Our godson, Lucas, a two-year old who has a standing 4 a.m. date with his parents in their bed; my mother, Audrey, in Louisiana visiting friends, no doubt listening to the radio turned down low and dozing; our friend Tom across the river is a light sleeper and his five-year old daughter Jenny knows it.

I have other friends who are wakeful people: one watches C-Span, another surfs the TV for late-night episodes of Jeopardy. Scott is often wakeful for a few hours at night. Sometimes I wake to see a flat place on his side and know he's playing gin rummy on the computer in his office. When I am wakeful, I go down to the couch on the porch with my book and fall asleep just as the sky begins to brighten over the millpond.

I find comfort in these thoughts of others in the same boat, but it doesn't help me sleep--no matter how cozy it is here with Colin. From his twitchiness, I can tell he isn't asleep either.

"I'm going back to bed, Dude." I say with a sigh. "I'll put your sweet dreams blanket over you. That will help."

This blanket used to contain magic. It is one of two wonderful, heavy-duty quilts made for our twin sons before their birth by our friend Joanne. When they would wake in the night, I'd go to their room and say, "Oh look! Your sweet dreams blanket has come off. I'll just re-adjust it and everything will be all right." And it always worked.

In recent years the quilts have lost some of their magic in the daytime, but at night they regain a measure of their old power to protect and comfort the children in my absence.

I climb back into my own bed. It's grown cold and Scott is far away across the king-sized expanse. I try to find a comfortable position and begin to pray. I recall a line from Psalms that says, "The angel of the Lord encamps round about them." I pray that angels of the Lord will encamp around the four corners of Colin's mattress, of Marty's bed, of our bed, of the beds of everyone we care for, of the bed's of everyone we don't know, of the beds of everyone in the whole universe. In the cadence of this ever-expanding prayer, it is impossible to remain awake.

When I was cleaning out my desk recently, I found a yellow sticky note on which I had written, "Don't worry about the world ending today. It's already tomorrow in Australia."

There's something reassuring about knowing that somewhere the worries and terrors of the night have been pierced by the light of day, even if it is not where I am. There's something comforting about knowing that someone will come when you call and lie at the foot of your bed and say nothing. There's something dear about knowing that you're the one who can do that for another human being: a child, a friend, a lover, a parent, and even, sometimes when you're open enough, a stranger.

Just before I drift off, I think that perhaps I will leave a deck of cards at the head and foot of Colin's mattress tomorrow night. The angels at the four corners of his bed must get bored and might appreciate playing a little late-night gin rummy. I gaze at the clock again and through the fuzz of near-sightedness, see that it is 4:45.

It's still not daybreak, but it's closer.

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

Further thoughts on the proposed Anglican province

By George Clifford

This is simply a reminder that what we are called to is not our stuff. This is a cleansing by fire. - Brother Joseph Brown, one of seven Benedictine Anglican monks who lived at Mount Calvary Monastery in Montecito, which was destroyed by fires that swept through southern California (New York Times, November 19)

I wonder how many Christians really understand Brother Joseph’s remark?

My recent essay at the Episcopal Café, “An Alternative Province? Why Not?” sparked a surprisingly large and disappointing response, leaving me pessimistic about the number who understood Brother Joseph’s comment. The response to my essay was surprising in that a couple of conservative websites republished the post suggesting their approval. I had not expected conservatives to find my perspective agreeable. Let me be clear. Those leaving the Episcopal Church (like those remaining) are equally wrong to pursue property issues in the courts. Indeed, departing dissidents should honor the branch of Christendom that heretofore has nurtured them in the faith and depart by respecting a polity that assigns moral (and arguably legal) ownership of property and other assets to the national church through its dioceses. Individuals are free to depart; Church canons provide no mechanism for a parish or diocese to depart, as these are integral elements of the national body. Attempting to secede violates the trust that binds us together as God's family.

Those departing need to remember that even as their views about gender determining eligibility for ordination or the morality of same sex relationships do not put them outside the pale of the body of Christ, the converse is also true: those with whom they disagree remain part of the body of Christ. None of those issues, no matter how passionate or strong one’s views are, is a litmus test or definition of Christian identity.

Funds given to the Church are just that, given. That is, monies once donated become the Church’s property. Who contributed the money or other assets is irrelevant in Anglican polity. Once received, the resources belong to the Church for use in God's work, a truth symbolized in terming donations received in worship “offerings” and the priest blessing them.

Frittering away precious resources in a physically and spiritually starving world is equally scandalous, whether the Church or dissidents pay the legal bills. My local newspaper’s front page this morning featured two stories that nearly brought me to tears: one on a teenaged Eagle Scout allegedly murdered by four friends and another on the Zimbabwean cholera outbreak. Court battles over who owns what Church property provides no hope in either situation. Nor will court battles, regardless of who prevails, change anyone’s views about the issues that divide us. Courts and lawyers are important instruments of social justice; however, the scriptures exhort Christians to resolve their disputes without litigation.

The Presiding Bishop has helpfully observed that departures number only about one hundred thousand in a Church of twenty-three hundred thousand. Those leaving are a small percentage of the whole Church and their exit in no way threatens the Episcopal Church’s existence or vitality. Furthermore, the Archbishop of Canterbury has emphatically clarified that those who have left, should they wish to become an Anglican province, must comply with all established procedures for achieving that status, a process requiring years. In sum, the remarks of the Most Reverends Jefferts Schori and Williams suggest that the Episcopal Church should focus on its ministry and mission rather than devoting substantial and unwarranted time and energy to the sad but inevitable departure of the unhappy and bigoted few.

Normally, an author feels gratified when his or her writing attracts considerable attention. Yet the obvious depth of attachment, both among those departing and those remaining in the Episcopal Church, to property and other assets disappointed me. Material resources are important. However, my experience and observation is that human commitment and vision, not lack of material resources, are the real limits on Church ministry and mission. People, within and without the Church, respond enthusiastically and generously when afforded meaningful opportunities to engage in life-giving ministry and mission.

The relative handful of those leaving with their mutually incompatible theologies, to their dismay, has not caused the Episcopal Church’s numerical decline over the last fifty years. Part of the real explanation for that decline is that a Church caricatured as the party of the wealthy and powerful at prayer should expect inner conflict and pain when it strives to incarnate more fully God's inclusive love that transcends wealth, race, gender orientation, ethnicity, etc. Part of the explanation is also that we Episcopalians have focused on internal issues and institutional maintenance (conventions trying to legislate theology and ethics; attempting to preserve an aging, poorly located physical plant; perpetuating once useful activities that no longer serve today’s needs; etc.) rather than ministry and mission.

Perhaps, God has a badly needed message for us in the sad departure of our more narrow-minded brothers and sisters, a poignant reminder to prioritize ministry and mission ahead of institutional maintenance. Like the monks of Mount St. Calvary whose hospitality and ministry I have enjoyed and cherished, all parties in the current controversies can benefit from a painful and costly lesson in keeping one’s priorities correctly ordered. The monks will continue to serve, moving in the direction they sense God leading. The Episcopal Church should do the same, declaring the truth about property ownership but prepared to exercise costly grace in our actions rather than to compromise our priorities. Now is the time, the season, for us in the Episcopal Church to respond to God's vision for us, God's calling, to incarnate Christ's inclusive, life-giving love for all, at home and abroad. To do otherwise has intangible costs that far exceed the dollar value of any disputed assets.

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.

Traditions ripe for revival

By Martin Smith

A surprise parcel arrived. A friend had been clearing out drawers and had found a stole I had woven years ago. Would I like to have this memento from the old days? Just smelling the wool brought about a flashback from that time when I was a new immigrant to the States. I’d taken a retreat day in a cabin in the woods, and as night came I found myself utterly awake. A strange feeling came upon me that I must get up again and make up the fire to wait for a visitation—but for what? I found myself pushing the furniture against the walls to clear the floor. And then something strange happened to me. I started to dance, and the dancing took on a life of its own. Or rather, it was my life that was being danced. I realized as the hours wore on that my entire life-story was dancing itself out. It must have been well into the small hours of the morning before I caught up with the present. By the glow of the now sunken fire, I sank exhausted onto the bed and slept the deepest sleep.

It was something of a revelation. A physically awkward intellectual, my experience of dancing was restricted to rare tortuous efforts which ballroom dancing classes at school had only taught me to dread. But apparently my body knew my life story better than my head, and it had to find a way to express itself through dancing.

Since then, I have had a strong sense that movement is more of a royal road to awareness and spiritual transformation than we imagine. I had struck the bedrock of human religious experience. Human beings danced themselves into spiritual awareness long before language emerged. Ritual is primal. Doctrine is a latecomer. I wonder whether as the implications of post-modernity gradually sink in we might realize just how alienated we are from our bodies in the religiosity our very recent ancestors invented. In the modern mutation of Christianity we assume that we think and argue ourselves into change. This Christianity stuck in its head is the one that called down the indictment summed up in the phrase that echoes in the Marabar caves in E.M. Forster’s Passage to India—“Poor talkative Christianity!”

I wonder whether I’ll live to see a really widespread renewal of true ritual movement, in which ordinary Christians discover freedom from the constraints imposed by the wooden cages we call pews. Two of the most primal avenues for creating transformative communities that celebrate the Great Mystery we call God are chanting and ritual movement, and scientists are now discovering the actual neurological mechanisms that explain why both open human beings up to enlarged experience. There are signs that chant is re-emerging, not least due to the widespread influence of the Taize community. And there are pioneering efforts here and there for restoring sacred dance and movement to the whole body of worshippers, such as the fascinating experiments of St Gregory Nyssen Church in San Francisco.

One of the challenges of post-modern spirituality is losing our fear of ancient traditions that are ripe for revival because they embody innate wisdoms that modernity repressed. Sometimes the chances of revival seem far fetched. I remember taking part in 1974 in a very profound retreat based on the Labyrinth. What a rare topic it seemed, and how skeptically we would have greeted any prediction that by 2008, this ritual of meditative movement would have sprung back into life all over the world!

I’ve used a processional dance in worship based on one that has survived in the pilgrimage church in Echternach, Germany. The dance involves taking five steps forward and then three steps back. It’s pointless to explain to people ahead of time the transforming insight that can only emerge from personal experiment. But the congregations’ puzzled, rueful and then delightful smiles eloquently expressed the felt sense that such a dance tells certain truths about our exploration into God and our life stories that the linear progress of regular church processions can’t. Life involves setback after setback, they belong to the sacred rhythm!

Perhaps sometime in the future the church will challenge the disembodied virtual world into which millions are losing themselves with a new sacramental physicality that welcomes people to be more emotionally available to one another and to God in the direct flesh and blood, face to face, arm in arm experience of community. I hope to see a new wave of delight in the gospel of Incarnation to wash away tired doubt. Dance and movement are sure to be at the heart of renewed practices of community. Dear God, we celebrate at Christmas that the Word was made flesh, and we have spent so much effort resisting the mystery by turning holy flesh back into words.

Martin Smith is well-known in the Episcopal Church and beyond as a priest, writer, preacher and leader of retreats. Through such popular works as A Season for the Spirit and The Word is Very Near You and in numerous workshops, lectures and retreats, he continues to explore a contemporary spirituality that encourages a lively conversation between new knowledge and the riches of tradition.

The spirituality of travel

By Margaret Treadwell

The summer I was 16, my rector and his wife (my godmother) invited their same age niece Mary and me on a European spiritual adventure. The purpose of their trip was to visit the surviving cathedrals he had grown to love during WWII. He had been an Army-Air Force pilot and on one terrible mission high in the clouds over Germany had a spiritual conversion that led to his ordination in the Episcopal Church after the war.

The cathedrals were awe- inspiring in their musty grandeur, especially the first one in Cologne, Germany, where we climbed the tower, looked out over the city and I felt God’s presence in a powerful way that I later defined as my own teenage conversion experience.

But by the time we arrived in Rome a couple of weeks later, Mary and I were lagging in our religious and spiritual interests, which left us open to exploring relationships instead. Those pesky, handsome Italian men who wouldn’t leave us alone gave our chaperons many laughs while they inadvertently taught me that meeting the inhabitants of a foreign land is as important a spiritual aspect of the journey as is the awesome architecture and art.

The people of Southeast Asia taught me this anew when my husband and I had the recent opportunity to spend several weeks there. He was on business, while I had a unique invitation to join the trip as a participant with few responsibilities. I hoped to open myself once again to the spirituality of travel and what I might find in four countries that together represent all the world’s great religions – Hinduism in Bali, Buddhism in Cambodia and Vietnam and Islam in Malaysia, a country that takes pride in living harmoniously with all religions. Christianity is growing in each of these countries.

Ban Hoang Xuan, our wise and gentle Vietnamese guide explained his conversion from the philosophy of Confucius – the worship of family ancestors so that one can become a good person to lead his own family. He laughed when I told him that some of us family therapists can fall into that worship trap too.

He then told his story about a friend who took him to a Christian church where he discovered a new way: “When I heard the preaching about salvation it made sense to me that we all need forgiveness from God and we can have it through Jesus, our savior who died for us. At first my parents and siblings thought I had abandoned them, but gradually they’ve accepted that I can participate in family celebrations for the dead without holding on to old superstitions because God is my Alpha and Omega. I think my faith is stronger for having risked family ties to live my Christian beliefs.” Ban met his wife at church, and now his 25-year-old daughter is engaged to a parishioner there with whom she teaches Sunday school.

Liv Gussing, the young general manager of Amandari Resort in Bali, and her assistant, Pitu Sudiari, personify the beauty, peace and harmony they strive for in their serene hotel. When I asked how they achieve this state of grace they talked about the practice of Balinese Hinduism: “Religious ceremony based on the Bali calendar envelops and blends in with our lives. Before we construct our buildings, we prepare a ceremony to bless the place and keep bad spirits away. Our homes have shrines for our rituals – in a corner of the house, in the courtyard and outside the gate. When I prepare family meals, I make offerings of some of the food to thank the gods for what we have. We also make blessings with water and incense throughout the day in our offices, hotels, restaurants and factories. We pray in thanksgiving and to ask for safety and security. Our temples are alive with ceremonies to honor our gods.”

Listening to these and other testimonials from people who have so little materially and so much spiritually, I gleaned a new slant on travel and the Great Commandment: “ Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” For me, this means first to seek and let shine my own joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and respect for differences. Only then can I appreciate those qualities of love in others when language barriers and diverse spiritual beliefs come to matter not at all.

“You simply will not be the same person two months from now after consciously giving thanks each day for the abundance that exists in your life. And you will have set in motion an ancient spiritual law: the more you have and are grateful for, the more will be given you.” – Sarah Ban Breathnach

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.

A vigil of remembrance, redemption and solidarity

By Dan Webster

New Paltz, NY-The number of faces in the crowd kept growing. First 30 when it started, then 50 and 80. They came for probably as many reasons. But it was the events of 60 hours in Mumbai, India over our Thanksgiving weekend that caused this group to gather.

They were Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, those of other faiths or no faith. They came to stand together against the forces that killed nearly 200 and injured more than 300 in India.

It was called a "Candlelight Vigil for Mumbai" on the campus of the State University of New York at New Paltz about 80 miles north of Manhattan. Students, faculty and staff were joined by local residents under a cloudless sky on a chilly December night.

If the world could see how we come together at such times they might learn from us because SUNY is such an international community, said David Rooney, vice president for student affairs. He asked everyone for a moment of silence to remember the dead and injured.

The glow of lighted candles was on the faces of the gathered as they heard Yasmin El Jamal, president of the Muslim Student Association, renounce the terror and murderous acts of the past weekend. The crowd heard, maybe some for the first time, how the Holy Qu'ran forbids such horrible acts. They heard a prayer to Allah (which is the same word used by Arabic Christians for God) calling for peace (which is the meaning of the word Islam).

All of this took place under a crescent moon in the southern sky with a bright burning star just to its right. It is that same moon that through the centuries could have inspired Mohammed, Jesus, Isaiah, or the writer of the Upanishads and nameless others who have believed in peace among all people.

"Awaken, my heart, God's reign is near; the Peaceable Kingdom is in my hands," said those gathered, reading the words of "An Advent Psalm" by Edward Hays. "If the wolf can be the guest of the lamb, and the bear and the cow be friends, then no injury or hate can be a guest within the Kingdom of my heart."

The psalm was led by the Rev. Gwyneth MacKenzie Murphy (or Rev. G as the students call her), the Episcopal campus pastor at SUNY. She reminded the group that Jesus said, "love your enemies" and quoted the Hebrew prophet Amos, "let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an every flowing stream."

The group then joined in singing, "Peace is flowing like a river" by Carey Landry, a hymn from the 1970s familiar to many Catholics and other Christians.

Ellen Rosenshein, who leads the Hillel Jewish student group, told of the stories they've been reading from the Book of Genesis recently in her services. She read from her prayer book a selection that asks, in the traditional rabbinic back and forth question and response style, when will redemption come to us.

Rabbi Moishe Plotkin from the Chabad House near campus shared stories of the lives of Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, the Mumbai Chabad House leaders from Brooklyn who were among those mortally wounded in the attacks. His hope was to personalize the tragedy in a way that it did not become a statistic, he said.

One of the most moving moments came near the end of the vigil. About a dozen students from the South Asian Cultural Association came forward. Facing the crowd they sang, in Hindu, the words of the Indian national anthem. Since the Mumbai attack has been called India's 9/11 it was not surprise that it brought tears to the eyes of some.

"The world can learn from the example of such events," said Rev. G. "People can believe differently, learn from one another and live together in peace."

The event was also supported by Catholic Campus Ministry, Student Christian Center and the Pagan Student Association.

The Rev. Canon Dan Webster is an Episcopal priest who lives in New Paltz and is a member of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship.

Our (Same-Sex) Marriage

By Deirdre Good and Julian Sheffield

We got married last week.

We got married in Connecticut where the first same-sex marriage license was issued on Nov. 12th, 2008, following a court decision summarized by Richard Just in The New Republic (including a link to the original 85-page decision). We were going to get married in Massachusetts, where the constitutional prohibition against marriages of non-residents was overturned last summer, but Connecticut was so much closer to home, and frankly, that decision was so brilliant we felt drawn to Connecticut.

Two aspects of the decision stand out for us. First, the decision set the "same-sex marriage devalues heterosexual marriage" objection on its head. On the contrary, the decision argued, saying that a civil union is equivalent to a marriage and therefore non-discriminatory is what downgrades marriage. "Civil union" simply does not carry the weight of social benefits and responsibilities that have accrued to marriage over the centuries, and therefore civil union cannot be equivalent to marriage.

Second, the decision addressed the issue of whether such a ruling should be made by the courts or by the legislature by determining the status of homosexuals as a "quasi-suspect" class requiring legal intervention to achieve parity because judicial processes were unlikely to provide equal rights.

So, we've been living as a monogamous couple for 16.5 years now, rather like the landless working poor of past centuries who didn't have the means or necessity to ratify their status in a church (hence the recognition of common law marriage for property rights). And many people who congratulate us go on immediately to ask, "But doesn't this just feel like a formality?"

To which we say, No. Emphatically. True, our union was blessed in a church 16 years ago, but this is different. This is an act of public witness, an exercise of public accountability, a participation in a universally recognized and honored status that confers legal, social, and emotional benefits and responsibilities. Granted, there are legal entities that do not yet recognize our right to be married, that narrowly define marriage in terms of exclusion, but that's their problem. We are married nonetheless. And because we are deeply optimistic, we hope we will always live somewhere that honors the fact of our marriage. Ironically, we are a bit schizoid at present, living in New York (which does honor our marriage) and Maine (which has both a domestic partnership law and a defense of marriage act) - but this too will pass. With each legally (and sacramentally, if possible) ratified marriage of a same-sex couple, this division comes closer to passing away.

But here's the rub. The state (at least the State of Connecticut, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the State of California sometimes, Canada, the UK, and a number of other countries) has recognized, recorded and ratified our union in marriage - but our church, the entity which should be showing us the way forward in lives of commitment and integrity and accountability and hospitality and generosity and self-giving and unconditional love, still wavers on the borders of commitment to us. We can find pockets where bishops and priests claim their right to ratify our marriages as agents of the state and bless them as priests of the church, but we still feel constrained to protect witnesses who may be called to function in the church in other locales.

Our marriage is a commitment to be accountable to all those persons who have participated in and supported marriage - whoever they are, whether or not they are willing to support our marriage. They've got our commitment and our participation, those who value it and those who would reject it.

We both have this old fashioned ideal of the church as parochial in the original sense of the word, the place where we are, not the place we go to hear the sermons we prefer to hear. But for some of us, our church has not yet decided to be where we are. The consequence of this is that we can only celebrate fully, joyously, sacramentally, with a disparate group of sympathetic people who cannot be rooted just in the place where they live. So far.

Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at General Theological Seminary and Julian Sheffield is a freelance QuickBooks consultant.

As a door nail

By Donald Schell

In the six weeks since my dad died, my mind has been wandering a lot. I read the newspaper or an email and think about emptiness and wonder about death. I hear a disturbing piece of national or global news and by some crazy logic of faith or hope, I remember my dad’s death, and feel sorrow for others’ suffering and the uncertainties we face, and then I’m moved to gratitude that we’re all alive and in it together. I try to write something (like this) and sooner or later the act of reflection and listening reminds me of something about him.

When I quit being irritated with myself for being so unfocused, I notice that raw edge of my consciousness feels oddly open to contemplation these days. Driving home to San Francisco after my first visit with mother after dad’s death, dazzling sunlight on the trees and the glistening waters of Crystal Springs Reservoir shone with life like I felt when I was newly and deeply in love thirty-four years before. Each sweet inhalation of breath surged with the contradiction of being alive with my father newly dead.

My mind seems awake, but it goes where it will. This attention that isn’t mine feels full of contradiction. If I try to direct attention, it stays bound to something else, something that continues the grieving.

I’ve been thinking again how much grieving shaped my life even from my birth. I was born in 1947, about three years after my parent’s marriage. In those years of their beginning my mother’s father died of a heart attack and her brother, a B-24 pilot was lost in action over Taiwan, the remains of her brother and his crew finally found months later. My parents faced all that as they lived through not knowing whether my dad, also a bomber pilot would return from daylight bombing raids on German munitions factories. And when I was born my dad was twenty-five and my mother all of twenty-two.

It took my mother a quarter century to discover how completely her devastating losses had closed her down. My dad’s steady love for us (for mother, for me and my sisters and brother) carried her and all of us through until her suicidal crisis finally got her started with a good therapist. Until then she’d walked a bitter road cherishing the unpredictable breaks in her deep depression and fending off Christian friends from our church who told her she was just suffering a crisis of faith. With the therapist’s help she found her buried grief and learned to trust grief’s logic and let it take its course. Grieving gave her back her life.

Mother led the way and was our teacher in grieving, and we’re reminding her of it now. I have to remind myself that it’s all right that I’m moved by the radiant beauty of a stand of trees on a hillside, and tell myself not to be surprised when next morning I’m barely muster the strength and resolve to get out of bed. I’m trusting that the Spirit, Life, and the Lord Jesus are in both the radiance and the weariness.

Three books have made a difference to me, and each, in its way, was a gift. Some months before dad’s death my wife Ellen was reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Mother had given it to Ellen because Didion’s account of the year following the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, touched her so deeply. Sometimes as Ellen read herself to sleep she wept and sometimes wanted to be held because Joan Didion spoke so plainly and uncompromisingly of loss.

As soon as Ellen had finished the book I read it. Joan Didion is an agnostic Episcopalian, someone who counts on a Prayer Book funeral at New York’s Cathedral St. John the Divine and Sunday liturgy to order her chaos and darkness, but who also firmly insists that there’s no eye on the sparrow. What she called ‘magical thinking’ in her title was another kind of ritual, her carefully avoiding markers of loss – not reading the obituary, not giving away her husband’s clothes and shoes as though he could come back to wear them. She watched herself hoping (against her own reason) that avoiding these markers would stop her loss.

Re-reading one of Dunne’s novels after his death, she wondered whether in his sudden massive heart attack, he himself felt what he’d written for a character - ‘a moment of terror’ and ‘eternal dark.’ Oddly I found these stark words another gift. And I was grateful she also told of the unseasonal fear as their daughter Quintana moved in and out of coma for months after her Dunne’s death. I thought of Didion’s book when I got the phone call that my dad had died.

On my flight home to California, my physician seat companion told me about his cousin’s new book about faith. His cousin the rabbi had debated Christopher Hitchins and the book took on the new atheists, but there was more to it. My seatmate would be seeing his cousin this trip, so he’d gotten himself a copy of the book. When he learned I was a priest, he asked if I’d read the author’s preface and tell him what I thought of it.

The book was Rabbi David Wolpe’s Why Faith Matters. I read the preface and three more chapters as we flew west, and I felt grateful to read the rabbi’s words the day my father had died. I wanted to remember why faith matters and he could tell me. My seatmate asked me to write his cousin a note about it, and then he gave me the book. I finished it the next day.

David Wolpe nearly lost his wife to cancer after their child was born, and then he suffered a brain tumor (benign) and a bout of melanoma (in remission after chemotherapy). Rabbi Wolpe tells his congregation, ‘Actually, we’re all in remission. Some of us just know it more clearly than others.’

David Wolpe writes reasonably and intelligently about faith – not specifically Christian faith (though he writes of our faith appreciatively) but a more generic monotheism that continues to trust some larger good than ourselves even when it refuses to prove it’s there. My busy pastor’s mind thought, ‘This would be a really good book for an inquirer’s group,’ but my heart was moved by it and touched unexpectedly. I took courage from David Wolpe’s courage in continuing to love and serve a God of compassion. Sometimes ‘my faith’ isn’t good enough to carry me through, but our faith is.

Each weekday morning Ellen and I read Morning Prayer together. I bring her tea in bed and we read (and talk about) the appointed readings. For our Psalter we’ve using Robert Alter’s stark, meticulous The Book of Psalms, a Translation with Commentary. Often we read Alter’s notes. He observes repeatedly that when a psalm says, ‘the dead do not praise you,’ that the writer means that is an abyss, a darkness. Writers of the psalms asserted that there was nothing or barely anything left of the person after death. Just silence and darkness without any lively intention to praise God.

One morning after my dad’s death, Ellen said that she was grateful that psalms said so plainly that death was death. It matched her experience of seeing my dad laid out on the floor after the paramedics had stopped CPR. He was gone. There was his body, but the life we’d known in that body, the man we’d loved was gone.

Now we’ve got his ashes in a closet in our house waiting the building of a memorial garden in my parents’ church. And dad’s not in our closet. It’s his ashes.

I was trying to understand (for whatever understanding is worth) why Didion, Alter, and Wolpe’s stark courage touched me, why ‘he suffered death and was buried’ is the part of the Nicene Creed that’s touching me most deeply righty now, and why, missing my dad as I do and appreciating in a thousand new ways how much he gave me through my lifetime, I’m determined to say that he’s gone. When people say, ‘Harold’s gone to a better place,’ I welcome their intended kindness, but also feel myself shut down at this vague ‘better place.’

Just last week talking to an old friend about my hunger to spend time with family, to be in the room with living, breathing with flesh descended from dad, to hear our stories and eat together. She said, ‘One dancer’s gone and you all are having to make a new choreography.’ Her words rang true. That image fit what we were doing and feeling.

How do we this ‘faith’ thing? That question is part of what keeps distracting me.

My wife is the real theologian in our family. I read and think about this stuff; she just gets it and tells it to me when I need to hear. Ellen was telling a much-loved priest friend of ours her satisfaction at the finality of death in the psalms, and he said, “Frederick Buechner says, ‘…dead as a doornail,’ and he’s right. Harold’s as dead as a doornail. That’s why we believe in the resurrection of the dead, not the immortality of the soul.”

My beloved theologian was on our friend’s argument like a hound after a rabbit. “’Dead as a doornail’ is just what he was,” she said adamantly. “so tell me about immortality and resurrection.” I needed to hear it too.

Our friend said he’d learned it from Charles Price, his old mentor from Virginia Seminary, and recently it had come up again in a book by John Garvey, Death and the Rest of our Life. As I listened, I wrote down the book title and within two days had gotten Garvey’s book and read it through. Charley Price and John Garvey agree, our hope that we’ve got an ‘immortal soul’ is a power move, claiming something about ourselves, something within us, that we desperately hope the abyss and darkness can’t destroy. A long shot, but a power within us. But Resurrection – Jesus’ and ours – is faith, our trust in God’s unfailing love.

It’s not some irreducible, barely glimpsed idealized essence of my dad that escaped and flew free from the fires of the crematorium. He’s gone, what remains is ash, is dead as a doornail. And the whole of him, the hands I marveled at as a kid when he played Rachmaninoff’s B minor prelude, the face that looked so much like mine and which, in the pictures I’ve got still teaches me to smile, the courageous heart that managed to squeeze almost eighty-seven years of living from a terrifying beginning as a preemie in 1921 and scarlet fever a few years later, the whole of that good man was, is, and will be held in God’s love. I don’t know what it means or looks like but I trust it - God’s initiative, God’s creative embrace that won’t let one vibration of one atom that was him out of the old/new whole of God’s making.

The Gospel writers are so determined that it’s God’s initiative that their preferred language for Jesus’ resurrection is that the Father “raised him up.”

The darkness, the abandonment, the devastation and decay and knowledge that we’re all just in remission and each of us alone faces a ‘moment of terror’ and ‘eternal dark’ must sink in, take hold, and be bitterly true. We’re none of us going to make out of this alive. None of us and nothing in us is any match for death. Nothing except the love of God.

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

With respect

By Marshall Scott

There are some places that I don't wear my hat.

I wear a large, broad-brimmed black hat. I've done so for years. (I'm actually on my second.) When I originally made that choice, my own images were of Jesuit missionaries and Methodist circuit riders.

Of course, other people have other images. I also have a full beard and wear, as the weather requires, a long black coat. As a result, I've had other images suggested. Most commonly I'm told either that I look like a rabbi, or Amish, Mennonite, or otherwise Anabaptist.

And so, there are some places I don't wear my hat. Neither Jesuits nor Methodists are notable these days for their head gear; but Orthodox rabbis and Anabaptists are. And since each group has a lifestyle marked by a distinct discipline and piety (neither of which I follow), out of respect there are some places I don't wear my hat.

It's the resemblance to an Orthodox rabbi that can raise the most—well, perhaps not concern, but confusion. Years ago I worked in a hospital that had a health facility on site. I would go in early to work out before starting work. One winter morning I had finished working out, and was starting to get dressed. I pulled out the hat and the coat, and then reached for my work clothes. As I buttoned my black shirt and attached my white collar, a man down a few lockers down said loudly, “Now, wait a minute.”

I looked at him and said, "Yes?"

He said, "I grew up an Orthodox Jew in an Italian neighborhood, and you’ve just messed up all my images of religious professionals." We talked, and realized he was a former patient. We laughed about images, and not recognizing each other "out of place," and how the white clerical collar was a shock set against the background of a black hat and full beard.

Perhaps I'm overly concerned. I imagine many folks in any of the various traditions I have seemed to resemble, however unintentionally, would appreciate the sentiment, but not think my concern warranted. Still, it's important to me to be respectful, and to be clear, at least where I might be confusing, about who I am and who I’m not.

There is a new church body coming in North America. Those who are part of it will call it and themselves "Anglican." Many of those involved will have left the Episcopal Church, although many others will not have. Many will retain a certain anger about the Episcopal Church, although some will "get past it." The situation is not really new; there have been "continuing Anglican" bodies for decades; and that's without considering the Reformed Episcopal Church, whose tenure and reason for separating from the Episcopal Church place them in a somewhat different category. However, new unity and new size will bring them, at least for a while, new visibility. They will be part of the American church landscape for the foreseeable future.

I think that means we have to work out how we will be respectful. That may not be our first inclination. Some harsh things have been said. Some issues will have to be settled by due process that will feel to both sides like durance vile. Some folks on both sides will come to cherish their senses of righteous indignation and justification.

I think those things are painful, but still secondary. We need to determine how, once this is over, we will be respectful of folks with whom we differ, whether or not they are respectful of us. We remind ourselves frequently that we are called to respect the dignity of every human being, even—especially—those with whom we disagree, those who have condemned us. These circumstances may not be as clear (nor as painful) as the right cross of a Roman soldier, but they are our opportunity in our time to turn the other cheek.

Of course, in this case it's not as simple as choosing to wear or not wear a hat. Part of our regret in all of this is that we share so much in common with many of those who want this new Anglican entity. Critically, we differ on what is essential in the Anglican tradition; but we share that tradition nonetheless. That means that in so many things, from the colors of the church year to the colors of the priests’ shirts, to the very words we pray, we will look so very much alike.

That makes it all the more important for us to clarify who we are and how we will choose to live out the Christian faith and the Anglican tradition in the world. We need to resist the temptation, satisfying as it might seem at the time, to spend our energy reflecting on how they understand the Anglican tradition. We need simply and solely to proclaim how we understand the Anglican tradition, and how our tradition calls us to demonstrate the love of Christ in the world, both before the altar and beyond our walls.

If we are clear enough about what it means for us to be the Episcopal Church and to live out the Anglican tradition as we have received it, we won’t need to do anything else. Specifically, we won't need to be disrespectful of those whose understanding of the Anglican tradition is radically different. The differences will be clear—differences of mission and ministry, of tenor and teaching. Some will note the differences, and we might well respond, but without the need to be rude.

That won't always be smooth. My hospital is in the same area as one of the first congregations to leave an Episcopal diocese for an African bishop. Now and again I look in on a person whose record says, "Episcopalian," but who is part of the departed congregation. When I ask about congregation, the person will tell me, and then say, "Oh, I guess I'm not an Episcopalian anymore." I will respond that, for my purpose and for the hospital setting, the church political issues aren't important; but the tone always changes. I do my best to be welcoming, but the person seems awkward, perhaps fearing my disapproval. Frankly, so few of my patients are actively worshipping anywhere, I"m not about to let differences between Christians alter my appreciation of those who do.

And so I’m acutely aware that, in these times of change, we need to figure out how we will be respectful. Some things we may need to "take off" and some things to "put on," so as to be clear about who we are in the midst of their proclamations of who they are. They may be respectful, and they may not; and for some things it may be years before we can once again talk. In either case, we need to respect their dignity, as individuals and as institutions. It is the Episcopal thing to do, because it is the Christian thing to do.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

Taking the parable of the talents literally

By Sam Candler

Christians in the developed world usually forget that so many of the parables of Jesus deal with money. The usual suspects for our parish theological discussions are topics like church structure, or sex, or the general matters of biblical authority. We tend to consider what Jesus said about money only during stewardship or fund-raising times.

However, during these last two months of global financial anxiety, suddenly the way Jesus talks about money has some striking application. “You cannot serve God and Mammon” has become self-evident. The parable of the “unjust steward” who “made friends for himself with unrighteous mammon” also makes a lot of sense when assets in our own time have been de-valued (Luke 16:1-13).

It is the parable of the talents that I am fascinated with today. Again, during usual economic times, Christians tend to interpret that parable figuratively, so that “talents” are our God-given gifts and abilities. The lesson is that we are to use those for greater glory and the kingdom of heaven.

But what if the parable of the talents is really about literal finance and economics, after all? I think it is. We all remember the story. A wealthy master went on a long journey and left one asset manager with five talents, another asset manager with two talents, and a third asset manager with one talent. When he returned, the manager with five talents had traded and made five more. The manager with two talents had traded and made two more. The timid and fearful third manager, with one talent, said, “I knew you to be a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow; so I was afraid and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.” (Matthew 25:14-30).

Today, maybe the first thing to admit is that if this scenario had been played out in the last six months of the United States, the manager who hid his talent in the ground would probably be the only one ahead right now!

But the power of this Jesus story is that the managers traded; they engaged others. They risked relationship and trust. According to my meager financial expertise, one of the primary problems in our time is that banks and businesses are too scared to offer loans, not confident enough to trade. With no credit and no trust, economic transaction is paralyzed.

This parable of Jesus is about overcoming fear and taking the risk to grow and to invest. Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven, but he is also talking about building up the economy in general! In fact, the word for “economy” in the Greek Bible means the management of a household; it means “stewardship!” Our economy should be the way we manage our cultural and political and financial household.

The key word in Jesus’ parable is “trade.” The asset managers had the courage to go out and trade with what had been entrusted to them. They took risks. They engaged in relationships. Good business, and good economy, is always about good relationships, not about money, or the “mammon god.” Good economy is always about trusting relationships. In Jesus’ parable, the asset manager who loses out is the one who was afraid, so afraid that he was unable to take the risk of economic relationship.

In the uncertain situation of our present time, Jesus’ parable reminds us to engage in relationships – not just our domestic or familial or friendly relationships—but our business and financial relationships, too. Maybe especially our financial relationships! This is not the time to hide our talent in the ground. This is the time to use whatever we have, no matter how great or small, to build up trusting and trading relationships. Jesus said this would be like the kingdom of heaven.

The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta. He helped start that city’s interfaith group, and leads regular community bible studies. He is also inspired by playing jazz piano, hunting, astronomy, and poetry. His sermons and reflections on “Good Faith and Common Good” can be found on the Cathedral web site.

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