Thoughts on Christian marriage, I

Over the next four days, the Daily Episcopalian will feature a two-part essay by the Rev. George Clifford on the history of Christian understandings of marriage. Part two will appear on Sunday/Monday.

By George Clifford

In general, the Biblical witness about marriage appears to progress toward monogamy. Yet the Biblical basis for confidently declaring that marriage is uniquely between one man and one woman seems somewhat tenuous at best. Even a cursory reading of the Old Testament reveals multiple acceptable patterns for marriage: polygamy, concubinage, Levirate, etc. The status of those teachings today is unclear. For example, Scripture nowhere teaches that the practice of Levirate marriage – a widow marrying a brother of her deceased husband in order to keep the husband’s property in the family – is obsolete.

By the time of Jesus’ birth, the dominant cultural pattern for marriage among Jews was clearly that of one man married to one woman. However, nothing in Jesus’ teachings excludes other patterns, e.g., he never explicitly teaches that a person shall have only one spouse at any given time. Only when read with a presumption of monogamy do gospel passages appear to teach monogamy. For example, Mark 10:12 records Jesus teaching that if a woman divorces her husband she commits adultery. Read with the presumption of polygamy, the passage neither implicitly nor explicitly forbids the husband from having multiple wives.

Similarly, the NRSV translates 1 Timothy 3:2 as “married only once” instead of the more traditional “husband of one wife.” Yet both versions arguably presume that many people marry more than once; neither translation actually precludes the possibility that some Christians then practiced polygamy.

Only in the Pauline writings is the case for heterosexual monogamy stated directly (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:2). Even then, the teaching’s applicability may be problematic. Why elevate the authority of the Pauline corpus above that of the rest of Scripture? Perhaps culture rather than God shaped Paul’s thoughts about marriage as happened with his thoughts about slavery and women.

From a theological perspective, the Christian Church followed Paul, prevailing cultural mores, or both, and from its early centuries taught that the sacrament of marriage was the indissoluble union of one man and one woman. Then the Church began to modify that narrow approach – thankfully!

First, the Church recognized that in some instances a purported marriage was just that, only a facsimile and not the substance of a marriage. Reasons the Church might declare a marriage invalid included the legal encumbrance of one party preventing him or her from being legally free to marry (perhaps because he/she was already married) or one party not intending a faithful marriage. The Roman Catholic Church’s annulment process still operates on this basis, emotionally scarring many. Senator Ted Kennedy’s first wife, Joan, notoriously refused to cooperate with her husband when he sought to have their marriage annulled. She contended that their progeny constituted living proof of a valid marriage; additionally, she argued, annulment would tacitly declare their children illegitimate.

Second, the Church improved its theology, shifting from supporting arranged marriages and considering women as chattel to promoting marriages based on mutual, consensual love and viewing women as equal partners with men. The Book of Common Prayer’s option for the Officiant at a marriage to inquire, “Who gives this woman to this man?” is an anachronistic, liturgical residue of the erroneous notion that women are property.

Third, by the beginning of the twenty-first century the Christian Church recognized that imperfect humans make imperfect choices with respect to marriage partners and sometimes destroy reasonably good marriages. In other words, the Church finally discerned that grace abounds more if marriages that have died or become destructive end in divorce with the possibility of healing and remarriage rather than legalistically condemning the parties in such marriages to remain in hellish bondage or celibate. Sadly, the Church of England is among the limited number of ecclesiastical bodies retaining a more legalistic rather than grace-filled understanding of marriage and divorce. The Episcopal Church seeks a healthy middle ground between casual, serial monogamy and legalism with our process focused on healing those whose marriage has ended as an integral element of preparing for remarriage.

Let me be clear. I am an unabashed and wholehearted proponent of faithful monogamy. My brief review of marital practices described in the Bible and our evolving theological understanding of marriage simply emphasizes that concepts of Christian marriage have not remained static over the millennia. The history of Christian marriage is an unfolding narrative of increasing grace, albeit a history of slow and uneven progress.

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.

Another look at Narnia

By Deirdre Good

I recently watched the first Chronicles of Narnia movie again in preparation for a talk and was struck by its own interpretation of a book I enjoyed as a child, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. For many, the appeal of the movie will be because it is Christian. But for me its appeal is in a Christian author taking seriously another reality, another world created by God, and asking what redemption might look like in that other context.

An author shapes that other context. The book belongs to post-war Britain. Fathers are absent because they've gone off to war or have been killed. Stiff upper lips are prominent and cups of tea sustain the faint of heart. The movie emphasizes combat: it opens with the bombing of Britain and closes with the battle between the armies of the White Witch and Aslan in which gryphon-like creatures drop large rocks on the enemy. The Pevensie children, forced to hide in the middle of the night from German bombs, will in the end fight and win against the enemy with the weapons of children: swords, bows and arrows. Both worlds center on children, particularly boys. Battling the enemy is the way Peter becomes a man. Aslan tells Peter never to forget to wipe his sword. But "Battles are ugly when women fight" says Father Christmas to Lucy. Separation from parents is normal and brings about closer sibling relations. In the movie, Lucy's friendship with the faun Tumnus is the only real relationship. Mothers and fathers are absent. C. S. Lewis lost his mother to cancer at the age of eight. Since his father was consumed by grief, he and his brother Warren (Warnie) grew up together in a world of their own.

There are some other strange features of the grown-ups in the movie and the book: Aslan, the White Witch, and Father Christmas. Aslan is not a human. He is a divinity who has become flesh. But what is his intrinsic connection to the children? He is neither a father nor a brother; he is present to them one moment and absent from them the next. Their "conversion" from fear of him to affection and loyalty is on the level of sensation: "his voice was deep and rich and somehow took the fidgets out of them." The White Witch, however, looks human. Ann Peacock, the movie's screenwriter, emphasizes the White Witch's maternal sentiments when she first meets Edmund. "I have no children of my own," she says as she wraps her fur around him, feeding him with Turkish Delight and notions that he might succeed her. To be sure, in C. S. Lewis' book the White Witch utters these same words, but to Edmund abject at her feet, not nestled next to her in the sledge. In the movie, sitting next to him, the White Queen caresses Edmund's face. Next time they meet he will lie in shackles at her feet imprisoned in her castle in order to lure his siblings to her, but their first encounter is all cuddles and maternal care. Father Christmas appears in a world where there is no Christmas simply to hand out presents and (in the book) a tea tray with hot tea for the children and beavers.

It is not surprising that there are these anomalous features of the Christianity of Narnia. Douglas Gresham points out that C. S. Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to say "Suppose there were a world like Narnia and it needed rescuing and the Son of God (or the "Great Emperor oversea") went to redeem it, as He came to redeem ours, what might it, in that world, have been like?" (8 June 1960, Letter to Patricia).

Viewers of Narnia and readers are invited into the same imaginative exercise not just in imaginary worlds but also in our world. Aslan's breath re-creates Narnia and restores the dead to life. What involvement in a world does the creation of (or giving birth to) a world imply? What might the creative and redemptive roles of animals in our world or other worlds be? Lucy finds the way to Narnia first. Are there other prophetic roles children and women play in our world or other worlds? In Narnia, the betrayal and treachery of siblings is the greatest sin. However, Edmund repents and is forgiven. This is not the same thing as the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. For one thing, Edmund is a child. In other religions and other worlds there may be different and greater sins. In Narnia, the world is in thrall to winter of the White Witch. What if the world were not viewed as "enemy-occupied territory?" While Lewis might be thought to articulate the worst of Christian triumphalism and exclusivity, if one takes his explanation of what he intended to do in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe seriously, our consideration of how the triumph of love might work in our world and other worlds to defeat evil in fact respects diversity and religious pluralism.

Dr. Deirdre J. 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.

What's in a name? Much

By Greg Jones

What's in a name? In yours? In mine? Sounds. Meaning. Identity. These are in a name.

When we named our children, we considered how the names would sound. We considered the flow - the rhythm - the number of syllables, the way the names fit together. We considered, "What will people shorten it to?"

Sound is in a name. After all, and before all, language trips off the tongue before it is ever written down. Language is sound, and names are meant to be said, cried and whispered. In love, in friendship, in tears and laughter, in prayers. Names are to be spoken in the relationships which make up the fullness of human living. Names recall for us the essence of a person.

Jesus. Joseph. Mary. A single sounded word - a name - conjures to mind the whole person. Does it not?

What's in a name? In yours? In mine?

Meaning's in a name.

In ancient times, among ancient peoples, and among those intentional about understanding their own traditions, people are usually given names that plainly mean something. What's your last name for instance? Jones? It means son of John in Welsh. Cooper? It's English for barrel maker. And so forth.

My middle name 'Gregory' means watchful in Greek. What about yours?

I've always identified with the story of the young boy Samuel hearing his name called in the precincts of the holy place. I've always identified with it not only because my mother named me Samuel Gregory, but because like Samuel, it was my mother who first dedicated me to God. She gave me over to God in baptism, in worship attendance, in Sunday School, in Youth Group, in mission work with the poor and forgotten, in all the things the Episcopal Church does.

She gave me a first name of Samuel - gave me to God in the Church - and so I guess it's no stretch for me to find myself in the story of First Samuel.

It's fascinating to consider Samuel and his mother Hannah. She named him 'Samuel' which means in Hebrew 'His Name is God.' Which is to say that she gave her son a name which points away from him and toward God - toward YHWH. Samuel's very name points to God's name, and how befitting a one called before he was born to be a prophet. A prophet who did what God asked, even the hard parts.

How fitting that Samuel's very name implies an attentive and obedient servant - given that he was that by choice as well. "Here I am, Lord," said the boy Samuel.

What's your name? What's it mean?

Some of Jesus' followers had Hebrew names which point to God - such as Nathaniel which means 'God has given.' Many of his disciples had Greek names, such as Philip which means 'horse lover.' What is clear is that beyond their names given to them by their families, the disciples had to take on identity in Christ by their own choice and obedience - and as such they all got new names and identities added to their birth names.

Beyond your name, and mine, which may or may not plainly speak to your identity in Baptism - how much of your true identity, of who you think you are, of what you call yourself, is bound up in your response to God's calling you by name.

Samuel said, "Here I am Lord, your servant is listening."

Is that true of you and me as well?

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 Anglican Centrist.

Adult formation: kernel and kerygma

By Adrian Worsfold

For some months now I have been presenting papers to a church In Depth group (at St. Mary's, Barton-upon-Humber) that would make up a theology course when complete.

The 'course' has a particular narrative to it, with a predominance of German and American theologians. It starts with the nineteenth century theologians who at a time of the rise of new academic specialities realised the severe limitations put on to theology by such approaches of historical methods, sociology, philosophy etc.. Gospel accounts were relativised, and the historical Jesus was open to question. Schleiermacher is the grandfather, Ritschl the father, and Troeltsch and von Harnack the sons of the open liberal theological approach that wanted consistency with other academic disciplines. They were also this-worldly optimists.

The First World War blew the optimism away and in the first half of the twentieth century modern theologians had closed and protected theology-first christologies with resistances to Nazism and romanticism, and then approaches to the secular.

It was while presenting on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that I realised the difference between kernel and kerygma. The liberals were seeking the kernel of Christianity, that simple essence that could be realised by stripping away the clutter of the religion. Bonhoeffer, however, in his dealings with the busy, secular, practical world believed that there was a gospel encounter happening in and amongst the secular world - a kerygma. This is rather a different approach from Tillich, who thought people still asked existential questions for which Christianity gave correlated answers - yet that systematic approach still acted as a preserved kerygma of a sort. Kerygma means a complete gospel in action centred on the person of Jesus Christ, his life and mission. Next time I shall present on Reinhold Niebuhr and apply his economic and social theology to the current credit crunch, and again he had a kerygma, preserved around corporate sin and realised in a necessary pragmatism with the further ethical ideal in the gospel, whereas his predecessor Walter Rauschenbusch had a kernel of the building of the Kingdom of God into society.

The narrative goes on to say that these modern theologians, who were intent on preserving christology, provided the background and were reused in notable Anglican controversies, where the accusation has been that of liberalism and undermining belief. Yet they were not liberals as such.

For what it is worth, my view is that the essence of Christianity ought to be consistent with the methods of other disciplines, and that the various kerygma approaches are special pleading. Neverthless it says something about the regression of organised religion that those intent on preserving Christian specifics became accused of feeding liberalism. I note that many evangelicals today even criticise Karl Barth as inadequate as they march down the road into selective literalism.

Then my presentations will look at current trends and theologies, including conserving and liberal postmodern forms: the wide range of theologies that show a gulf between the university and the churches.

So my intention is to introduce, at least, some of these often unknown theologies at church level.

The group has already established its own open atmosphere. My approach is also that the group speaks freely on this material and around it, including space for doubt and scepticism, and that there is no confessional basis to any of this. If the group deviates from the presentation, that's fine. It is a means to critical discussion about the faith. Also the group may decide it's had enough, and I'm happy when others want to present instead (as they did before I started).

In all this is another model of where liberation theology meets radical education, that I do intend to present, and it derives most obviously from Paulo Freire (1921-1997). This is the idea that local communities use education as a means of building themselves up: the education is where the group uses its own experiences. We have people in this group with a background in Eastern and Western religion, with theological training, with commitment to intelligent gospel preaching, a background in history and professional social work (where human spiritual concerns arise), and attachments to progressive Christianity like that of Bishop Spong and the Jesus Seminar. My own background is sociological and theological. The group is a corner of a town church that has members that span the range of Christian expressions.

So much education these days now is based on acquiring credits: if there is no certification, there is no course. So much that is called education is little other than uncritical economic training. It is the very opposite of what Paulo Freire represented, as such training says you are nothing unless you have a job, and you have to fit into the status quo. Work sets you free, rather than being a human is to become free.

What this group represents, for me, is an approach that says we are actual voluntary and communal education, built up from own experience, beliefs and discussion, and we do it for no more than its own sake, and we do it with material that deals with a different set of values than those of the State and the economy. It's very small, it's not much, but it is a small candle to what education should be about in its purest and most liberating form.

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.

AD 1054 and why it matters

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

By Derek Olsen

On Sunday mornings during the prayers I always feel a pang when we hit that section:

“Receive these our prayers which we offer unto thy divine Majesty, beseeching thee to inspire continually the Universal Church with the spirit of truth, unity, and concord; and grant that all those who do confess thy holy Name may agree in the truth of thy holy Word, and live in unity and godly love.”

The truth, of course, is that this prayer has always been a fantasy; since its composition in 1552 it has expressed a hope, a wish, and never described reality. I feel it more keenly these days. A relationship between ecclesial groups—just as with families—tends not to breakdown in one decisive moment. (It’s a process, not an event.) And yet there are often watershed moments to which we can point and often a single event of great moment that shows the relationship utterly fractured. That is why one of the dates that every Anglican should know is AD 1054.

On July 16th, 1054, papal legates excommunicated Michael Cerularius, Patriarch of Constantinople and the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches was formally begun. Factually speaking, this was neither the first nor the last schism between the two sides. The first major schism was proclaimed by Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople two hundred years earlier when he condemned what he called the five major errors of the Latins:

1. fasting is allowed on Saturdays, 2. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday [rather than the preceding Sunday], 3. priests are not allowed to marry, 4. priests are not allowed to confirm, and 5. the phrase filioque […and from the Son…] was added to the Nicene Creed

By the time of Michael Cerularius, these had been joined by yet another:

6. The West used unleavened bread for the Eucharist.

Modern Anglicans looking at this list may well find these quite minor reasons for splitting Christendom. After all, only the fifth (perhaps the fourth as well) seem to touch on actual theological issues. We might well ask whether these are reasons or pretexts for a split. The answer, as is usually the case, is that the truth is far more complicated than what we see on the surface.

While we may point to dates like 1054 or 861, the reality is that the seeds of discord sprung from soil prepared and tended by history itself. Throughout most of its existence, the Roman Empire fell neatly into two halves—one spoke Latin, the other Greek. This natural division was formally recognized by Diocletian’s division of the empire into four administrative districts at the beginning of the 4th century which quickly became two under Constantine. Thus were functionally created a Latin section incorporating Western Europe and Northwestern Africa and a Greek section from Egypt and the Balkans to the western boundary of the resurgent Persian Empire under the Sassanids. Without a common language, the two halves of the Empire which faced different social, economic, and military challenges drifted apart and the pre-existing cultural differences were only exacerbated.

As a result, the beginning of the problem in the Church began in the 2nd and 3rd centuries when the churches in Rome and north Africa began doing theology and liturgy in Latin rather than Greek. By the 4th and 5th centuries, two separate paths diverged—one in Greek, the other in Latin. Nowhere is this more evident than in the linguistic capabilities of the great Doctors of the Church in the patristic age. St Augustine himself admits his inability to converse in Greek; St Gregory the Great spent six years in Constantinople yet never learned Greek. St Leo too could neither read nor write it. While Sts Ambrose and Jerome were quite fluent in Greek, Jerome’s program of translating great Christian works from Greek into Latin further reduced the need for western clergy to learn the language—and formulations—of the eastern theologians. Photius, one of the greatest scholars of his age, knew no Latin.

Furthermore, the works of St Augustine which would become the great foundation of western theology were translated only sporadically into Greek. In particular, his treatise on the Holy Trinity on which the West based most of its support for the filioque clause was not translated into Greek until the twelfth century.

Without shared theological reflection and liturgical practice, the later split seems not just unfortunate but—sadly—inevitable.

Of course, theology and liturgy wasn’t all there was too it—no reflection on the issue would be complete without recognizing a variety of political complications. The term “Byzantine Empire” used in European and American literature didn’t appear until the 19th century and is itself polemical in nature; the “Byzantine” empire had never regarded itself as anything other than the Roman Empire—which it was. Despite the sack of Rome in 410 by Alaric and a string of barbarian pretenders, the imperial succession remained unbroken in the East. Constantine’s establishment of Constantinople as the “New Rome” and the new center of the Eastern section of the Empire left a vacuum in the West, though.

As is well known, the bishop of Rome claimed primacy over the other patriarchate sees (Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Constantinople) who, not surprisingly, disagreed. Specifically, Antioch argued that it was also founded by St Peter thus undercutting the Roman claim to the “See of Peter”; Constantinople argued that as the seat of the Emperor, the “New Rome” should, if anything, hold primacy over “Old Rome.”

To make matters worse, with the rise of Frankish power in the West, Charlemagne’s coronation on Christmas Day of 800 as “Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire” was a direct slap in the face to the rulers in Constantinople. The theological attack on the 7th Ecumenical Council prompted by Charlemagne in the so-called Caroline Books was based on faulty and mistranslated accounts of the council and helped create the poisonous atmosphere that exploded with Photius a few decades later.

As we say today, “mistakes were made”… Neither side is blameless.

The rest, as they say, is history. From the Great Schism to the Protestant Reformation down to events of recent days, the cause of Christian unity has proven ever elusive. Too, the wisdom of Ecclesiastes is ever proven true: there is nothing new under the sun. Disagreements over practice that seem more pretext than substance, arguments over the respective powers and legitimacy of various bishops, the mating habits of clergy, and underlying factors driven by baser motives arise again and again.

What do we learn from this history? What’s the take-away from AD 1054? I won’t presume to make a grand statement to “answer” this conundrum. Rather I refer back to Paul in Second Corinthians. Truly we have this treasure—the Gospel—in clay jars. Fragile, fractious, fallible, flawed containers of earth. “Mistakes were made”…and have been, and will continue to be. We have due cause to consider our own cracks. And—too—to consider the treasure contained therein, a treasure that spurs us to not remain forever consumed with flaws—whether our own or others—but to join Archbishop Cranmer in the hope and prayer that we make our own: “grant that all those who do confess thy holy Name may agree in the truth of thy holy Word, and live in unity and godly love.”

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.

Coping with hard economic times

By Margaret Treadwell

Our family has a history of making lemonade out of lemons during hard financial times. Thinking about our ancestors who found unexpected blessings during the adversity of job loss is one way we deal with the current economic crisis; after all, it is the way we THINK about a situation that makes a difference in the outcome.

My husband’s grandfather lost his job as a bridge engineer during the Great Depression and had to draw on all of his creative skills to support his wife and three daughters. He became an entrepreneur using his talents to build and sell window fans from which he created a good enough business to see the family through. Imagination and perseverance are his legacies to us.

My father used to say about the Depression, “We were all in it together; not two nickels to rub together.” He and Mother had to postpone their wedding for several years, and Dad moved far from their families to a town where he could join a surviving law practice. Mom tells the story of their honeymoon when they were able to take a night away at an hour’s drive to another town in a borrowed car with a broken door handle which required tying the passenger door shut. She says, “We didn’t think much about it because nobody had anything for years; I believe that made our friendships stronger.” My parents worked together to build Dad’s practice and gave us the twin gifts of endurance and faith triumphing over fear.

During my husband’s job loss in the 1983 recession, we learned useful lessons that we put into our “ NOWork Workshop” for families who wanted to survive and even thrive during those scary years. We based our coaching on a team approach to job loss that stressed the importance of maintaining one’s individuality without becoming a victim or allowing the crisis to consume the family. Now twenty-six years later, we remember how applying our research to ourselves helped us grow up, especially with the following three healing experiences important to our family’s well being:

1) Family financial inventory: Assess and budget spouse’s income, unemployment benefits (Yes! Sign up for them ASAP) and any other family resources. Questions: How can you enjoy a simpler life? Cut all non-essentials from the budget? Involve children who are old enough in these discussions and encourage them to take some responsibility in positive ways and certainly with home chores necessary for family functioning. Talking calmly and openly about financial issues can be a freeing, new experience.

2) Grieve: Job loss is like a death, especially when it represents the family’s community and social life as well as income. Couples move through the stages of grief at different times and in different ways – a healthy response when acknowledged and one that frees families to focus on practical day-to-day functioning.

3) Time Discipline:
• The job seeker is not out of work; it takes hours everyday to market oneself – networking, assessing strengths and weaknesses, rewriting resumes, follow-up. If an unemployment support group would be a benefit, start one, check local churches or on line. Volunteer in your career field or simply help others.
•. Set aside a specific daily limited time with your spouse to discuss the loss and how you are coping and moving forward. Could this be your prayer and faith time as well? Occasionally share this time with children who are old enough to understand. Very young children sense when something is wrong, and they “get it” when a parent explains that he/she will have more time to spend with them while searching for meaningful new work. Extend this to relaxing family time when a) spouses are alone or b) the children are involved. Laugh. Exercise. Appreciate leisure time, especially in the Washington area where there are so many free cultural and recreational opportunities. Unemployed parents say that more nurturing time with children turned out to be their greatest blessing.
• Take time to be with friends. A few want to know the details of your search and how they can help. For others, a brief, carefully chosen sentence that doesn’t focus on the past (ex. “I lost my job.”), but rather helps define what you are moving toward (“I’m looking at several opportunities to tell you about later.”) suffices to open other topics of conversation.

Turning the crisis of job loss into opportunity involves slowing life’s fast pace to stay awake for serendipity. Otherwise, you might miss the dormant skills that need space to bloom, the basic values that give sustenance, and the truth that your job is not you. Our God is a God of surprises.

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.

“Traditional” vs. “Contemporary”?

By Donald Schell

For the healthy future of our church we’ve got to stop thinking and talking as if ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ were opposites. This hackneyed dichotomy reduces us to a lose/lose battle between caricatured factions – do we want to be a backward-looking ‘traditional’ church bound by nostalgic practices of the last two hundred years or a ‘trendy,’ ‘relevant’ church whoring in uncritical embrace of ‘contemporary’ culture.

Only a church that’s deeply traditional and truly contemporary can live fearlessly into creativity and mission. To find our way to deep traditional roots and a lively present, we’ll need to relearn that the words ‘tradition’ and ‘traditional’ live in a creative process, an inspired engagement with our Christian past and discernment of the God-given opportunities and challenges of each present moment.

Hear Vladimir Lossky, a bold 20th Century Russian Orthodox theologian described tradition,

“…to be within the Tradition, is to keep the living truth in the Light of the Holy Spirit, or rather – it is to be kept in the Truth by the vivifying power of Tradition. But this power preserves by a ceaseless renewing, like all that comes from the Spirit.” [Tradition and Traditions, Lossky’s introduction to The Meaning of Icons, (Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, 1952 and 1969]

Lossky tells us that tradition is a creative process for the church and the work of the Holy Spirit among us. When the Spirit’s steady hand harnesses the powerful troika of humble memory, faithful curiosity, and innovative imagination, the church has a powerful team for an exhilarating ride.

When other rabbis scolded Jesus’ disciples for skipping the ritual hand washing that began the meal, those teachers’ concern wasn’t hygiene but sacrilegious violation of ritual purity. They understood a prophetic sign. Jesus was defying religious purity laws to show people the impatient welcome of his all-merciful Father. Hand washing was ritualized preparation for the sacred.

Jesus’ deep faithfulness to the tradition he received had provoked him to break the rubrics (official rules) of the ritual meal of a rabbi with his close disciples.

Jesus teaching God’s mercy on the Sabbath was good rabbinic practice. But to some his healing and feeding people to embody that mercy was more sacrilege. The Sabbath was the center of rabbinic Judaism’s liturgy. Once again traditionally-grounded rule-breaking led Jesus to liturgical innovation and a new vision for works of mercy in community. Liturgy and his mission of compassionate love were inseparable.

Making his ritual choices to reshape the ritual of a rabbi’s holy meal with close disciples, Jesus showed the fulfillment of Isaiah’s promised feast, on the mountaintop, God’s messianic banquet for all people. And he was using one tradition to reshape another. Isaiah and Israel’s prophetic tradition taught Jesus to trust God’s power to make us all holy. He wasn’t willing to do the meal ritual without showing that power at work.

Jesus’ own religious contemporaries were so scandalized at his welcoming unprepared sinners to feast with him that they called him a ‘jerk’ who ate with sinners and accused him of being a drunkard and a glutton. Scholars like Norman Perrin believe it was precisely Jesus’ prophet-inspired defiance of the established ritual of his time that finally drove the religious leaders of his community to conspire with Roman military power to kill him.

Even as established power worked for Jesus’ destruction, at his Last Supper with his disciples Jesus renewed tradition again, offering his disciples traditionally blessed bread with new words identifying it as his own living body, and then after supper, giving them the traditionally blessed final cup of wine, saying the cup held his blood shed for the reconciliation of the whole world. His ‘Do this and remember me,’ declared his intention that they follow him in this changed and renewed tradition around the ancient practices of blessing and sharing bread and wine.
John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus altered another traditional ritual when he substituted washing all his disciples feet for the fingerbowl-like hand washing that ended the meal. Again, he commanded them to continue doing what he’d done.

St. Paul and our four Gospel writers present Jesus’ ministry as a conscious re-traditioning. What he did was deeply rooted in his tradition but also represents the paradoxical character of all tradition making and sharing. Jesus read God’s Law and measured official religious practice in light of the prophetic tradition’s insistence that God desired mercy not sacrifice. By recasting traditional images and actions, Jesus patterned his brief ministry and interpreted his coming death as an icon of God’s self-giving love.

Tradition always offers choices, and if we don’t make choices, we reduce ‘tradition’ to a desperate clinging to our parents’ and grandparents’ interpretations of what they knew and received. Anglicanism’s genius lives in this tradition of embracing the riches of Christian history and making conscious choices. Though it hasn’t been without conflict, Anglicanism has always borrowed practices from the whole of Christian history and the worldwide church to make a highly participatory and strongly embodied liturgy for evangelism and Christian formation. At our best we’re imitating the householder in Jesus’ parable, “…who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13.52).

Recently our Episcopal church’s schismatics began claiming ‘tradition’ (along with ‘orthodox ‘ and ‘Bible-believing’) as their words, an accusation of faithlessness to their supposed opposite - ‘revisionist Episcopalians.’ I’m glad to claim this holy title and the work of re-visioning. But re-visioning is the Spirit’s work that grows directly out of tradition, orthodoxy and the Bible.
Our Christian faith comes to us from more than a hundred generations of faithful re-visioning, of rooted tradition-making. Uncritical repetition of ‘how it’s always been done’ or even ‘what we’ve always taught’ isn’t faithful or even honest, but tree of faith cannot flower without deep roots. The prophets promised God’s Spirit poured out on all humanity would make our old people dream dreams and our young one ones see visions. That has been the church’s history. It is our living tradition.

The Spirit has always been at work. Sometimes good things have been lost, and startlingly (and wonderfully) they may be rediscovered. Sometimes it’s an inspired hearing of something new in a present moment. And sometimes the work is saying no to something false and holding fast an old way. We can make these choices because as St. Paul says, ‘We have the mind of Christ.’ Like the church gathered in Acts, we weigh scripture, tradition, and our present circumstance and challenges and dare new things, renewing tradition as we say, ‘It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us.’

Partisan, rigid use of the word ‘tradition’ hides what artists working in a tradition knows in their bones. Tradition flowers in responsive creativity.

Not only our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, but every previous Christian generation may have treasures for us. We must listen, feel, imagine, think, and discern what the Spirit calls us to preserve, what the Spirit challenges us to discard, and what the Spirit asks us to make new. And we can find new treasure in our own questions and the questions of our children. Living tradition must embody the living choices of a living community. The Holy Spirit and our tradition-breaking and tradition-making Lord Jesus goad and guide us forward. Which practices make us more alive to one another and to God?

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

50 ways to preach the Gospel

By Heidi Shott

One summer afternoon in the mid-seventies, while waiting in the car for my mom to return from a errand, I reached a heightened pitch of boredom that only a 13 year-old girl can achieve. Fumbling around for something to read, I opened the glove compartment and found a pocket New Testament. That would have to do. That or the owner’s manual for a 1971 Buick Riviera.

My mom and I had recently started taking God a lot more seriously due to the influence of my brother’s girlfriend, Diane. Mom was raised Swedish Covenant in Chicago (now known as the Evangelical Covenant Church) but she backslid something fierce after serving as an army nurse in World War II and marrying the handsome, unchurched brother of one of her patients. My siblings and I were Protestant simply because we weren’t Catholic, Jewish, or Muslim or anything else.

But Diane’s changed all that when she entered my brother’s life and ours. Her Baptist ideas about accepting Jesus as personal Lord and Savior reminded my mother of her childhood roots and they suddenly took hold in an alarming way. My poor father never knew what hit him. For me, as a young girl who had thought a lot about God but not much about church, the journey toward coming to know myself as a Christian was more gradual.

Still, by the time I sat in the hot Riviera, my opinions about faith had begun to solidify along fairly strict Evangelical lines. What I read when I flipped to Philippians 1 figured as the first real challenge to my faith.

“Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment.”

But here’s the verse that got me. And 33 years later, it still gets me.

“What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.” (v. 15-18)

How can that be possible? Doesn’t intent count? I sat in the sticky bucket seat marveling at such a radical idea. Sleazy TV preachers are okay?

What does it mean for Christ to be proclaimed in every way? As a lay person, without theological training, I lack the vocabulary to speak with authority but it seems that Paul was pointing to the transformative power that the proclamation of the Gospel has when set loose in the world – a power that is set apart from the proclaimer.

I love the scene in the film A Christmas Story when the narrator says of his father’s battles with their uncooperative furnace, “My father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.”

Is the proclaimed Gospel a little like that? Does it hang in space despite of the flawed person who proclaimed it? Does it hang there waiting for the Holy Spirit to blow in the right direction at the right time? Does it matter how Christ is preached, or why, or simply that he is?

Another summer, several years later, my college boyfriend, Scott, joined me at our family farm. Our intent was to scrape and paint the barn which, while an enormous task, left plenty of time to play badminton and stay up late watching old movies. My 15 year-old nephew Rob was enthralled with Scott and spent a lot of time with us. One week while I went to be a counselor on a trip with my old youth group, Scott took Rob with him to his own youth group Bible camp in West Virginia. After ten days away, Rob came back with a southern accent and Jesus in his heart. His parents never knew what hit them.

In the fullness of time, Scott and I became Episcopalians, and Rob became an Assemblies of God pastor. Though there is a lot we don’t agree on, we still agree on the fundamentals of the faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Perhaps the nut of what Paul was getting at in his letter to the Philippians is that to reach every person, we have to proclaim the Gospel in every way possible even if it is barely recognizable as our Gospel. It’s Rob’s business to proclaim the Gospel and I know he does it out of love, but the fact is that Rob reaches people who will never be reached by the Episcopal Church. And the Episcopal Church reaches people who will never be drawn by the vibe of an Assemblies of God congregation. What a boring, uncreative world this would be if there was only the First Congregational Church of Stepford.

One thing I’ve loved about our Church is the stretchiness of the fabric that binds us. In 1981, as a college freshman, I walked into a conservative Episcopal church and instantly felt I’d found my home. At that time, if I had walked into a more progressive church where I’d feel at home today, I wouldn’t have been able to see beyond the gulf. I would have walked out, despite my admiration for the language of the prayer book and the power of the liturgy. I couldn’t have made the jump. Just as my coming to know myself as a Christian was gradual, my coming to know myself as an Episcopalian has been gradual as well. The beauty is that I’ve been able to remain an Episcopalian all the while. While our Church has the capacity to be big enough for many, our manner of proclaiming the Gospel will never speak to everyone. That’s not a bad thing; it’s merely a true thing. There are other proclaimers out there, and, though we may not agree with them on all matters of faith and readings of scripture, they have their work to do. The journeys of those who respond may eventually lead them to our door and we need to be ready to receive them.

The fabric that holds the Episcopal Church, and ultimately all of Christendom, is as stretchy as ever, but we humans are somehow becoming more brittle. It’s not the Gospel that is so exacting over how or why or to what audience it’s proclaimed, it’s we the proclaimers who are so particular. Like Paul, I want to rejoice that the Gospel is proclaimed in every way, so that each person, no matter how his or her ear is tuned, might hear.

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

New Year's: beyond resolutions to conversion

By Peter M. Carey

In this time of year, it is customary for many of us to make New Year’s resolutions. With the ending of the calendar year, it is natural to look back over the last year and reflect about what has happened, and what we have done, and then to look ahead to see how we might smooth some of our rough edges, take care of our bodies, minds and spirits, and look ahead with hope. The trouble for us, however, is that many New Year’s resolutions only last a few weeks, or perhaps (if we’re really diligent) a month or two. If you frequent a gym, this is the most crowded time, but, no worries, within a few weeks the classes will thin out, and you will be able to get back to the Stairmaster or treadmill or bench press without any waiting.

A trouble with New Year’s resolutions is that they don’t seem to “stick” unless we really have dedicated ourselves to them, unless we have been “scared straight,” or until we have adopted a set of daily practices that lend themselves to a change of behavior, and not merely just a change of intention. As Mark Twain reminds us, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

The promise of the Christian Faith is that God is with us, helping us always to turn to our better selves, and to grow into the fullness of who we are meant to be. This may sound like a cliché, but let me illustrate my point with three images: Scrooge, Groundhog Day, and “metanoia.”

First, we have the character Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Like so many stories of the just-passed Christmas season, we have all probably seen multiple adaptation of Dickens’ novel, from Mickey Mouse, to the Muppets, to Patrick Stewart from Star Trek, to older films depicting Scrooge and his visit from 4 night visitors. First he is visited by his recently deceased partner, Marley, wrapped in chains, clearly suffering in death for his chintzy life before he died. Marley tries to warn Scrooge, that he needs to change his ways, that he needs some new resolutions, some new ways of living. But, to enact a change, what follows are three ghosts, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future.

Scrooge is given the gift of remembering the past – even the hard parts of the past, to see a bit more about why he might have ended up this way. Not immediately, but gradually, his heart begins to be open again, to grow a bit more supple, to grow a bit larger. The ghost of Christmas Past offers Scrooge the gift of a wider perspective, to see himself in earlier times, when his heart was not so hardened. The ghost of Christmas present offers the gift of seeing the love, and also the poverty of the Cratchett family, to see what Joy they have, even while they don’t have much materially, they have an overabundance of love, compassion, and generosity. This vision is in contrast to his material riches, but spiritual poverty. His heart continues to open. Finally, the ghost of Christmas future paints a picture of heartache for the Cratchetts, as Tiny Tim has died for lack of good medical care, and the family is devastated, but not without Joy, and love and compassion, even as they mourn their loss.

As you know, Scrooge emerges from his slumber and immediately changes his behavior, he is Joyful, loving, caring and generous, and he begins immediately to make amends, and to give away what he has. His heart is opened, is supple, and he turns from his old ways.

The second character is Phil Connors from Groundhog Day. If you’ve seen the film, you will remember that Bill Murray’s character is a rather grumpy weather reporter who has been assigned to cover “Pauxutawney Phll” the groundhog who comes out on February 2nd and looks for his shadow. Anyway, Connors becomes “stuck” in the same day over and over again. At first, he does all he can to learn the background and interests of a romantic interest he has – so that the next day, he can go on a date with her. Along the way, he decides to learn the piano, because the skill at the piano remains with him each day, until he is a virtuoso. However, gradually, his interest in repeating the day moves beyond selfish aims. He becomes focused on an older man who is wandering the streets, homeless and hungry. At first Connors avoids him, but one day Connors learns that this man has died, and Connors is shocked, and devastated. So, the following day Connors does all he can to give the man food, to care for him. Gradually, living this day over and over again (somewhere like 100 times – it is hard to count the days while watching it), Connors’ character is transformed from a focus on self, to a focus on others. His focus becomes on helping others, and doing good for goodness sake. Finally, when his transformation is complete – and he falls in love, he awakes and it is February 3rd.

The third strand is the New Testament term “metanoia” which means “repentance” or “change of heart,” or “to turn.” Also, it can mean “to be converted.” It is used from time to time by preachers or people who think they can force us to change from the outside. But, more accurately, this “change of heart,” or metanoia is caused by the work of the Spirit. This transformation is a gift from God, a gift of perspective upon our past – the ghosts of our past, a gift of wider perspective about our present, and a gift of greater vision about the future that waits for us if we continue doing things the same old way. Some have said that insanity is “Doing the same things the same way but expecting change to happen.”

For the story of the wise men who visited Jesus, the change might have been so subtle that we didn’t hear it in those readings from Matthew at the start of Epiphany. However, though subtle in the text, this change of heart for the wise men was profound. King Herod’s chief emotional response is fear. This king is in fear of the possibility of a new king who will take over the land, and threaten his earthly rule. He sends these scholars, astronomers, these wise men, to go and “pay homage” to the child – but really, they are on a spy mission, they are there to gain information and report back to Herod – so that he might wipe out this child.

However, something amazing happened to the wise men; they were transformed. The gospel doesn’t say much, but what it does say is that they “went home by another way.” They encountered the Holy in Jesus in such a way that they could not go back to their old ways, their hearts were opened, and they turned, somehow, to a new way – literally “another way” back home.

Isn’t this the gift that we also have been given in the Spirit? Whether the image is of these wise men going home by another way, or it is the idea of metanoia, a “change of heart,” or the image of Phil Connors seizing the everyday opportunity for transformation, or the sense that the ghosts of our past, present, and future might offer us the gift of accepting Scrooge’s transformation?

So, sure, go ahead and make New Year’s Resolutions, but also accept the true gift that has been given to us, the gift of transformation in the Spirit – the gift of a supple heart, an open Spirit, and a richer and truer life that God desires us to have.

See you at the gym!

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.

Gaza: what is the right thing to do?

By Lauren R. Stanley

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. And Gaza. And all of Israel and Palestine.

For the Lord alone knows what will happen there.

In every broadcast, every newspaper, every report, we see and hear the horrific news from the Middle East. Calls for peace are lost amid the explosions of bombs. And most of us are left to wonder, “What is the right thing to do?”

I openly support Israel and its right to exist. That is non-negotiable for me.

I openly support the Palestinians’ right to exist as well, to have their own country.

I keep thinking about how I would react if I were to live in Israel, with wild rockets being rained down upon me and mine, even if no one were being hurt. The very stress of the attacks alone would make me want to retaliate, especially if those who were shooting off the rockets were so obstinately opposed to my right to exist. I would want my government to react, to stop the attacks.

I keep thinking about how I would react if I were to live in Gaza, under blockade for years, without enough food to eat or water to drink, without electricity, having my basic civil rights denied to me, and yes, indeed, I would want my duly elected government to do something about it!

So what is to be done? How are we to pray? Because I am not living in either Israel or Gaza, it is easier – much easier – for me to pray for both sides, for all the innocents. Although I emotionally side with the Israelis (a good portion of my family was Jewish for generations; my father’s line converted to Catholicism), I cannot ignore the Palestinians and their right to exist, their right to peace in their lives. And I remember, too, that the majority of Palestinians are not involved in the rocket attacks and are simply trying to survive and maybe, God willing, to thrive.

This I know: Praying for peace is not enough. Prayers are but the first step in how we go about making the kingdom of God become reality. We need to pray, yes, but there must be something more that can be done. I just don’t know what. And that causes great anxiety in me and, I believe, many others.

Our government, the U.S. government, cannot simply declare a truce. The Israelis are not going to back off until their people feel some sense of security. The Palestinian peoples themselves cannot end the violence; their leaders are running this, and have no real history of listening to their people. And Hamas is certainly not going to simply stop – they are avowedly against Israel’s existence.

This particular version of the gruesome reality of life in Israel and Palestine is beyond the pale. Extreme acts of violence on both sides are only hardening the lines and making it harder to achieve even a smidgen of peace. Both sides are wrong. Both sides need to stop. Both sides need, at the very least, to accept the other’s right to exist. Only then can peace be sought.

But again, we who are witnessing these barbaric acts from both sides of the line are left to ask: What are we to do?

Even after much prayer, I still don’t have an answer to that. I don’t think anyone does either, to be honest. I think we are all watching and weeping and praying and wondering.

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an appointed missionary of The Episcopal Church, serving in the Diocese of Renk, Episcopal Church of Sudan. She is a lecturer in Theology, Greek, English and Liturgy, as well as chaplain of students, at the Renk Theological College.

Lay ministry and the leaky roof

Over the holiday weekend, the Daily Episcopalian will be the every-other-Daily Episcopalian.

By W. Tay Moss

Between the Christmas Eve Pageant service and the Christmas Eve Candlelight Midnight service my cell phone rang with the dreadful news, “the roof is leaking.” I had only been home for an hour and had just settled down by the fire with a drink and a cat and my toddler nephew playing by my feet. Dutifully, and with haste, I trudged the five minute walk back the church to find my distressed cleaning staff.

“Oh, Reverend,” she said in a thick accent, “I'm so sorry; I didn't know what to do!” She took me upstairs to an office of our daycare, where the water was nearly gushing through the ceiling into buckets. I thanked God that, Scrooge-be-tossed, we had booked our cleaning company on Christmas Eve. Otherwise the problem might have had all night to fester.

I flashed back to a continuing education session a few years ago. The Director of Planning and Development for the Diocese at the time was giving us newbies a crash course on the basics of church property management: “If you remember nothing else from this talk, remember this. This is the most important thing for incumbents to know how to do. Whenever any problem comes up with your building, ask this question.” He paused dramatically and then continued, “'Is this the result of water migration?' That's it—the most important thing you need to do is ask is that question!” At the time he told us that I thought “Wisdom speaks...”

Watching the water drip off the ceiling I thought, “...and is vindicated by her deeds!” I dusted off my University Spanish (minus the naughty words, of course) to tell another cleaner, Eduardo, that the problem was certainly on the flat roof and we would only know if it could be patched with a trip up the hatch.

My Honorary Assistant clucked her tongue as I climbed the ladder and hoisted myself onto the roof, “You are a brave man!” This from a woman that used to live in the war-torn Middle East. I didn't feel brave, mostly I felt determined to stop the water. The problem was immediately evident: a slushy snow and rain mixture several inches deep covered the whole flat roof section. Without a way to drain, the water had obviously found a path of lesser resistance. No doubt there was a hole to patch somewhere, but a good stopgap would be to get some of the slush off the roof. Supplied with snow shovels, Eduardo and I started to shovel the freezing mixture onto the parking lot 25 feet below. After assurances that he could go on without me, I left to get ready for the Midnight Mass.

Listening to this story at a clergy Twelthnight party, one of my colleagues said, “I would never have gone up on that roof.” I, too, am not sure that I made the right decision. More experienced priests may have patiently watched the water drip while waiting for someone else to take responsibility. “Let the Wardens handle it,” they would advise. I'm always aware that when I do something like this I may be displacing lay ministry. But the truth is that the only people willing to climb up onto that roof that night were me and Eduardo, and I would not have felt right about abandoning him to a snowy fate. And when it comes down to it, I'm too much of a control freak to “let it go.”

The decision to engage or not to engage the stuff-that-comes-up is a constant of ministry. On the one hand, we want to build communities of hope and compassion and that seems to require some rolled-up cassock sleeves. Between e-mails, phone calls, buildings, budgets, and anything else you may care to name, there are weeds to pull and vines to tend in God's green pasture. The word we use, after all, is “building.”

On the other hand, our spiritual teachers are telling us that we need to abandon such cares of the world and embrace the holy now. Consider these lines from a 17th century sermon by given Mark Frank quoted in Stephen Reynold's For All the Saints:

And alas! what have we, the best, the richest of us, as highly as we think of ourselves and ours, more than Saint Andrew and his brother: a few broken nets? ... What are all our ways and devices of thriving but so many several nets to catch a little yellow sand and mud? ... there are so many knots and difficulties, so many rents and holes for the fish to slip out of, that we may justly say they are but broken nets, and old ones too, the best of them, that will scarce hold a pull, all our new projects being but old ones new rubbed over, and no new thing under the sun.

This business of casting off the “net-works” that entangle us is a strikingly modern sentiment, but I guess there really is no new thing under the sun. Most of us fishers-of-people, I suspect, abide somewhere between the fierce urgency of the holy and ascetic now (cast off your nets) and the Parish Strategic Plan with its tactical appendix (build the kingdom).

We scramble to maintain the tippy centre of our fishing boats—perched as we are between competing pulls. Or, in my case, standing on the top of a step ladder (the step they tell you not to step on) arms hooked over the edge of the roof access hatch. Life is about balance, after all!

The question that keeps me occupied is how do I go about finding that balance? It's different for everyone, I am sure, but some self-examination bears fruit. Am I being driven by need to control the outcome of this endeavor? Am I doing this other project because I want acclaim? Perhaps that initiative is being driven by a false expectation of what my church “should” be doing to grow? These are the questions that can save us from drowning when the roof leaks!

The Rev. Tay Moss is an Episcopal priest currently serving the Church of The Messiah, Toronto. Besides enjoying hot-peppers, martinis, and monks (though usually not together), Tay maintains a blog between pastoral duties.

Bishop Gene Robinson:
"Inauguration Day"

Over the holiday weekend, the Daily Episcopalian will be the every-other-Daily Episcopalian.

Excerpted from In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God, by Gene Robinson, and used here with permission from Seabury Books.

By Gene Robinson

Every four years, like clockwork, an army of speechwriters squirrel themselves away in an office in Washington, D.C. and write, and re-write, and probably write again, an inaugural address for the new president of the United States. It’s usually brief, sometimes it’s eloquent, and on rare occasions it’s even memorable. And whether you agree with the words or not, that inaugural speech tells you where the president’s heart is as he begins his awesome tasks.

When Jesus began his ministry, he delivered an inaugural address, too, most likely written without a team of consultants. And like those Washington speechwriters, Jesus also squirreled himself away for a while. Jesus always removed himself for a time of prayer before making his move.

After he was baptized by John at the River Jordan and received the mantle of “beloved Son” from his heavenly father, the Spirit drove him into the wilderness to think about what his life would be about. His experience there in the desert isn’t so much a story of Jesus’ external struggle with the devil as it is the story of his own internal struggle with himself – the temptation to use his gifts in wrong ways, to squander his privilege as God’s beloved. Jesus spends forty difficult days in the wilderness, and emerges filled with clarity about his mission, ready to begin his ministry.

First item on the agenda: A trip back to his hometown, where, like a good Jewish boy, he goes to the synagogue in which he’s grown up. To honor his return, the elders of his synagogue call him up front to read from the sacred texts. He chooses a passage from Isaiah, and in this “inaugural” speech, declares what’s on his heart and what his life and ministry will be all about.

He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ (Luke 4:7–21)

“Do you hear Isaiah’s prophecy?” Jesus asked the people gathered in that small-town synagogue on that Sabbath day. “What you’re seeing now is the beginning of the fulfillment of those prophetic dreams.” Standing before the people he’d known since childhood, Jesus declared that he would preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recover sight for the blind, and set free those who are oppressed. It was a memorable inaugural speech.

The rest of Luke’s gospel confirms that this is indeed what Jesus’ ministry is about – touching lepers, embracing outcasts, honoring women and respecting children in ways unknown in that culture, loving the poor, refusing to stone the adulterous woman, including Gentiles in the Kingdom, and telling stories of Good Samaritans and Prodigal Sons.

Jesus may have delivered that inaugural message a couple of thousand years ago, but the people who claim to be followers of Jesus must share in the ministry he proclaimed that day. Being Christian isn’t about building lovely churches and having beautiful music and a fine education program and youth group. It’s not about right doctrine, and it’s not even about being “good.”

If you want to know what being a follower of Jesus is about, just check out his inaugural speech. It’s about preaching good news to the poor—whether poor economically or in spirit. It’s about releasing prisoners from all kinds of captivity. It’s about restoring sight to people from all kinds of blindnesses. It’s about working to set free those who are oppressed.

What Jesus’ inauguration tells us – indeed, what Jesus tells us about himself – is that if you want to see God, this is where you need to go, this is what you need to do: preach the good news, release the prisoners, restore sight, bring freedom. You need to do these things with those who are most in need, those most desperate to hear of a God who loves them beyond imagining, with those who are most marginalized, most excluded, most irritating, most angry, most reprehensible, most unworthy, least acceptable by the world’s standards.

I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t exactly fit my idea of good news. Frankly, I don’t like hearing this--partly because I’m one of the privileged. I have more money than I need, I’m blessed beyond my wildest dreams, I live in a house ten times the size of most families in the world. I’m more educated than most people in the world, have never known hunger, have seen a good part of the world, and consume more than my fair share of what the poor of the world produce. I like my comfortable circumstances and my mostly predictable life.

And yet in his inaugural speech, Jesus asks me, “How are you going to spend the privilege you’ve been given? You know of God’s love for you, and you draw enormous strength and comfort from that knowledge. But what good are you going to put that to? What risk are you going to take, what bold and daring thing are you going to do because of – and in service to -- the Gospel? Because if you want to follow me, if you want to know me and be in relationship with me, this is where you’ve got to be: with the poor, with the prisoners, with the blind, the captive, the oppressed.”

A church is more than a mutual admiration society. It exists for more than itself. If we are followers of Christ, we need to go where Christ is – which, as the Gospel tells us, is always with the poor, the dispossessed, and the marginalized –in New Hampshire or New York, in Manchester or Belfast, in El Salvador or West Africa. The question that faces every single person who takes the title of Christian is exactly the same question that Jesus faced in the wilderness after his baptism: “How will we spend the privilege that is ours? What risks will we take for the Gospel? What good will come to others from our knowing God’s love for us?”

Will our participation in our own little part of the Body of Christ —our families, our parishes, our circles of friends-- propel us into caring about the kind of ministry Jesus cared about? Or will we be content to stay safely warm and snug within our beautiful, well-cared-for walls? Will our “inreach” to one another be the security blanket we hold onto for comfort, or will our loving community give us the confidence and courage to engage in “outreach” to those who most need to hear that they too are loved by God?

And there are so many who don’t know of God’s love for them. Some live next door to you. Some sleep at night under bridges in our cities and towns. Some struggle with mental illness or addiction or AIDS in hospitals everywhere. Some scratch out a living in the dirt of a sub-Saharan African village. Who are the poor you can reach, and what is the good news they need and long to hear? Besides the obvious ones in your state or county, what kinds of prisons hold people captive, and what would set them free? Who are the blind, and by what are they blinded? What can you and God do to restore their sight? What fight are you willing to join in Jesus’ name to free someone else from their oppression?

If we are to see God, if we are to be doers of the Word and not just hearers only, we have to go where Jesus went. This is the bottom line: We cannot know God or follow Jesus without participating in the “pain of love and the work of justice.” Every time we gather together as the body of Christ, it’s inauguration day for the Church. It’s a time to celebrate the best news there is: that we are loved beyond our wildest imagining by the God of all creation. And it’s an opportunity to ask ourselves this: From this day forward, what will our life and ministry be about? Just like Jesus, we too are the beloved of God, so how will we spend that privilege? What risks will we take because we are secure in that love? By virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection the Spirit of the Lord is upon us just as surely as it was upon Jesus. And like Jesus, we too can – and must – go about the hard and holy work of fulfilling the Scriptures in our own lives.

The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson is Bishop of New Hampshire.

The history rant

By Derek Olsen

Whenever I teach a class, whether it’s at a seminary or in a church, I typically begin with a bit about how the past and the present play into one another in the construction of theological meaning. I’ve done it enough that it’s achieved a fairly fixed form and as I look over lecture notes for things I’ve taught it’s not uncommon to see a line near the top reading “insert history rant here”.

Because—well—that’s probably the best way to describe it: “the history rant” …and here’s a version of it…

We are not called to be part of the Christian Historical Society. We are called to be part of the Christian Church. We don’t do things because they’re old; we do them because they proclaim the Gospel.

Now, the Gospel—the Good News of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ—does not change. It is the same yesterday, today, and forever. How we communicate this Good News, however, must be constantly renewed. Because while the Good News of Jesus does not change, cultures and the people who live in them change constantly. In order for people to actually hear the Gospel, we have to be sure that what we’re saying is communicating that Good News. Because we’re limited, fallible, sinful people our proclamations will inevitable distort the Gospel. That is, we will inevitably accent some parts and tone down other parts and over time any static means of proclaiming the Gospel will end up proclaiming a Gospel-like substance that is not, in fact, the real thing.

Generally by this point, I’ll be able to pick up some readings from the group I’m working with. Some of the progressive-types will likely be smiling and nodding; some of the traditional-types will be watching me warily to see where I’m going with all of this. And so I continue…:

So—because we’re humans we will inevitably screw this thing up. Thankfully, God’s well aware of this and to that end, we’ve got the Holy Spirit to help keep us on track. Now—this is where it gets complicated.

The great Protestant disease is amnesia. Some even act like we’re the first Christians on the face of the earth and try and make everything up from scratch. If we take the Scriptures seriously, if we take the Creeds seriously, then we as Christians must believe that the Spirit has been continually at work guiding and directing from the time of the patriarchs, through the time of Jesus, through the times of the Church. The Spirit didn’t somehow go away at the end of the Book of Acts and show up again just for you. For Christians, history can never be “one damn thing after another”—instead it’s a storehouse of the footprints of the Spirit: how it has led and directed us, and how we’ve listened (or not). So when we start renewing our proclamation of the Gospel the surest and best place to start is looking back to see how the Spirit has spoken, how we have responded and what means were used then that can help us speak the word of life now. We must be grounded in our Tradition—not so we can simply replicate it, but so that we can draw on it the best we’re able.

By this point I often see a flip-flop. The progressive-types are looking wary and the traditionalist-types are looking pleased…meaning it’s time to shake things up again.

By the way, I’ve discovered that the way most people in the Church define “Tradition” is: “the way things were done when I was a kid.” Let me warn you that the tradition is far broader, deeper, and more complicated than that.

At this point most everybody is looking a bit wary—which is the way I like it. And so I wrap it up:

We are the Church—and we have to address the situations, cultures and people we find here and now—not those from a hundred or five hundred years ago. We’re not the Christian Historical Society—but history is where we find time-tested methods that will help us proclaim the Gospel here and now. The key to the process, though, is neither to start making things up off the top of our heads nor to go for the books with the most dust on them—it’s to listen to the Spirit. That’s the whole point of this exercise after all: to listen and discern so that we can truly communicate the Good News.

I do this “history rant” for a number of different reasons. One reason really is to shake people up and to get them to think beyond the simplistic dichotomies where we often find one another. It’s also to dig into the purpose of why we talk about these things; history for history’s sake is a valid endeavor—it’s just not why the Church does it. We have to be listening for the voice of the Spirit, investigating when and where we listened, or refused to listen.

It’s also a reminder for me personally not to give into my temptation to park myself in the tenth century…

Despite the traps we church people fall into, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter what pigeon-hole we fit ourselves into. What matters is that we realize that we are caught up in an endeavor much greater and grander than our own projects--that we have the opportunity to be part of the great communication between God and humanity, to speak and spread the word of life, liberation, and redemption that we have received in Jesus. And to do that best, I believe, means locating ourselves within that conversation. Knowing what has been said and done in the past, and keeping our heart and eyes attentive to what God is saying and doing now.

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.

Who Will Provide the Care?

By Marshall Scott

Last April I was invited to participate in a meeting of the Standing Commission on Health of the General Convention. Those invited represented quite a variety of health ministries and concerns within the Episcopal Church. I was invited as a member of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains; but participants were from a wide variety of organizations associated with the Episcopal Church.

Early in the meeting the chair, Bishop Barry Howe, asked us to go around the table, speaking of the health care issues that we saw for our society. Again, around the table there were many concerns: universal access to care; the aging population; care for the poor and underserved in a variety of settings and cultures; the rising cost to the Church of providing insurance for clergy and lay employees; and many others. By the time they came to me, I had heard many I agreed with; so I raised one I hadn't heard, but that I see every day in my practice: the current and growing shortage of physicians and nurses to provide care.

I was reminded of that discussion when I saw the front page of my own Sunday paper. On December 28 the Kansas City Star has this on the front page (one column, but above the fold): “Doctors try to treat physician attrition.” While the story was written with a local focus, it addressed a national problem: "While the supply of physicians roughly meets demand now, by 2025 the nation could be short from 124,000 to 159,000 physicians, according to different scenarios."

The expected shortage of nurses is even more marked, and arguably more critical. According to the Web site of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing , "The shortage of registered nurses (RNs) in the U.S. could reach as high as 500,000 by 2025 according to a report released by Dr. Peter Buerhaus and colleagues in March 2008."

There are a number of factors affecting the shortage of physicians. Some are as inevitable and intractable as time: physicians, like all of us, are aging and considering retirement. Some are financial: physician reimbursement keeps getting squeezed, pressed by the weight of Medicare, and followed by insurance companies; and family practice physicians, who provide the most and the most cost-effective care, are paid worst of all. Some are matters of public policy: Medicare is the primary supporter of medical education, including M.D. and D.O. degrees, and has placed a cap on the number of medical school slots.

The shortage of nurses is somewhat different, as the field becomes squeezed between fewer graduates and higher attrition. Research has shown that the primary factors in nurse retention or attrition are about “work/life” – balancing the requirements of the job with personal and family requirements outside - although poor pay (relative to other ancillary health professionals), poor working conditions, and poor relations with physicians contribute significantly. More critically, AACN writes of a shortage of nursing faculty. Finally, the sheer number of education programs for nurses has fallen with the virtual vanishing of Diploma programs, programs associated with hospitals rather than academic institutions.

I wondered to what extent Episcopal institutions are educating physicians and nurses. To begin, I went to the web page of the Association of Episcopal Colleges. There are eleven members of the Association, each with a web site. I reviewed each site to see whether any offered degrees in Medicine or Nursing, or offered Pre-med majors. In fact none offered a major in Pre-med. That wasn't really a surprise, as that specific major is less common, and most students seeking to attend medical schools were already in other undergraduate majors. Nor did any have an associated medical school (as a graduate of Sewanee, I was aware that there had been one there, now long gone; and that may be true of other schools). So, while our colleges certainly prepare students for medical education, they are not offering those degrees themselves.

Three of the colleges did offer degrees in Nursing. Only one, however, is in the United States. Clarkson College in Omaha offers a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing, as does Cuttington University in Liberia and Trinity University of Asia in the Philippines. Considering the number of nurses from the Philippines who have come to the United States to work, one might think of Trinity University as also serving the health care needs of the United States (but with even more significant needs in the developing world, that has ethical issues all its own). There was an Episcopal School of Nursing associated with Temple University in Philadelphia, but that program has closed. I would also note that St. Augustine College in Chicago offers a degree for Respiratory Therapists, another profession in short supply. Over all, then, Episcopal institutions have little explicit involvement in addressing the future health care needs we face.

In an essay last year I reviewed the Episcopal Church Annual to get some count of the number of Episcopal health care institutions. I identified seventeen Episcopal hospitals or hospital systems. As far as I can discover only one includes a school of nursing: the Saint Luke’s College, part of the Saint Luke’s Health System in Kansas City (full disclosure: that is the System within which I am a chaplain). This is not to say that Episcopal hospitals are not involved in educating nurses, medical students, and medical residents. Many do participate in clinical education programs in these and other health care professions. However, our health care institutions are no more extensively involved in educating physicians and nurses than are our academic institutions.

In one sense, this might not seem such a big story. After all, there are many other institutions providing education for physicians and nurses, and it would be far easier and more effective to expand opportunities in those existing programs than to try to establish new programs in our own institutions. At the same time, as an expression of our commitment "to seek and serve Christ in all persons," General Convention has repeatedly supported universal access to quality health care for all in our country. Three resolutions were passed in Convention in 1991 alone (A010, A094, and A099). Moreover, among the purposes of the Standing Commission on Health when was reestablished in Convention in 2003 were:

* Advocating, in cooperation with the Office of Government Relations, for a health care system in which all may be guaranteed decent and appropriate primary health care during their lives and as they approach death;
* Bringing together those within The Episcopal Church who develop, provide, and/or teach health care and health care policy to continue to develop a Christian approach to pressing issues that affect the health care system of this nation;
* Understanding and keeping abreast of the rapidly changing health care market and developments in biomedical research that affect health policy (from 2003-A124)

So, we have expressed our commitment to support universal access to health care, and to advocate for it in our society. However, I would agree with those who point out that "universal access" is meaningless if there aren’t enough professionals to provide the care.

So, how can we contribute to addressing this growing need? We can identify and honor our own members and institutions whose vocations are to provide medical and nursing care, and to educate those who will provide it in the future. We can encourage those who are pursuing professional training to appreciate it as not only a secular occupation but also a spiritual vocation of service. The Church’s Office of Government Relations is already raising health care issues; but we can encourage the Office to include professional education explicitly in their efforts. We can provide in the budget of the national Church resources for the Commission on Health so that the Commission can pursue its mission of leadership. We can advocate ourselves at all levels – individuals, congregations, dioceses, and the national Church – with our civil leadership to pursue universal access to health care for all in the United States, including having enough professionals, and providing them sufficient support, financial and otherwise. We can especially acknowledge that we who can are willing to pay for those professionals and those resources so that care can be provided for those who can’t.

For all the interest expressed in last year’s election rhetoric in expanding access to health care, the crashing economy has tended to sideline any other issues, including those like health care that are arguably related to industrial growth and economic recovery. We can take steps both within and without the Episcopal Church to keep one important issue from simply overwhelming another, and to keep alive the call to make access to health care universal – indeed, to see it as a civil and human right. We have a particular opportunity this year, as we will be gathering in General Convention, the one gathering in which we speak as a whole church. However, the first step to take is to recognize the problem. Once we've done that, raising our voices is much easier. And unless we do both – recognize the problem and raise our voices – we may discover that the care we need simply isn’t there.

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.

Strong man

By Greg Jones

I am always moved when in the Gospel of Matthew God appears to Joseph and tells him to take wife and child and run away, for Herod wants to destroy the child. As a father, I'm moved to want to protect my children – if that means running and hiding I'll do it. I know many in Gaza are feeling this way these days. Just as in Israel, the Sudan, Myanmar, Mexico, and all the places where babies depend on their parents for nurture in a world run ragged by the cruel arms of oppression.

What is more, as a believer, I am so deeply moved by the idea that God - who is infinite - has chosen to become a tiny baby in need of the protection of his parents, from the threat of folks like Herod. It still boggles my mind that our good old story of salvation is rooted in the story of the Son of God who became a baby dependent on a mommy and a daddy, so he might grow up to become the strong man on the cross.

I am also moved by the connected passage in Jeremiah where it says, "The Lord has redeemed him from hands too strong for him." Jeremiah is not just talking about the individual man who once wrestled with God, but with all persons who struggle with God. Jeremiah is also talking about the work of the fragile baby who becomes the strong man on the cross, who pries us free from hands too strong. Hands of sin, of fear, of destruction.

I am moved by this Word about a Baby going to Egypt long ago, and this prophesy about a redeemed creation. Moved because for me, it's not out there. It's not long ago. It's right here. It's now. I hear God speaking to me in these words.

Back in college I had a friend who was like a little bear. This guy was short and stocky and strong. Like strong teens often will to other boys, he'd come up and grab me sometimes – and just crush me. I tried so hard to break free, but he was just too strong. His hands and arms were too strong for me. He could have killed me with a bear hug, but instead he merely crushed me and then mocked me. He'd say, "Boy, you sure are big not to be strong."
Ouch. But it's true. Not only have I almost always been a bit stocky, and not that athletic, but I've never been able to get sin's strong arms off me either. This is why I thank God that the "Mighty Lord Become Tiny Baby Become Strong Man on The Cross" has done so for me.
This is the Gospel of course, that Christ offers strength to those who set their hearts on him. That's His message of transformation, to we Americans who are awfully big not to be strong for the Lord. That's His call to grow in spiritual strength, so that we might become strong hands for Christ.

We who have grown so filled with privilege and American overplenty, are called out of our big but weak lives into something more for the Kingdom. And it's not a guilt trip, but a journey toward service in Christ.

As I understand it, too, there's only one exercise that will transform ourselves, souls and bodies into Christly people. That excercise is the picking up of our cross.

This year, here are five ways to carry the cross and grow stronger in faith:

1. Forgive someone, even if they don't deserve it.
2. Make a sacrificial gift for the work of the Kingdom.
3. Volunteer in the name of God somewhere.
4. Read a bit of the Gospel everyday.
5. Take on daily prayer for self, neighbor and world.

We are all awfully big not to be strong. But the strong one on the cross will help us change.

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 Anglican Centrist.

Christmas blues, Epiphany light

By Richard Helmer

One of our five-year-old’s favorite Christmas gifts this year was a racing track made in China (where else?) with a little wind-up car. The track itself consists of soft plastic with sharp edges and tight junctions, requiring fifteen minutes plentiful parental sweat – we hope with minimal swearing – to assemble. All this effort is just so the car can zoom around the loops in under three seconds. Daniel remains interested in the zooming car for about five minutes and then walks away, leaving the hunk of plastic languishing in our living room.

For me, the racing track offers a metaphor of our commercialized Christmas, with all of the effort, sweat, and even blood that we pour out year and after year, just so the culture can walk away from the festival the day after; so the country can get back to its routine with all of the bad news, frustrations, and anxieties. Our families and individual lives are much the same way. Back to the frustrations of the “routine” whatever is routine these days, with all of the rawness of the holidays still to cope with. If your family and circle of friends is a bit like mine, you’ll recognize that the five-year-old leaving the hunk of plastic on the living room floor, metaphorically or literally, is a major potential source of conflict needing to be re-negotiated. Christmas left us with more sore-spots, sometimes, than we started with – raw material for New Year resolutions, perhaps.

Well, the whole thing is a recipe for the Christmas blues, if you ask me – and I always have a few of those in the first few weeks after Christmas, where the carols and the garlands and the greens have started to lose their crispness. Sunday attendance is low, and some folk are already taking down the Christmas lights or tossing out the tree. Cardboard is piling up outside the recycling bins and children and adults are already getting bored with their new toys. Put in Christian theological terms: Jesus needs changing, the shepherds have returned to the grunt and grime of the fields, and the wise men are packing up to leave. There is even the sinister story remembered the week after Christmas of Herod’s horrific slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem, and Mary and Joseph fleeing with the Jesus into Egypt.

I don’t know about you, but there’s an idealist in me somewhere that expected the world to be permanently altered after Christmas – filled with light from the little town of Bethlehem and harbingers of peace and transformation for the new year. Instead, the Gaza strip and portions of Israel are under bombardment, and hundreds of people are losing their lives. Closer to home things are thankfully not so violent, but the checking account still needs balancing after a December binge and, with the recession looming large, planning for the New Year is anything but rosy for most, if not all of us.

As we turn to Epiphany, I take heart from the perennially uplifting passage from the prologue of John: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

It sums up the hope we are to take away from Christmas and into Epiphany – hope that we nurture and hold in the darkness for ourselves and even more importantly for one another. The author of John, with rough-hewn Greek dispensing profound theological ideas insists on seeing our lives, the world, and all of creation through God’s eyes: a God who called us good before we saw the daylight; a God who birthed galaxies and quarks; a God who still looks at the world with all of its darkness, haunted by old hurts, and still calls it good. And we receive this light to carry: the newborn Christ, the newborn hope that is ours for the taking. Sometimes, like Mary and Joseph, we take him and flee the violence of the world. At other times, we cradle and shield him like a vulnerable, flickering flame in the darkness of a grimy stable.

Once our son forgets he ever had a plastic racing track made in China, there will still be this light shining in the darkness for him. And, for me, that’s good news for Christmas blues, shining in the darkness with Epiphany light, waiting for the next chapter of God’s redeeming grace to unfold.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is 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.

A crack in the earthen vessel

By R. William Carroll

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.

2 Corinthians 4:7-12

I’ve always loved Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians and especially this passage from the fourth chapter. The letter is from a missionary to a young church, and it speaks of Paul’s sufferings as an apostle. One of its great themes is the consolation that comes from knowing Christ, even (and especially) in suffering. I commend it to you in its entirety.

The letter has taken on new meaning for me in the past couple of weeks. It has always spoken to me in terms of spiritual suffering. Blessed few of us reach adulthood without our share of that. I’ve certainly had mine. But I think that since a recent hospitalization and diagnosis with the early stages of diabetes, the physicality of Paul’s sufferings have taken on a new meaning for me. In particular, I am struck by his statement that we are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus.” Apparently, my diabetes is easily treatable, perhaps without medication and certainly (for now at least) without insulin. But it is still a serious health condition, the first I’ve had, and when I finally pass from this life, it may be what kills me.

Truth be told, we are always already carrying the seeds of death in our bodies. This side of Eden, mortality is the human condition. But illness of any kind or other milestones of aging make this fact, which we’d prefer to deny, present for us in a whole new way. The other day I had a conversation with one of the members of our parish, who told me that she and her friends spoke about this often.

The thought of our own death creates a choice. We can choose to withdraw further into denial or rage against perceived injustice. Or we can choose face the truth with eyes wide open and accept the gift of life for what it is. I am convinced that the Gospel always calls us to the latter path. For on it, we discover the secret of joy, as we draw closer and closer to the crucified and risen Jesus. On it, we find that his life has become our life, breaking the power of death over us. Perhaps it is only here that we truly begin to live.

“For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.”

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.

Incarnation and Suffering

We did not want it easy, God,
But we did not contemplate
That it would be quite this hard,
This long, this lonely.
So, if we are to be turned inside out,
and upside down,
With even our pockets shaken
Just to check what's rattling
And left behind,
We pray that you will keep faith with us,
And we with you,
Holding our hands as we weep,
Giving us strength to continue,
And showing us beacons
Along the way
To becoming new.

Anna McKenzie

By Jane Redmont

The seasons of Christmas and Epiphany are difficult, even painful for many people: those who mourn, those who suffer from depression, those who struggle with sobriety, those for whom “family” does not mean “joy.” Some colleagues in ministry have taken to offering a “blue Christmas” service at their churches in acknowledgment of this reality.

Our immediate and constant call is to welcome and comfort and offer pastoral care, sometimes in the simple form of acknowledging that this is not a time of rejoicing for everyone. And always, poverty and hunger are at our doorstep; wars batter many lands, including the one where Jesus walked; like the child Jesus, refugee children are born away from their parents’ homes.

But there is more, spiritually and theologically. Perhaps because I have had a difficult few months –a house destroyed by a falling tree; a job whose demands caused me to choose constantly between work and sleep; an attempted break-in at my new residence; stresses in the ordination process; deadlines met and unmet— I have been especially aware this Christmastide of the suffering dimensions of the Incarnation.

I came home early from the office on the day before Thanksgiving hoping for a nap and some quiet and found that someone had thrown a brick through the window of my study. In addition to the brick and to the dirt that clung to it, there was shattered glass all over the room. Days after the police visits, the sweeping and vacuuming, the window repair, and the restoral of order after chaos, I was still finding shards in and on and under the furniture and the stacks of paper. I have kept one of the fragments, for reasons I do not entirely understand, on my desk, where it sits amid the Post-Its and icons.

The symbolism is so obvious I hesitate to use it: sometimes suffering comes crashing in, shattering the windows, a blatant intruder; sometimes it is less obvious: we walk our daily rounds and slivers of sharp glass surprise us, reminding us of old wounds and creating new ones.

On the first Sunday after Christmas, meditating aloud in a sermon on the Word made flesh I spoke, briefly of some meanings of incarnation, of the ways in which Christ is present among us, on this earth, in this flesh of ours. Among the forms of Christ’s presence I mentioned incarnation and suffering in one breath, in a way I had never done before at Christmastide.

Because I was preaching with a small community and one which I know well, I had decided to keep my reflections brief and to open up a space for shared reflection on the Word. At the end of my reflections I asked: How has the word been made flesh in your life? How do you see the Word being made flesh in the world around us?

Toward the end of the shared sermon time, a longtime member of the congregation, active for years in many causes for justice, from faith-based opposition to the death penalty to the plight of the people of Darfur, began to speak and to weep. “Where is God?” she asked. “Where is God in the lives of children whose bodies are distorted by hunger? It is easy to feel that God is here when I am holding my well fed grandchildren in my arms. But there…” She found it hard to continue.

Silence followed. I spoke only a few words after. They are less important than the suffering, the cry, and the remembrance, then and later, that our God is a God who suffers.

Into this world,
this demented inn,
in which there is absolutely no room for him at all,
Christ has come uninvited.
But because he cannot be at home in it,
because he is out of place in it,
and yet he must be in it,
his place is with those others for whom there is no room.

His place is with those who do not belong,
who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak,
those who are discredited,
who are denied the status of persons,
With those for whom there is no room,
Christ is present in this world.

Thomas Merton (from Raids on the Unspeakable)

I have often thought –and preached—that in this season we consider the vulnerability of God. That has never felt out of place. But though related to the suffering of God, it felt somehow different, different from speaking of the suffering of God on Christmas. Save that one for Good Friday, we think.

Yet there is long Christian tradition, in poetry and music and other theologies, for reflecting on the shadow of the cross that looms over the manger: Mary’s sufferings in later life in that other time of gazing at her son’s body, and Jesus’ suffering in adult life -- not only the sufferings imposed by Herod on Jesus’ migrant family or on the Innocents whose massacre we remember so soon after the feast of the Nativity.

I have often felt that the shadow of the cross had no place on Christmas or took away from the celebration of incarnation. But cross –cross as suffering, Jesus’ suffering and ours, not surrogate suffering, not substitutionary atonement, just suffering, the kind with no explanation—does belong there. Or rather, it is there, at Christmas, amid the hugs and the tinsel and the cherished carols and the crèche.

I understand better this year the lines in T.S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi, which I have read on or around Epiphany, year after year, for decades now:

… were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

In these days of Christmastide and Epiphany, of considering our suffering and that of others, of pondering the suffering of God and yes, God’s vulnerability, another poem always returns to visit. It comes from the theologian Dorothee Sölle, who wrestled all her life with how to speak of God in the face of the reality of evil, particularly that of the Shoah (Holocaust) in her native Germany. In those times of torment, she wrote, especially times of massive social evil, when countless people suffered and systems failed, God was weak. God was small and needy; God needed more friends.

God needs us. Like the cross on Christmas, like Christmas itself, this truth turns our thinking upside down. And so it should.

He needs you
that's all there is to it
without you he's left hanging
goes up in dachau's smoke
is sugar and spice in the baker's hands
gets revalued in the next stock market crash
he's consumed and blown away
used up
without you

Help him
that's what faith is
he can't bring it about
his kingdom
couldn't then couldn't later can't now
not any rate without you
and that is his irresistible appeal

Dorothee Sölle (from Revolutionary Patience)

Jane Redmont’s book When in Doubt, Sing: Prayer in Daily Life has just been reissued in paperback by Sorin Books. She blogs at Acts of Hope and, on behalf of the Bishop’s Committee for Racial Justice and Reconciliation of the Diocese of North Carolina, at Race, Justice, and Love. Poems used by permission.

Stars and dreams

By Ann Fontaine

“You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.”

Kenny Rogers sang these lyrics about a gambler but in this season of Epiphany they seem to apply as well to Joseph. Joseph held ‘em when he listened to the angel in his dream and kept Mary from disgrace and death, giving space in time for Jesus’ birth. He knew when to run when he heard the angel’s warning about Herod. He walked away from the danger to the child and took his family to Egypt and safety.

The lyrics also apply to the Magi, the stargazing strangers from the East who held 'em as they followed a star to find a gift beyond their imagining - a gift that made their gold, incense and myrrh pale in comparison. They walked away, seeking something worth holding and protecting it from the evil of empire as they took “another way” home from their journey.

The whole world seems to be wondering, is now the time to hold ‘em or fold ‘em, stay, walk or run? Most of our fears revolve around how to make a future for ourselves and our children. From the war in the Holy Land where each side is trying to make space for its children to live and thrive to a local family who could not keep their 3-year-old alive with all the privileges of money and medical care - the world wonders. Since the stars are unclear in their message to me, I just want to pull the covers over my head and go back to dreaming.

The theme of the recent US election was hope. The candidate who won capitalized most on this theme. In some parts of the world, coups have taken place, with each winner offering hope of a different life for people. In other places wars are being fought with the promise of new life out of the death and destruction necessary to make it happen. Will any of these really bring the life about which we dream? Are any of them a star worth following? Can we really know when it is time to hold ‘em or time to fold ‘em?

The Magi and Joseph had angels and dreams and stars for guidance. We see that they made the right choices as we read their stories. We don’t usually have these angels and dreams and stars for guidance as we journey. Sometimes we don’t even have any choice in much of life. When we do have the power to decide, we later see where choices we thought were correct turned out to be the worst things we could choose. We can see some things that seemed iffy that turned out for the best. Life is funny that way.

There is the story of the priest who always wanted to be a chaplain to an Episcopal school. He took all the right courses in his training. He interned with school programs. He received excellent recommendations. He applied for position after position, but never attained his desire. He went to work as an assistant in a large parish and worked with success in various ministries. One day he received two letters – one was an offer to become a chaplain, and the other was an offer to become the rector of a larger parish. He was torn; by this time, he wanted to be a rector as much as he wanted to be a chaplain. He lay down in front of the altar and prayed for a sign to show him which position he should accept. He prayed and prayed. Suddenly it came to him, in a dream or a voice or who knows: it does not matter which you choose – just be faithful.

Faithfulness is what is required. Life will prove the correctness of our decisions and, if we go off the rails, repentance will put us back on the right track. That is the cycle of redemption. Paul, in Romans 5 and 6, struggles with this idea of sin and grace. He does not seem to resolve it very satisfactorily. For me Thomas Merton says it best:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following Your Will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this You will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death. I will not fear,
for You are ever with me,
and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.

When we hear about Joseph and the Magi now, they seem so sure. I think they too wondered if they really heard the voice of an angel or were following the right star. A gambler always believes he will know when to hold his cards or when to fold and walk away. Our lives, however, are not a gamble. They are a sure thing for as long or short as they may be. Hopefully our stories will prove that we made the right choices in our journey with God, but if not we are assured that God promises to be with us. Immanuel.

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

Practicing my "other religion"

By Donald Schell

Stacey Grossman is a priest colleague who rows with a women’s club on San Francisco Bay. She blogs as a rowing priest. We were talking about her practice of rowing and mine of Aikido, a martial art, and I described Aikido as “my other religion.” Stacey recognized the thought, said she was working on an article for her rowing club on “The Church of Rowing,” and observed that she has other Christian friends who use the phrase “my other religion” to speak of disciplined athletic practice.

Had Stacey or I been applying to a Commission on Ministry we might have used more cautious language, but we were talking of the joyful (and maybe professionally embarrassing) truth that for each of us, physical practice lives in the place of committed devotion and grace. Our conversation moved me to talk about physical practice in this season of celebrating Jesus, God’s Word made Flesh.

Aikido’s name combines three Japanese words that resonate with theology or spirituality. ‘Ai’ means ‘joining/reconciling/harmony/love.’ ‘Ki’ is ‘energy/power/Spirit.’ And a ‘Do’ is ‘a way,’ ‘a path,’ or ‘a practice.’

Hearing the name, I wondered if Aikido practice might reinforce aspects of my faith, but seeing Aikido converted me. In 1980, the year Ellen and I moved to San Francisco to help start St. Gregory’s Church, a musician friend invited me to an Aikido demonstration. Ellen says I came home from that demonstration saying, ‘I’ve got to do this thing I saw today. I’m getting a black belt.’ I do remember feeling love at first sight, but can’t recall such a clear declaration that I would do it, because I’d fallen in love with Aikido, but was also so frightened that it took me a whole year of reading about it and talking to people who were practicing it to get up enough courage to begin myself. There may be a parable there, or at least an echo of what we read in the Epistle of James about people who see Jesus’ Gospel but don’t do anything different as a result. Yes, I was scared. Scared I somehow wouldn’t fit in with a dojo. Scared I might get hurt.

Maybe it’s the rich young ruler who gets what Jesus is inviting him to and walks away with a heavy heart.

I’ve gotten over most of my fear (and find what’s left a valuable study). I had guessed right that injuries were possible. I’ve banged both my shoulder sockets badly, and pulled a hamstring so I could barely walk, so there’s risk, but nothing too bad. And what do we ask people to risk in church?

I’m there at practice every morning at 7:30. An old friend who is now seventy-eight comes as regularly as I do. Younger Aikidoists (men and women in their mid- twenties to late thirties) fill out the morning’s practice group. I was a bit older than they are when I deprived myself of the daily choice whether to attend practice and simply began going every day. I’m not talking about a ‘firm resolution,’ or a ‘declared commitment’ but something I’ve chosen to make as habitual as brushing my teeth in the morning or going to church on Sunday whether I have any priest work that Sunday or not.

A mark of practice is regular discipline and open attention to oft repeated core forms. The point isn’t to figure something out, but to learn it well enough to pay attention and find continuing surprises in doing it.

As some Christian clergy and laity work to reclaim a language of Christian practice for the sake of Christian formation and community, I wonder how willing we are to ask ourselves and our congregations to ourselves to submit to the sheer repetition and steady attention that would make anything we do together in church genuinely practice? Is our church culture too expert-driven and so focused on what we know and what we’ve been taught that it separates us from the learning opportunities (and confusion and frustration) that come with real practice?

“Practice” in professions and religion also suggests continual learning and the humility (and humiliation) that acknowledges and accepts provisional proficiency.

My two religions do shape and inform each other.

Aikido is a fiercely gentle martial art; it’s fast, aerobic peacemaking. The declared context is universal love. Our goal is to partner an attacker and take him harmlessly to the ground. I
sometimes joke that Aikido is my daily study in conflict resolution. Physically, the practice echoes loving enemies and turning the other cheek. Rather than blocking or stopping an attack, we practice joining with the attacking energy, taking straight lines of momentum
to big dance-like circles, and landing the attacker harmlessly on the ground. When we’re the attacking partner, we practice making strong, sincere attacks and then giving ourselves to the fall that our own energy has generated. In the basics, Aikido feels quite congenial to

As a Christian priest, Aikido practice grounds my whole day in a more peaceful, forgiving encounter with people and a deeper longing for God.

Lots of touch, the freedom to strike and fall, getting thrown by guys who are smaller than me and by women including my 78 year old friend, and fearlessness (more or less) in the presence of strong onrushing energy all help me feel and know my own and other people’s God-given spirits and bodies, to live respectfully in the moment where God is present and acting and, in some small way daily, to risk openness to the Presence of Spirit animating God-given flesh.

I have known such practice moments in liturgy: in the deep communion of joining my voice to the congregation’s voice for an unaccompanied singing of the Beatitudes to a Russian chant, or in the settling of my restless mind sitting in silence with two hundred fellow Christians who have just listened to a scripture reading together, and when I preside at the Altar Table praying with my hands upraised, sometimes I can feel how a presider leading the Eucharist from the table is born up on the expectant, patient prayers of friends and strangers; and sometimes, presiding or standing with sisters and brothers while someone else is leading the prayer, I feel the mighty Breath turn our ocean swell into a breaker we’re surfing together.

Like Aikido practice, these are moments of incarnated, Spirit-inspired aliveness. In a coming piece I’ll be writing about such moments when Spirit fills practice and how liturgy opens us to such moments.

For now, while watching a video of my teacher’s teacher, Kato Sensei, my body feels and remembers the privilege of having him correct my practice one of the times he’s visited us from Japan. The generosity of his throw and the gratitude of receiving such energy literally knock me off my feet. Remembering such falls today as write for others walking in Jesus’ Way, I wonder if making an attack and then taking such a fall might resonate for an eager young Pharisee tossing Jesus a challenging question and getting one of the great parables in response.

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

A few words on Christmas as it passes

By George Clifford

My recent reading Wendell Berry’s 1985 essay, “A Few Words in Favor of Edward Abbey,” prompted some thoughts about public discourse and Christmas. Berry noted that environmentalists who identified Abbey as a fellow environmentalist had authored many of the published reviews of Abbey’s writings. Consequently, Berry remarked, these environmentalists thought that they had “a right to expect [Abbey] to perform as their tool.” When Abbey deviated from his reviewers’ expectations, the reviewers objected vociferously. Berry preferred to characterize Abbey as an autobiographer, a person whose writings reflected not the expectations of others but Abbey’s individuality and unique thoughts.

Based on my two-year experience in the blogosphere and three plus decades of ministry, many participants in twenty-first century public discourse might beneficially reflect on Berry’s observations. Narrow, single-issue agendas pursued with an unrelenting passion distort much contemporary discourse into the practical equivalent of a monologue, a chorus – small or large – of voices that strive to shout down or otherwise to exclude an honest diversity of opinion. This chorus finds only endlessly cloned thought acceptable, dismissing inherently distinctive autobiography as uninformed or obstructive. So many advocates of “political correctness” subscribed to this genre of discourse that for several years comics frequently parodied them.

Stereotyping people makes quick work of putative public discourse, especially helpful in a stressed-out world perpetually functioning in information overload. Affirm those with whom one agrees; reject, perhaps even condemn those with whom one disagrees. We have the truth; it has made us free to judge without fear. This obviates any time-wasting and potentially energy-draining need for real dialogue or conversation. In other words, objectify others: make them as involuntary extensions of one’s self or reduce them to non-entities.

No known first century Jew anticipated the long-awaited Messiah being born in Nazareth, living as a peasant, and dying as a criminal. The vast majority of Jews (as is the vast majority of humanity) were blind to everything but what they wanted, a Messiah who would give them political freedom and economic prosperity. When God did something fresh, something unexpected, a very few people, mostly Jews who managed to see past their misguided expectations, experienced God moving in a new way through Jesus.

As the handful of individuals who had experienced God moving anew in Jesus began to carry that message around the Mediterranean, they invariably found a mostly unhearing audience. Images of St. Paul as a successful church planter depend upon a rewriting of history. In fact, all of the congregations that Paul helped to start failed to thrive. Not until people repackaged Jesus into a domesticated promoter of political stability and economic prosperity did Christianity begin its rapid spread. That repackaging predated but resulted in Constantine’s purported vision of a symbolic and triumphant cross over the Milvian Bridge in the year 312.

In our post-modern American Christmases constructed out of fake glitz, gifts “Made in China,” and glutinous emotional schlock, I find the vision of God moving in fresh and unexpected ways to be almost totally obscured. In Holy Baptism, we received the name of a peasant who died as a criminal. Yet we, like most who preceded us, insistently demand an exclusionary Messiah who will serve as guardian angel for us and our loved ones, protect our political system from terrorists, and rapidly restore economic prosperity.

Those of us who actively participate in public discourse – conversation, sermons, lectures, blogs, other writing, etc. – would do well to listen and to watch more in 2009, seeking to hear and to see the message that other participants in those public discourses wish to convey. Adopting this practice will at the very least make us more civil – no bad thing. Adopting this practice may also help to unstop our ears and to clear our vision, enabling us to discern God continuing to act in surprising and unanticipated ways in our lives and in the world. The wonder, mystery, and love that accompany the birth of a child will be ours as we discover the new world God is creating within and around us. Perhaps this, more than vainly attempting to recreate the mythical idyll portrayed in a Currier and Ives or Norman Rockwell Christmas print, will lead us into the real Christmas.

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.

Converting the baptized

(Today the Daily Episcopalian returns to its regular rotation.)

By Martin Smith

A certain wistfulness can visit spiritual guides as we listen to some of those who come to confide in us and talk about their religious experience, or want of it. We can feel a bit sad though not surprised when we hear experienced Christians who have “borne the burden of the day” as faithful members of a parish, men and women who have worked hard for years in many ministries, sharing the fact that inside they have never felt able to say honestly that they loved God or sensed God loving them. They have no problem with the idea that God is a loving God, or with the commandment to love God. But it is as if in their heart of hearts they experience the face of God to be a blank, or worse, a frown. The wistfulness spiritual guides feel when we hear this is often associated with a hunch that underlying the chill in this inner climate of the soul may lie a story of suffering, especially childhood suffering. And it so often turns out to be the case. In many cases early emotional or physical abuse has seemingly left behind a kind of coating on our hearts, a potent kind of ‘sun block’ that filters out the radiation of God’s tenderness.

That’s why it is important to speak about conversion in the Church, conversion as healing. Not referring to conversion to the Christianity of so called outsiders. Not persuading people that certain things about God and Jesus are true. But conversion within our community of those who have thought along Christian lines for years and have worked hard for God—but have not yet experienced the transformation of their inner alienation from God, their secret fear and estrangement, into actual openness to God’s tenderness and love. In that commitment to conversion within and among longstanding members we realize what a vital resource of realism and encouragement we have in spiritual life stories, published and unpublished. In the autobiographies of saints and spiritual seekers time and again we discover that their inner conversion to freedom to love God only came after many years of practicing Christianity, living faithfully to all appearances while secretly missing out on the experience of God as loving and lovable.

That’s why the published diaries and journals of spiritual seekers are such irreplaceable resources. We discover time and again that people may persevere in being religious for years before the spell is broken that inhibited them from really accepting the utter mercifulness and tenderness of God. Often seekers will date a journal entry very carefully to note the time when some inner barrier broke, some felt sense of God’s love welled up unexpectedly. I love the staccato poetry in which these breakthroughs are often expressed. There is the famous scrap of paper on which Blaise Pascal recorded his breakthrough, found at the end of his life sewn into the lining of his coat. “The year of grace 1654, Monday 23rd of November…Fire. God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not of the philosophers and the learned. Certitude. Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace. God of Jesus Christ. My God and your God. Your God will be my God. Forgetfulness of the world and of everything except God. He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel. Grandeur of the human soul. Righteous Father, the world has known you but I have known you. Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy…”

I also often turn to this from Victor Hugo: “Thursday, March 8, 1855, at a quarter to ten in the evening. The infinite is only infinite because it is merciful. If one could lose oneself in God, one would rediscover oneself by orientation to the rising of the eternal smile. The firmament is bounded to the north by bounty, to the south by charity, in the east by love, in the west by pity. God is the great jar of perfumes which eternally wash the feet of the creature. He spreads pardon through every pore, exhausts Himself in loving, labors to absolve.”

Of course, these are traces left behind by writers. But ask any spiritual director and she or he will tell you that we hear from the mouths of ordinary spiritual seekers accounts of breakthrough, when the inhibition that has deflected God’s love from their hearts has melted and let the light flood in, that are in their own way every bit as eloquent as these.

Our conversation about priorities as Christian communities should make room for speaking quite openly about the fact that our ministry of healing addresses not only physical illness and injury, mental pain and suffering, but the promise of healing for those whose knowledge of God’s love is a second-hand knowledge, not a first-hand experience. What are the healing arts we should devote ourselves to that address that common condition?

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

Mourning Cathedral College

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

By Kathleen Staudt

Like many people I have felt great sadness at the news that the Washington National Cathedral will be “suspending” programs at the Cathedral College beginning March 31, and until further notice. Sad, certainly, about beloved staff members who will be laid off. Two programs that I’m involved in with Esther de Waal, are still a “go” for the month of February – “Approaching God Through Poetry” from February 2-6, and a weekend conference on “Faith, Art and Poetry in a Post-Christian Age” February 27-1. I wouldn’t ordinarily “plug” these except that I think people may not realize that the conferences being offered before March 31 are still a go this year, and may offer a last chance for awhile (we hope not forever) to be in this very special place. But the closing of the College feels to me a bit like a death in the family – and it has me reflecting on what the place has meant to my own spiritual growth over the years.

The College has been a part of my inner spiritual landscape for many years. I first visited there on a Saturday in June, perhaps in 1995 or 1996, for a Quiet Day in honor of Evelyn Underhill, a yearly event that we have held at the College whenever we could reserve the space. We met in the book-lined library, with its black chairs and red cushions, worn but homey rugs, and those high casement windows, facing out on the “garth” at the center of the place, and the thick stone walls that turn out to be soaked with prayers. Especially as we shared communal silence, I was aware that this was sacred space. If you have been there when there aren’t many people around, you may know that feeling—walking into the foyer of the place, one experiences a resonant silence, and a sense of being at home.

I went often to the College for quiet during the years when my two children were attending Cathedral schools, working, with permission, as a kind of always-unofficial “fellow” on various writing projects. I would go there after teaching and before a late-evening carpool pickup, or in the early morning after dropping off my chorister for rehearsal, and spend a few hours in the gentle half-light coming in the windows from the garth, finding a creative energy in the awareness that this was a place where many people have come to find focus, to do one thing for awhile and refresh their ministry.

And over the years I’ve been involved in various programs, mostly locally directed, in the College. I remember gathering in the chapel one year at the end of an Evelyn Underhill day, in a violent thunderstorm, the rain beating on the roof, as we celebrated Eucharist with then-program director Fred Schmidt presiding, and experiencing the white linen, the candle-light, and the gathered community as a kind of stronghold. I remember a retreat for MTS students from Virginia seminary, held in the white-paneled, light-filled lounge, where we began to share stories of how we had experienced God’s call to discipleship, and found ourselves in tears of amazement at the affirmation and welcome that we were able to provide one another – a group of laity called to ministry in the world, in a place so often used for the nurture of clergy. We truly sensed the liveliness and vigor of the Holy Spirit working among us that day. And it wasn’t the first time I’d met Her there.

And I remember two years of regular meetings, in the shabby but lived-in seminar room, with a lively group of gifted spiritual companions, dreaming up together a new educational program on “The Art of Spiritual Companionship” – now in its second run at the Cathedral in 2008-9. I don’t know what will happen to this program, but the fellowship of those planning meetings, in that little room beside the chapel with its worn upholstered chairs and heavy wooden furniture, was charged and fruitful time.

Last year, I worked with Esther de Waal and Bonnie Thornton leading a week long program on “Approaching God through Poetry” with a lively group of more than 30 participants who were in residence for the week. All week we took in and shared the spiritual power of shared imagination, and of the beauty of the place, the silvery bronze light of February in Washington reflecting off the stone cloister around the garth, and illuminating our gatherings. Anyone who has been to the College for some time in residence can appreciate the fellowship that came in gathering for (very good) meals in the refectory, with high-vaulted gothic ceilings and portraits of previous wardens gazing down – and many will remember special insights that come out of those conversations, with a group of people who have stepped out of the swirl of life for a few days, into the sheltered calm of these massive stone walls. Upstairs where overnight guests stay, the rabbit warren of hallways and rooms gives a sense of secret blessings hidden away, and invites withdrawal into solitude with God. It is obvious, if you look closely, how huge the burden of deferred maintenance must be for this quirky old building. There have been leaks and peeling paint and cold radiators here and there for years. Still, living among those prayed-in corners and for a weekend retreat a few years ago taught me a lot about solitude with God – and in learning there I felt myself sustained by the prayers of generations.

At a plenary session during our poetry week last year, Esther de Waal and then-warden Howard Anderson were making connections between the sense of place that flows through Celtic tradition and the reverence for land and locality in Native American tradition. Alluding to our own indigenous tradition, and speaking of the College, Howard affirmed that “an Underground River flows beneath this place.” I have felt that energy, too, gathering with others or coming alone for prayer, learning and reflection, in the “thin place” that the Cathedral College has become for me. I have no inside information on the future, though clearly there are huge financial challenges. I’m told that there are task forces gathering to consider both the Cathedral’s vision for education and the future of the buildings, and I pray for their work. Yet even if the College must be closed soon (hard as that still is for me to imagine), I believe that the Underground River keeps flowing. You can’t stop it. It carries the wellspring of spiritual energy that has brought so many to the College for so many years. And I pray that we will see it springing up again, and bringing renewed life to this beloved and prayed-in place.

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

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