More rudder than anchor: dynamism and a healthy faith

By George Clifford

Recently, I attended a performance of the musical, “Fiddler on the Roof,” featuring Topol in his original role as Tevye. “Fiddler on the Roof” tells the story of a small community of Russian Jews who believed they derived their identity and strength from their traditions but who must cope with persecution-driven change. The show was both great entertainment and a catalyst for some reflections about religious stasis and dynamism.

The widespread human preference for stasis in most (all?) things – self, relationships, and religion to name only three – presents an interesting paradox given that change pervades the cosmos. The universe itself is constantly changing, e.g., expanding. Most human cells have a seven-year lifespan and the rest of a body’s cells slowly die. This means that a human constantly experiences physical change (at my age, generally not for the better!). Similarly, the mind processes a never-ending flow of new experience. Consequently, the image of a flowing stream, always the same and yet never the same, is a better metaphor for human existence than is any static metaphor. Furthermore, because people are always changing, relationships are also subject to constant change.

Some people regard religion as an anchor, hoping for a source of stability in the midst of this omnipresent flux. Yet healthy religion is dynamic, more of a rudder than an anchor.

Consider briefly the historic Anglican emphasis on three sources of authority: scripture, tradition, and reason. Church historian Mark Noll noted in America’s God that prior to the Civil War belief in the Bible’s support for the institution of slavery so thoroughly dominated American Christianity that Christian abolitionists necessarily relied on ethical arguments against slavery that were independent of scripture. Thanks to be God that we Anglicans have a dynamic understanding of scripture!

The thirty-nine Articles of Religion, one of the Book of Common Prayer’s historical documents, states that pardons are “repugnant to the Word of God” (article XXII), as are speaking in tongues (article XXIV) and transubstantiation (article XXVIII). Episcopal priests pronounce absolution in God's name following public and private confession. Although I have never spoken in unknown tongues and have no desire to do so, I am pleased to be part of a Church sufficiently broad to accept charismatic expression. I find transubstantiation a quaint notion but vehemently oppose any effort to expel those who subscribe to that idea. Thanks be to God that we Anglicans have a dynamic tradition!

As originally understood in the Anglican tradition, reason referred to pure reason, the logical analysis of data that would lead people to reach similar conclusions. However, Christians of good conscience and intent frequently reach very different conclusions when they exegete and expound scripture. Cognitive science informs us that selective perception and emotion inherently color human thought, rendering pure reason unattainable. This explains our diversity of thought while acknowledging that reasoning – the cognitive processing of ideas and experience – is intrinsic to human functioning. Thanks be to God that we Anglicans have a dynamic understanding of reason!

Knowing all of this, I still find myself reluctant, at times even unwilling to change. Lenten self-examination requires me to overcome my psychic inertia, dislike of conflict, emotional preference for stasis, and other opposition to change. I know that religion that fails to change loses its ability to serve as a rudder for navigating toward God's light and life abundant. A healthy, dynamic faith frees us from dysfunctional stasis and moves us forward on the Jesus’ way, more fully experiencing the abundant life we celebrate at Easter. So I engage in the hard and often unpleasant work of self-examination and of examining my understanding of Christianity.

Where have I – and the Episcopal Church, my faith community – emulated the fictional Jews of Anatevka in “Fiddler on the Roof”? Where have we wrongly sought to hold on to the past, worshiping a static idol instead of the God of new beginnings? Where have we courageously trusted the living God, a dynamic, life-giving God?

The Rev. Dr. 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.

Monks, in a nutshell

By Leo Campos

"Are you a monk?" I have been asked this question many dozens of times. Sometimes the person really means "What is a monk?", and a short conversation about monasticism ensues. At other times they mean "You are a monk?", the tone normally surprised, especially when they see my children playing around. Of course, for some people the word "monk" (or even worse "nun") may evoke some strange caricatures. Quite often it involves rigidity, inflexibility to some set of incomprehensible rules, and otherwordliness. To others a monk is equated with a solitary out in the desert, as if a monk was some sort of Spiritual Lone Ranger.

Regardless of the reason any conversation in monasticism usually involves a mandatory pit stop at the "But aren't monks some sort of cloistered uber-Christians?" question. This might be said with a tone of genuine reverence for something exotic, or said with a tone of contempt reserved to those who have read their fair share of John Calvin and are suspicious of anything which might look like "papist" works-righteousness spirituality. Personally, I find that both are legitimate responses and I myself shift from one to the other like a person shifts feet while waiting for a bus on a cold day.

But having lived a vowed monastic life for years now I feel empowered to claim that spiritually the call of the monastic life is absolutely identical to the call of every Christian. If we must insist on differences between lay and religious (and perhaps ordained and all other forms of ministry), then perhaps there is a difference in intensity. It is likely that the average person living a consecrated life in a monastic community prays longer than the average non-monastic in a parish. Please note I say "average" - there are those non-monastics whose prayer life and intensity of asceticism would put many a House to shame - and they are more common than is supposed. But what is critical to point out here is that in principle, the monastic and the non-monastic follow the same form of life (or should!).

Sometimes it is useful to think of a "monastic" as someone who is leading a "consecrated life" - a life consecrated to the service of God in whatever way God designs for them. This might mean a life of seclusion and solitude, or it may mean a life of social engagement, or it may mean a life of radical prayer (radical as in radix). All of these are "lifestyles" which fall within the umbrella of a life consecrated by the Church. In a sense all of these ways of life are missionary lives, sent by God through the Church to do some work - even if that work is to retire from society and pray for it.

But the more I think about it the harder it is for me to discern exactly where such a call becomes the exclusive right of a group of people called "monastics", and where it is the public property of all Christians by virtue of their baptism. It is true that consecration is the act which clarifies the difference, but in my conversations with brothers and sisters of various colors of robes I find that the call to the religious life precedes the consecration (in theological language the inner grace precedes the outward sign). As it should! We are talking here about the action of God, the Holy Spirit, and the external consecration is simply a "rubber stamping" (in the nicest possible sense of the term) to something which God has already made clean, as Peter found out (Acts 10:13).

But let us not stop there! All I "do" as a contemplative monk is to live out my baptismal covenant. In other words, I do exactly, no more or less, than what every other Christian does. Or better, I try to do exactly what everyone else tries to do. And I fail just as badly at it. But perhaps here's the point where being a monk can be a service - my struggles can become an object lesson for others. Hopefully not a risible case study in failure, but rather a visible reminder of what we are all going through together. It is a communal experience, where my robes and my public profession become a mirror for others.

When someone realizes that I am trying to be a mirror to them it usually leads to their adoption of various defensive postures and gestures. "Oh I don't think so, I am not a monk! I am not this or that." It is unfortunate that we in the Episcopal Church do not live more openly the theology of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, where the life of the laity and that of the monk are much more closely aligned.

But the monastic life is quite simple really. Take the Baptismal Covenant, which I am sure most Episcopalians have recited hundreds of times in their lives. You vow to live up to God's calling, and you renounce in your life all that is not God's calling, be it the voice of your sinful nature or the luring songs of the Adversary. You further promise to live out God's calling within the pattern specifically laid out by the apostles, together with a supportive believing community, with special emphasis on mutual prayer.

So, in my definition, a monk, professed or not, vowed or not, is a person who gives all they have up to God, who surrenders their life to God in a personal, intimate way. The personal sacrifice made is the 'monos' in monastic. But it is never a selfish enterprise. Someone who says "It's you an' me God - let's do it," and who can understand that such an individual reliance on God is the most profound form of self-sacrifice, is, in my view, a monastic. The robes are pretty and the liturgy and the Offices are well-designed. But robes are just cloth and the Offices just noise without the sacrifice to the community.

To say it another way, only the relationship with God is fundamental, unique and primary, and everything that comes from that relationship, through that relationship, and for that relationship, is the duty and privilege of all Christians.

In a nutshell the monastic life is the Christian life. The question really should be asked by me: "Are you a monk?"

Brother Leo Campos is the co-founder of the Community of Solitude , a non-canonical, ecumenical contemplative community. He worked as the "tech guy" for the Diocese of Virginia for 6 years before going to the dark side (for-profit world).

Pharisees and Tax Collectors

By Luiz Coelho

A couple days ago, I was overhearing a conversation (yes, I do that) between two women on “churches” and “religion.” Basically, one of them made a comment about being a Reform Jew and finding it very hard to deal with the Conservative Jewish school where she was working as an intern. The other woman, then, told a little bit about her experience as a child of a Southern Baptist father and an Episcopalian mother, and of being raised in the Episcopal Church.

Believe me, I am not the “gossipy” kind of person, but that conversation did attract my attention, after all, it was about the Episcopal Church. And when the Jewish woman mentioned that in Reform Judaism they had the freedom to question while in Conservative Judaism things were much stricter, the other one replied “Yes, I imagine it is just like being Episcopalian as opposed to being Southern Baptist.” I chuckled. I had to!

I have to admit that sometimes I succumb to the dangers of “episcolatry.” Let me explain. Not rarely we are taught, in the Episcopal Church (and, to a certain degree, in other Anglican Provinces), that we have freedom of thought, that we use reason, that we practice inclusion, that we are fighting for a change, and that we are not “fundamentalists” (a word that has been used both by Liberals and Conservatives at times, with no clear boundaries), among many other great things. Nevertheless, the pride that emerges from all of that often consumes me and not rarely I catch myself bearing a silly sense of superiority, almost as if I had find the “True” Church.

Lent has just started and it might be a bit cliché to revisit all the basics about this season, in a sort of Lent 101 course. But I believe, however, that in many cases we grasp much less than we should about this season of fasting and repentance. I tend to focus more on fasts. In fact, I was probably born on a diet, because I recall doing them since I was a child. So, it is not extremely hard for me to give up on edible temptations for a while. It is the repentance part that drives me crazy, and by reflecting upon some of the daily Lenten readings, I realized that I am most likely still far away from the ideal Jesus shows in the Gospels.

This is probably why I chuckled to the conversation I mentioned before. It is not a problem to understand that all of our struggles and achievements as a Church draw us near to the Gospel. The problem lies when we question why the “uncool fundamentalists” (among others) claim to sit at Christ's table. I have to admit that, not rarely, I have acted as the pharisees who criticize Jesus for having a meal with tax collectors. Yes, this passage, which for years was used to justify the inclusion of those seen by the Church as impure (usually liberal-minded Christians), ended up being used by me in a rather curious opposite direction. In the midst of cyber-wars and name-calling, I might say that several times I felt tempted to look down on people who, regardless of opinions or attitudes towards any of the hot topics or people en vogue, are marked as Christ's own and are just like myself: sinners in need of God's grace.

Lent might be, therefore, an appropriate period to repent from a fake sense of superiority that does us no good and in fact diverts our attention from what we are really called to do. Episcopalians or not, there is plenty of Christian ministry to be done around us. There are mouths to be fed, souls to be nurtured, people to be reached, gifts to be used and a life of service waiting for each one of us, whenever we are. Not rarely we will be criticized for claiming to be the sinners who sit at Christ's table, but that is far better than being the ones who feel “superior and clean,” and in no need of repentance. I still believe it is possible to speak with integrity and not succumb to such temptations. And this is what I have taken as my Lenten discipline. I know it is hard, and have no idea if it will work, but I am giving it a try.

So, my prayer is that, during this period of Lent, while we try to discern better what God's call in our life is, we can see every single person that we interact with as God's beloved child, and also as a potential brother or sister in Christ, in need of care, prayer and repentance.

Luiz Coelho, a seminarian from the Diocese of Rio de Janero, spends part of the year in the BFA program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His Web site includes his art and his blog, Wandering Christian, on which he examines "Christianity in the third millennium, from a progressive, Latin American and Anglican point of view."

John Cheever and the realm of God's mercy

By Jean Fitzpatrick

"All the candles burn. Miss F. has worked day and night on the flower arrangements....We raise our voices in some tuneless doggerel about life everlasting," wrote John Cheever in his journal in 1964. "These are earnest people, mostly old, making an organized response to the mysteriousness of life. What point would there be in going to church at daybreak to ridicule the priest? But he does draw a breathtaking parallel between the Resurrection and the invention of television." I was curious to read Cheever, Blake Bailey's new biography, because I love Cheever's stories and because I knew Miss F.

I live in Ossining, New York, Cheever's home for most of his adult life, where many of us saw him around town now and then and where he would grace us occasionally with elegant readings from his work. It wasn't until I'd attended All Saints' Church in neighboring Briarcliff Manor for several years that I learned that "the Chekhov of the suburbs" had been a parishioner and confirmand there. By the time I arrived Cheever was dead, but Miss F. -- Catherine Figart, by then an elderly, soft-spoken woman who had once been an artist -- still reigned over the Altar Guild.

Cheever's plain yet soaring sentences run through my mind every time I drive past his first house on my way to the Scarborough commuter train: "We have a nice house with a garden and a place outside for cooking meat," says Johnny Hake in "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill," "and on summer nights, sitting there with the kids and looking into the front of Christina's dress as she bends over to salt the steaks, or just gazing at the lights in Heaven, I am as thrilled as I am thrilled by more hardy and dangerous pursuits, and I guess this is what is meant by the pain and sweetness of life."

"He was a transcendentalist, wasn't he?" I said to Bailey, who visited the Ossining Public Library recently for a talk and book-signing that drew Cheever's wife, Mary, son Ben, and a tribe of local friends, acquaintances and admirers.

"Yes," Bailey said, hesitating. Then he frowned. "But he also descended to complete and utter gloom."

In his book, Bailey notes that Cheever attended church for many years, often explaining that he'd regained his faith "as a result of falling in love for the first time, or, as he sometimes put it, 'because of an experience of sexual ecstasy so great that I felt impelled to respond through liturgical gesture.'" Cheever wasn't one to proselytize, Bailey writes, rarely mentioning his faith "except at odd moments when visited by the same happiness that had moved him to become a communicant in the first place: 'There has to be someone you thank for the party.'" But since the contrast between lyrical heights and despair was nowhere more evident than in Cheever's religious journey, which occupies surprisingly little space in Bailey's otherwise comprehensive tome, I decided to take another look at his published journals.

"To church this morning. I think I will be confirmed," he wrote in 1954. "The idea that I take this morning, is that there is some love in our conception; that we were not made by a ruttish pair in a commercial hotel." Page after page reveals Cheever's struggle to reconcile body and spirit, one that is often as startlingly fresh to the reader as it was surely agonizing for him: "To church; the second Sunday in Lent. From the bank president's wife behind me drifted the smell of camphor from her furs, and the stales of her breath, as she sang, 'Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.'"

Not surprisingly, as he sits in the pew he reflects on his bisexual longings: "Easter morning sunny and cool," he writes in 1959. "....The church for once is full. I am delighted to hear that Christ is risen. I think that it is not against God's will to have my generative powers refreshed by the face of a pretty woman in a forward pew or to wonder about the hairy and somehow limpid young man on my left. It is the combination of hairiness and wistful grace that seems to mark him."

In the same entry, he expresses his doubts, moving through them to embrace the religious imagination without ever letting go of unbelief: "When I hear that Mary found at the tomb a man in white raiment I am incredulous. It is hard for me to believe that God expressed His will, His intent in such a specific image. But when I go to the altar I am deeply moved. The chancel is full of lilies and their fragrance seems as fresh as it is heavy; a sign of good cheer. And that this message should have been revealed to us and that we should cherish it seems to be our finest triumph. Here in the chancel we glimpse some vision of transcendent love, some willing triumph over death and all of its lewd guises. And if it is no more than willingness, how wonderful that is in itself."

And eight years later: "I believe that there was a Christ, that he spoke the Beatitudes, cured the sick, and died on the Cross, and it seems marvellous to me that men should, for two thousand years, have repeated this story as a means of expressing their deepest feelings and intuitions about life."

As always, in church Cheever could feel like an outsider: "The church is meant to evoke rural England. The summoning bells, the late-winter sunlight, the lancet windows, the hand-cut stone," he wrote in 1952. "....World without end, I murmur, shutting my eyes, Amen. But I seem to stand outside the realm of God's mercy." He struggled to know what to do with the ancient stories, to understand them in the context of the human heart: "Palm Sunday. Ten above zero. .... What am I doing here on my knees, shaking with alcohol and the cold?" And over a decade later, "When we say, 'Christ, have mercy upon us,' we don't ask for a literal blessing, I think. We express how merciless we are to ourselves."

Cheever had an up-and-down relationship with his rector, the Rev. William Arnold, whom Bailey describes as "an affable, tippling bachelor." "With this man at least somewhat in mind," Bailey writes, "Cheever once told his son Ben that it didn't matter if the minister was a jackass -- though there were times, plainly, when it did. 'I will not go to church,' Cheever recorded on Good Friday, 'because B[ill] will insist upon giving a sermon and I will not have the latitude or the intelligence to overlook its repetitiousness, grammatical errors and stupidity.'

"Cheever stuck with All Saints," Bailey writes, "because it met his basic requirements: it used the Cranmer prayer book and was less than ten minutes away, and (as Susan Cheever pointed out) its altar was 'sufficiently simple so that it [didn't] remind him of a gift shop.' Also, the eight o'clock service was sermon-free, so he could have at least twenty-three minutes of relative peace each week ('a level of introspection that's granted to me at no other time')."

He did love the 1928 prayer book and the early service: "The language has the sumptuous magnificence of an Elizabethan procession," he wrote in his journal. "The penultimate clauses spread out behind their predicates in breadth and glory, and the muttered responses are emblazoned in crimson and gold. On it moves through the Lamb of God, the Gloria, and the Benediction until the last amen shuts like a door on this verbal pomp; and the drunken priest puts out his lights and hurries back to his gin bottle, hidden among the vestments." It was All Saints' switch to the 1979 prayer book that sent Cheever north to Trinity, Ossining -- one more Episcopalian who took a stand on liturgical grounds. Trinity he described as "a homely building of common granite...Now impoverished and in debt, barely kept together by the hands of the faithful...The carpet is, of course, worn; the colored windows are flashy and vulgar....But to me this is the climax of the week."

Trinity's rector at the time, the Rev. George Arndt, was the one Susan Cheever called to her father's deathbed, Bailey recounts. "'I don't think your father wants me,' said Arndt, who'd been sent away once before, angrily, since Cheever wasn't ready yet and despised the man besides. Sure enough, he began thrashing when he noticed Arndt standing there in his white robe." But Arndt made the sign of the cross on Cheever's forehead and Mary, Ben and Susan joined hands around the bed and recited the Lord's Prayer.

Those were words Cheever himself had spoken without irony, it seems, at AA meetings, where his inner critic was otherwise as sharp as ever. Pain and the longing for love were, as always, intertwined: "I do observe how loudly and with what feeling we say the Lord's Prayer in these unordained gatherings," he'd written five years earlier. "The walls of churches have not for centuries heard prayers said with such feeling. Deep."

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

Singing Judith's song

By Deirdre Good

The Daily Office, the daily common worship experience of professionals and proficients in many mainline Christian denominations, incorporates the Song of Judith as one of the Canticles we sing on a regular schedule (the asterisks denote a pause):

A Song of Judith

I will sing a new song to my God, *
for you are great and glorious, wonderful in strength, invincible.
Let the whole creation serve you, *
for you spoke and all things came into being.
You sent your breath and it formed them, *
no one is able to resist your voice.
Mountains and seas are stirred to their depths, *
rocks melt like wax at your presence.
But to those who fear you, *
you continue to show mercy.
No sacrifice, however fragrant, can please you, *
but whoever fears the Lord shall stand in your sight for ever.

A canticle is any song in the biblical text other than Psalms. Based on Judith 16:13-16, the Song of Judith is part of a larger song forming a conclusion to the astonishing tale of Judith's defeat by decapitation of the Assyrian General Holofernes. But the canticle we sing in the Daily office extolling God for the defeat of God's enemies, powerful as it is, has been severed from its connection with the wider context of Judith's song and its recapitulation of the deeds of her hands. Do we recognize that Judith sings a new song celebrating the omnipotent Lord who set enemies aside at the hand of a woman? Can we who sing it hear the textual echoes and transformations of God's spirit in Exodus not now being sent to drown the Egyptians but to effect the creation of the world?

The fuller version of the Song of Judith (Judith 16:1-17) celebrates in song the earlier prose form of the narrative of the book of Judith in which Judith celebrates the deliverance of Israel from her enemies. At the same time, the complete version of the Song of Judith draws in form and content on other biblical songs of deliverance by God sung by women such as the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15 (attributed to Moses but now widely recognized to have been sung by Miriam and the women of Israel), and the Song of Deborah in Judges 5. And the Song of Judith in Greek anticipates the Song of Mary or the Magnificat in Luke's Gospel in the New Testament.

We know that Judith quotes the Greek text of Exodus: Judith 16:2 states, "For the Lord is a God who crushes wars," an allusion not to the Hebrew but to the Greek version of Exodus 15:3, "The Lord crushes wars, the Lord is his name." In the Hebrew text, Yahweh is a man of war but in the Greek text, the Lord crushes wars. This situates intertextuality at the level of the Greek text, not the Hebrew.

Exodus 15:10 describes God's "spirit" as potency and power for destruction: "You sent your spirit; it covered them: sea clothed like lead in violent water." Spirit in Exodus covers and drowns. But the same phrase, "You sent your spirit" appears in Judith as direct borrowing with different application: the spirit in Judith 16:14 creates: "You sent your spirit, and it built them up, and there is no one who will withstand your voice".

Specific to the Song of Miriam and the Song of Judith is the enemy threat of the sword in the hand: Ex. 15:9 describes the aggression of the Egyptians, "The enemy said, 'I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; my lust shall be satisfied upon them; I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them'". Similarly, Judith describes the boast of Israel's enemies at 16:4: "He said he would set my territory ablaze and dispatch my young men with the sword". Yet when Israel's enemy is routed in Judith, it is not by the hand of God but by the hand of a woman holding a particular short sword.

Miriam's song celebrates a victory wrought by the hand of another, her brother. In Miriam's song, the sword is wielded by God; but Judith wields the sword of deliverance herself. In a sense, there is an identification of Judith with God so that she embodies God's triumph.

We can now reflect on the difference this makes to our corporate worship. Worship embodies human beliefs about God. Recognizing that the language of war, subjugation and victory undergirds worship intrinsically, we can restore to the Song of Judith the meaning of God's actions on behalf of a broken and subordinate people by the hand of an inferior and marginalized woman. And we can thereby begin to redeem language of war in worship.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. While she is an American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and loves marmite which may explain certain features of her blog, On Not Being a Sausage.

And a virgin shall conceive

By Ann Fontaine

Today, March 25 is the celebration of the Annunciation. It is the day when the church remembers Gabriel’s visit to Mary and reveals to her that she will be the mother of Jesus who will become the Christ. The power of the Holy Spirit will fill her and cause her to conceive. The annunciation is one of the most popular topics of art, especially in Medieval and Renaissance art – often depicting her as conceiving through her ear. The mystery of it has confounded many – with some turning to worship Mary as Theotokos, the God Bearer, and others turning away in disgust at such blatant mythology.

My early life in the Episcopal Church was one that rejected any sort of talk of Mary as anything other than the mother of Jesus. Mary, meek and mild, was as far as our minister (never call him a priest) would go. I was thoroughly steeped in anti-Mary thinking. However, our neighborhood was near a Roman Catholic grade school and many of my playmates were Catholic. They would write JMJ at the top of their schoolwork, which until corrected by one boy, I thought were the initials of a girlfriend. The effect of my church’s and my playmates’ very different beliefs about Mary left me with a sense that there was something forbidden about Mary.

When I returned to the church in my 30s, I found that the creed was problematic for me. I could not really say the part “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary” without mentally crossing my fingers. I just did not believe it. However, I began to accept the creed as a statement across time and in community. I decided I could say it because we said “we” and I thought someone in the community and in the history of the church believed it. I was stuck at that point of my journey with Mary when I became friends with a person who prayed regularly to Mary and found that a much more satisfying connection with God than all the male imagery. Her passion for God and her deep prayer life affected me. I began to explore the place of Mary in my life.

The first book I read was Herbert O’Driscoll’s Portrait of a Woman: meditations on the Mother of Our Lord. The next one was Ann Johnson’s Miryam of Nazareth: woman of strength and wisdom. Suddenly, I was confronted by a powerful woman who lived fully into her faith and answered God’s call by choice. I had never considered any image other than “meek and mild.” I learned that her name, Mary – Miryam – has a root meaning of rebellion. Johnson’s research revealed itself in her poetry, each poem written in the form she calls a Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). I was amazed that I had missed this Mary in my education and formation in the church.

The current stage of my life with Mary began when I was teaching a class on the creeds. We were using Joan Chittister’s In Search of Belief as a basis for the study. I was facilitating the discussion and reading along with the class when we came to the chapter on “virgin birth.” Rather than explore the modern science or pre-scientific ideas about conception, Chittister spoke about the amazing story the creed tells about who are worthy to bear Christ into the world.

As I understand what she is saying, the fact that Mary was a young woman, a virgin when God called her to bear Jesus shows us the nature of God’s relationship to us. In Mary’s day she was seen as property. She was vulnerable in a culture that did not value women and especially not girls. Their value came from their connection to a man, first to their fathers and then to their husbands and their ability to bear sons. Today young girls are still at risk in many countries to be sold or bartered away. Even in the United States they are easily dismissed as less than anyone else. Although changes have been made – movies, popular music and media off all sorts views females as objects and not agents of their own lives.

This is why the creed’s affirmation of Mary is so amazing. God chooses the least in the social hierarchy to be the one to bear God into the world. It is a statement by the church of the worth of the individual in the face of cultures who say “not worthy.”

As to Mary as a vehicle for our prayers, I love having Our Lady of Guadalupe and other images of her around. I currently experience Mary as a companion rather than an object of worship. I see her as priest, the first person to offer the broken body of Christ up to the world. I understand the need for a feminine face of the Holy and how that emerges no matter the suppression of that aspect of God. The book of Proverbs speaks of Wisdom who companioned God from the beginning of creation. The feminine face of God who created both female and male in the image of God, continues to surface in our worship and in our dreams and even in humor:

Michelangelo was up on the scaffolding in the Sistine, a little bored, a little tired. He looks down, sees an old lady kneeling in prayer, and decides to have some fun. His voice echoes through the Sistine. "This is Jesus. How may I help you?"
The woman showed no sign of hearing him.
He said again, "This is Jesus; how may I help you?"
Still no response
So he tried one more time. "This is Jesus. How may I help you?"
The woman looked up at heaven and said,
"Shut up—Can’t you see I'm talking to your mama!

I am not quite sure where my journey with Mary will end. I still have more questions than answers. Recently I received this poem from a friend and it opens up all sorts of new thinking about Mary. Perhaps this is a good thing for the Feast of the Annunciation.

It seems I must have been more fertile than most
to have taken that wind-blown
thistledown softly-spoken word
into my body and grown big-bellied with it.
Nor was I the first: there had been
rumours of such goings-on before my turn
came - tales of swansdown. Mine
had no wings or feathers actually
but it was hopeless trying to convince them.
They like to think it was a mystical
encounter, although they must know
I am not of that fibre - and to say I was
'troubled' is laughable.
What I do remember is a great rejoicing,
my body's arch and flow, the awe,
and the ringing and singing in my ears -
and then the world stopped for a little while.
But still they will keep on about the Word,
which is their name for it, even though I've
told them that is definitely
not how I would put it.
I should have known they'd try to take
possession of my ecstasy and
swaddle it in their portentous terminology.
I should have kept it hidden in the dark
web of my veins...
Though this child grows in me -
not unwanted certainly, but
not intended on my part; the risk
did not concern me at the time, naturally.
I must be simple to have told them anything.
Just because I stressed the miracle of it
they've rumoured it about the place that I'm
immaculate - but then they always were afraid
of female sexuality.
I've pondered these things lately in my mind.
If they should canonise me
(setting me up as chaste and meek and mild)
God only knows what nonsense
they'll visit on the child.

Sylvia Kantaris From Dirty Washing, Bloodaxe 1989. ©Sylvia Kantaris Used by permission

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

Celibacy: a response II

By Derek Olsen

What does a Christian theology of sexuality look like if we begin—as did St Paul and arguably Jesus as well—with an ideal of celibacy? The first major change from our common cultural way of understanding sexuality is that if celibacy is the ideal, than an argument must be made for any and all kinds of sexual relationships. They cannot simply be assumed.

At the heart of the Christian understanding of celibacy is the notion of chastity. Like the rest of the virtues, chastity is not just about what we do with one part of ourselves (certain physical bits in this case). Rather the virtues are whole-body habits that integrate our bodies, minds, wills, and spirits. Chastity is about fidelity, faithfulness, and about our inward dispositions and orientations as well as what we do with our bodies. Jesus cuts to the heart of the matter in his challenging words in the Sermon on the Mount: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:28). The virtue is a holy habit that we must continually nurture and grow into—few if any of us are ever born having it, even those who dedicate themselves to celibacy. Jesus certainly sets the bar high but in doing so gives us a goal towards which we strive, and reminds us of the need for the inner disposition.

Where should our fidelity be directed? Scripture roots it in God. God is our source and the great Bridegroom of the Church. The metaphor of Israel as the bride of God is found numerous places within the Old Testament. Idolatry and adultery were frequently conflated—and with good reason. Scholars have long debated the presence of and evidence for cultic prostitution in the religion of Israel’s neighbors and—as far as I know—the jury remains out; what is clear from the biblical texts themselves, though, is a long prophetic tradition of portraying participation in the worship of other gods as the personified Israel forsaking her true husband and running after other men.

The New Testament picks up this concept and shifts it based on its new experiences of God in Christ. Christ is the Bridegroom, and the Church is the chaste Bride whose attentions should be directed towards her husband. Throughout the Synoptic Gospels there are a number of references to weddings and bridegrooms and they persistently point to Jesus to the degree that Matthew scholar Ulrich Luz speaks of a bride-mysticism. John’s gospel takes this a step further, locating Jesus’ first miracle at a wedding asserting, in my view, that the ministry and work of Jesus is to be understood as the continuous feast that is the marriage banquet of the Lamb—a point portrayed more explicitly at the end of the Johannine Book of Revelation.

Coming from a solely Scriptural perspective, then, Christian chastity and Christian fidelity are preeminently focused on God. In Matthew’s call to become a eunuch for the kingdom of God, in Paul’s call in 1 Cor 7 to the unmarried to remain that way, in his functional description of “real widows” in 1 Tim 5, the emphasis is placed on a forsaking of human sexual relations so that the dedicated Christian’s energies may be focused, not on pleasing and catering to the needs of other humans, but may remain focused solely upon God:

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord. (1 Cor 7:32-35)

Thus, the practice of Christian celibacy is directed by the logic of intimacy and fidelity to God. It is not driven by a denigration of the physical or a suppression of the flesh to exalt the spirit, but is rooted in a freedom to seek after God and the things of God. The Christian soul is the bride that cleaves to Christ and seeks to please him only, faithfully. In some sense, sexual purity is not even the central point as much as the attention and focus given to God rather than to a family.

Just as Scripture presents this bride-mysticism as a model of relating to God, it also recognizes the complications, especially those connected to sexual purity. Both Matthew and Paul are clear that the celibate call is not for all and cannot be for all. While Matthew does not delve into the logic of it, Paul does:

But because of cases of sexual immorality (porneias), each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. (1 Cor 7:2)

But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion. (1 Cor 7:9)
If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his fiancee (lit.: virgin), if his passions are strong, and so it has to be, let him marry as he wishes; it is no sin. Let them marry. (1 Cor 7:36)

Sexual immorality (porneia) is a problem for Paul and frequently appears on his vice lists. The primary meaning of this word for Paul—drawing on its use in the Greek translation of the Old Testament—seems to be infidelity. His advice, then, is that if our complete focus cannot be for God alone, then it should be directed singly to one other person. Marriage becomes an acceptable diversion of attention in order that vice should be suppressed—particularly porneia but by its nature sin breeds sin (lying and exploitation being not uncommon attending vices).

But contrary to marriage remaining simply a lesser option for the weak, Paul finds further spiritual value in it. Ephesians 5:21-33 must be read as a whole; its thesis is verse 21 (Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.) and the rest of the passage describes what this looks like in the context of Christian marriage. The focus is on mutuality and a growth in Christian love and virtue. Paul would prefer that all who are able remain single as he is, able to focus their full attentions on Christ. But if, for the restraint of sin and immorality that is not possible, marriage itself can become a vehicle for spiritual growth where the partners find in one another icons of Christ and the Church leading to Paul’s great summation: “This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:32). Note the focus. It is not on production or procreation—reasons often advanced as the purpose of Christian marriage—rather it is the relationship itself and the formative properties of love, care, and respect nurtured by mutuality and self-giving.

[I do realize that these verses have been used in the past to assert male dominance over women but I believe this is a twisting of both the passage’s meaning and Paul’s intent. I believe that Paul was intending to portray mutuality as completely as he could (and in terms far exceeding those of his culture) and that his language of love and care makes this evident.]

To summarize, then, Christian souls should be focused on God with as much of their attention as they can give. If the exercise of natural sexual urges interferes with this, then monogamous relationships should be formed. When these relationships function as they should, then they can become icons of the love, care, and mutuality that exist between Christ and the Church. They too can be a path for formation into the mind of Christ and growth in grace.

But now we leave the realm of the exegetical and the intellectual and enter the practical, considering in light of these exegetical conclusions what Christian practice ought to be.

Oh my.

Incarnationally, Christian sexuality is a very messy thing. Like most anything incarnational. We find ideals of celibacy perverted to horrible ends. We find the language and appearance of celibacy used to harbor some relationships that are illict and some that are downright evil and destructive. Furthermore, we find exactly the same things cloaked under the language and appearance of Christian marriage as well. Paul presents us with high and lofty expectations. We respond in typical human fashion with weakness, disobedience, and betrayal. We—celibate, single, or married—are sinners in need of grace but also in need of direction. And this is where Paul can help us.

Drawing on his language and logic that begins with celibacy and moves to interpersonal relationships, we see a strong thread throughout. The Pauline path is the restraint of vice and the cultivation of virtue as centered around practices and habits of fidelity. As Christian communities, we need to consider the self-same questions with which Paul wrestles in 1 Cor 5-7, namely, what are the practices of fidelity that minimize vice and its flourishing and that maximize Christian virtue oriented by the fundamental principles of fidelity, mutuality, and Christian love?

Now, I’m not a “progressive” by nature. I inhabit the moderate to conservative end of the spectrum on most issues, including those involving human sexuality. I’m the sort who argues strongly for a “celibate when single, monogamous when married” position—and follow it myself. But after coming at the issue of Christian relationships from this angle, and relating it to the lives of Christians I know, I found myself painted into a corner. If the heart of Christian chastity and fidelity is directed to God through monogamy, if Christian marriage exists to restrain vice and cultivate virtue for the sake of the community as well as the individual, is the Church following its own logic and cultivating virtue to the best of its abilities by cutting queer Christians off from a community-supported path of fidelity and monogamy? Could I in good conscience advocate for “celibate when single, monogamous when married” when marriage—or any state analogous to it—is not an option for all mature Christians?

After some hard searching, I find myself convinced by my reading of Paul that same-sex marriage is incumbent upon the Christian community for the restraint of vice and for the flourishing of our common virtue. If we wish to reduce sexual immorality, do we deny a portion of our community a legitimate outlet for their created sexual urges in the form of faithful relationships based on mutuality, respect, and—above all—fidelity? (Feel free to dispose of the red herrings of promoting polygamy, pederasty, or bestiality as none of these cultivate the virtues of which I speak.) If we wish to encourage fidelity and chastity, why would we prevent some of our members who seek such fidelity and chastity from being encouraged in that state by the community?

Thus, I would ask George Clifford and any others who might seek to denigrate the Christian promotion of celibacy to first stop and consider the logic that Paul puts forth. Neither Paul, nor Matthew, nor my reading of the Scriptures makes celibacy incumbent upon all. While celibacy may be the ideal, it is not and should not be the normative practice for any not called to it. And yet it should not be cast aside as old, outdated, or psychologically dangerous. I would ask, rather, that we consider what it does teach and how our communities can be the stronger for it.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament 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.

Celibacy: a response I

By Derek Olsen

A while back, George Clifford wrote a piece posted on the Daily Episcopalian at the Episcopal Cafe that tried to look at sex and relationships in the Episcopal Church from a progressive viewpoint. It started by discussing the history of Christian understandings of marriage, and the thesis statement that guided its unfolding was this: "In general, the Biblical witness about marriage appears to progress toward monogamy."

As the piece unfolded, I became more uncomfortable with it because I believe that it began the argument on faulty premises. That is, it began from modern cultural assumptions and retrojected them upon first century culture, considering only the evidence that fit the initial paradigm. Therefore the issues addressed were fundamentally marriage and divorce.

My response was to remind the author and readers that wrapping human sexuality into categories of marriage and divorce is anachronistic in general and in particular does not reflect some key strands within the New Testament and early church witness that present celibacy as a superior alternative to marriage.

Fr. Clifford has now written another piece asking if celibacy is the preferred Christian option. Towards the beginning of the new piece he notes:

Christians have too often accepted celibacy as normative sexual behavior for Christians as illustrated by some of the comments on my Thoughts on Marriage.

Since the main comments against his thesis there were from myself and some of my comrades, I'm assuming that he is referring to my objections. Given his response, though, he seems to have missed the point. For that I apologize--I should have stated my view more clearly although Fr. John-Julian and another commenter hit exactly on my point:

The major point being made by Derek and others here is, as Fr. John-Julian notes, arguments around marriage have been "contaminated by current culture" to the point where nobody even notices what the words on the page say anymore - and where all sorts of excuses are made to avoid "the plain sense of Scripture" when it's inconvenient for those who use the argument against others.

I've added the bolding for emphasis. However, to defend myself and my argument, I shall take up Fr. Clifford's new piece, examine its arguments, and respond with a rebuttal.

I have two major disagreements with Fr. Clifford’s new piece. The first is the suggestion, based on a reading of Elaine Pagels, that there is no “real Christianity” and that thus “an individual must chart her or his own spiritual path.” In my opinion, this sets the discussion off on entirely the wrong foot, and tragically and unnecessarily suggests that no early historical evidence is normative in wrestling with current theological issues. The second notion with which I disagree is that I am making the argument that celibacy should be enjoined upon all; this is neither my point nor my belief—and my two daughters are evidence that it is not my practice either. The arguments that Fr. Clifford puts forth against celibacy fail to address the fundamental point: Christian logic on sexuality—not necessarily practice, but logic—must begin with celibacy. Furthermore, I will argue that a theology of sexuality that begins with celibacy remaining more contiguous with first century thought presents a stronger argument in support of same-sex marriage than those that pass over celibacy in silence.

First, I’ll admit that I haven’t read the Pagels’s book to which Fr. Clifford refers—Adam, Eve, and the Serpent—but the argument he reproduces is quite familiar to me from other works by Pagels and similar teachers. The two fundamental problems that they face are that 1) proof of discontinuity does not thereby indicate a lack of continuity: just because disagreements existed concerning who Jesus was, what he taught, and what should be believed about him does not mean that there were not communities that shared fundamental agreements about these topics, and 2) the Episcopal Church in basing ourselves on the canon of Scripture, the historic creeds, and the apostolic succession/Historic Episcopate (cf. pp. 877-879 in your BCP) align ourselves with the teachings of Irenaeus who declared these three marks to be characteristic of his faith communities and those in communion with it. Yes, there was diversity—but we affirm that we are part of one particular group. Therefore for us, the teachings and practices of this group are normative despite what others may or may not have done.

Given this continuity, I reject the notion of Pagels promoted by Fr. Clifford that there is no “real Christianity” and will respond that I’m not concerned with its reality (whatever that means) but with its historical continuity.

There are standards. There are principles of interpretation. There are historical examples from which we may learn. And, as Irenaeus states that he was taught by the martyred Bishop Polycarp, and as the exchanges between the Bishops Ignatius and Polycarp share a common character, and as Polycarp learned the faith at the feet of the Apostle John, I’ll continue to assert that this faith of Irenaeus with which we claim continuity is the apostolic faith. (For the record, here’s the version of the creed or “rule of faith” that Irenaeus handed on.)

Second, Fr. Clifford is wrong to assume that modern discussions of human sexuality that are rooted in the Scriptures can simply remove celibacy from theological discussion. Fr. Clifford writes, “The totality of the scriptural witness is similarly conflicted about whether celibacy or marriage is the preferred option for Christians.” I agree—there is discussion around the issue. Therefore we must tackle it if we wish to render a faithful account of the biblical witness and rightly understand our own theologies as proceeding from the Scriptures in a meaningful way.

Fr. Clifford’s first point is that sexuality is an intrinsic part of who we are as human animals, and that Scripture speaks about these drives in a variety of ways. I agree on both points, but would state that the teachings of Jesus in the gospels are more ambiguous than Fr. Clifford acknowledges. In addition to Jesus’ statement that the resurrected will be like angels, neither married nor given in marriage, that true disciples must hate their families and forsake wives and children, Matthew’s account also commends those who are able to become “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:10-12). Note still the ambiguity; not marrying is upheld–and is qualified. Not all may receive it, and the reward for embracing celibacy is not made clear. Furthermore it’s odd that this bit appears in Matthew; when forsaking relations comes up, Luke typically includes “wives” while Matthew does not, suggesting that Matthew typically, holds a more “pro-marriage” stance than Luke. In short, the evidence is conflicted. On the whole, though, I’d suggest that Jesus’ words and example promote celibacy over a simplistic family-values portrait. But that’s not the end of the story by a long stretch.

Fr. Clifford’s second point is that 1 Cor 7:9 and 1 Tim 5:14 are misogynistic as they refer to women rather than men and participate in a denigration of the physical over the spiritual. First, I’d recommend a look at 1 Cor 7:8. Yes, Paul refers to the widows here but also to the “unmarried” (grammatically masculine) and suggests that both these groups remain just as he himself is. I fail to see the misogyny, nor do I see how he is counseling men and women differently here. 1 Tim 5 as a whole is concerned with order in the community and verses 3-16 specifically address widows. No, widowers are not discussed—because something other than sex is foremost here: survival. What Paul is discussing here is how women in the community without male support and without a male income should survive. Should they remarry for the sake of physical sustenance or should the church help them live on their own? I’d agree that verses 11-15 paint an unflattering picture of younger widows and Paul, agreeing with the assessment of humans as sexual beings, recommends that they marry rather than causing scandal with their behavior. To dismiss this as misogyny and an unequal treatment ignores the cultural circumstances that require the community to offer assistance to those who need it most.

Nowhere in these verses do I find a preference for the spiritual over the physical. That topic is worth a discussion—but I don’t see it in these verses.

Fr. Clifford’s third point is that Paul does not understand the value or emotional rewards of marriage as he sees it as suffering, rather than joy or fulfillment. This may be a fair point, but it does not address the point Paul is actually making in 1 Cor 7:28b-35. Paul, who believed the end of time imminent, wanted his congregation focused on the final goal, ready and attentive to the commands of the Lord rather than invested and distracted in the cares of a household.

Fr. Clifford’s fourth point is that both celibacy and sexuality are gifts of God. I would agree—but I take issue with the way that the gifts are structured. Being either male or female is one kind of gift. Being either straight or gay is another kind of gift. Being celibate is yet a third. None of these are mutually exclusive yet somehow in Fr. Clifford’s construction they become so. I am male and straight and non-celibate and am gifted by all three—but I recognize these as distinct. I would separate these gifts out as gifts of biology, gifts of orientation, and gifts of behavior; celibates are gifted by both biology and orientation, but make the choice—and are aided by the grace—not to express the prior two gifts through sexual actions. Does that somehow mean that these gifts have thereby gone to waste? Is gender or sex or orientation simply about sexual acts or is there more to our biology and orientation than what we do with our genitals? Fr. Clifford seems to have fallen into the trap that if we are not acting upon our sexuality we are somehow lesser for it.

Let me be clear. I have not been gifted with celibacy. I do not believe that most people have been gifted with celibacy. In most situations where celibacy is imposed on a class of people it invites corruption and vice. Paul is quite clear—repeating himself twice in 1 Cor 7 (vv. 28, 36)—that marriage is not a sin. However, he is equally clear that it is better to remain unmarried. The Jesus traditions while also ambiguous, contain a strong thread that also privilege but do not command celibacy. Throughout the centuries Christians have acted upon these Scriptural recommendations choosing lives of prayer and dedication to the needs of others—and we are their beneficiaries. And so I insist that the logic of Christianity sexuality must begin with celibacy, giving it the place that the New Testament accords it. Where Fr. Clifford may be confused, though, is that I do not therefore commend the practice of celibacy to any not called to it. Our logic must begin with celibacy but it is not necessarily normative for our practice.

Why then am I so insistent upon it?

Because it breaks us out of our culturally conditioned modes of thought regarding marriage, family, and sexuality and gives us a chance to reorient along theological lines. Our default thinking on sexuality establishes heterosexual marriage as normative; Scripture moves in other directions. Furthermore, Paul’s celibacy argument establishes a firm foundation for reflection upon interpersonal relationship in the language of virtue and vice. Rather than focusing on genital or procreative acts as central to nature of marital relationships, it foregrounds the cultivation of mutuality and Christian love. In short, it is possible—beginning with celibacy as an ideal—that leads us to an understanding of human sexuality far closer to the Scriptural witness than those that begin with the presuppositions of our culture. I shall present a picture of what this looks like in Part II.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament 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.

The weight of "dark matter"

By Greg Jones

People who study the universe talk about something called "Dark Matter." Turns out that the majority of the matter in the universe is invisible, not only to the animal eye, but to any kind of eye - whether x-ray, infrared, ultraviolet, gamma ray, or whathaveyou. Dark Matter is something which dominates the mass of the universe, cannot be seen, and is only detectable because of one thing: it has weight. Yes, the dark stuff of the cosmos has weight - and as the cosmologists tell us, it's quite literally pulling on everything. It can't be seen, but it's heavy anyway.

I discovered a bunch of Dark Matter on my trusty five year old laptop today. Well, not exactly, but I discovered that 99% of my hard drive was full, and I had no more room to do the basics any more. Things were running slow. I had to get rid of good programs, just to manage the shortage of disk space. Yet, every time I tried a quick stab at getting rid of junk on my drive, it didn't seem to make much difference - there were literally billions of bits of extra stuff on there that I couldn't seem to see, find or detect in order to remove. The digital Dark Matter was keeping me from the mission I needed to accomplish with that laptop - and it seemed helpless.

Then I went after it with a purpose. I got some good hard drive cleaning software, and with that and about an hour's time, I went through that little rig and found all the stuff I didn't need or want anymore. Mostly, it was stuff that was all hiding in dastardly places allowed for by the arcane operating system born into the rig by its maker. All that stuff that was hiding in there - running either little routines or simply taking up space - well I got rid of it. All of it. And it felt really good. And now, that little computer runs better.

What about you? As Jesus said to Peter, "your mind is too much on human things." Are you weighed down with all sorts of Dark Matter? Old things that are stashed in your mind, heart and soul that have weight, but you've lost sight of them? Is it time for a spring cleaning of issues, concerns, anxieties, agendas that are almost forgotten, but yet still remembered in the attic of your mind?

Maybe, this Lent is a time to look for that dark matter of the soul - and - well - chuck it out. It's called confession. It's called prayer. It's called letting go of dark matters, and allowing the Spirit to cleanse us.

Lord, give me patience. Now!

By Leo Campos

My sister has just recently given birth to her first child. I admit that nearly the first words out of my mouth were: "Where are the pictures? Has she updated her Facebook page?" I admit to being an information junkie, and my TV is also connected to my computer so I can check IMDB and Google and Wikipedia while watching a movie or documentary to check up on more facts - what other film has the actress been in? What is the GDP of Indonesia? My family tends to leave me alone during these times. I find I am less than unique in this addiction. My colleagues frequently chide me for not having either an iPhone or a Blackberry, and the fact that I do not Twitter makes me look like someone with "things to hide" from my more connected friends.

The fact that we want things now is really not new, after all Adam and Eve wanted the apple now, not later...

Serpent: Where u at?
Eve: Here
Serpent: Wanna get some appels? [sic]
Eve: Nah. Big Man says No-no.
Serpent: Natch. But why make them so red and delish. Here's a pic.
Eve: Lookin good.
Serpent: How about it then?
Eve: Gotta talk to BF
Serpent: Bring him too!
Eve: OK. SYL.
Serpent: 7 by the tree.

And we all know where that got us. We want instant gratification. We want instant results. We want immediate reduction in discomfort. We are, all of us, "Immediatists".

It seems the idea of spending time watching a sunset or staring at a blank wall doing Centering Prayer is nonsense if not downright madness. Imagine how many chores could've gotten done in that time! But the truth is that the very best stuff takes time to mature. Everything from thoughts, to works of art, to food preparation, to eating a meal together, is better if not rushed. We want immediate solutions to problems which came about in the first place because we rushed into solving the problems that preceded the current one.

One thing is the result of this Immediatist faith: the breaking apart, the incompleteness, of our lives in the deepest sense. In a strange sense, the rapid multiplication of instant "solutions" actually leads to a deep spiritual paralysis.

Against all this you have the methods and process of the Church. We got our Episcopal liturgy which can only move so fast (no matter how short the sermon) - before you can get to the Eucharist. We also got the church liturgical calendar which seems to stretch interminably in Advent and Lent. We also have the nearly 1500 years of monastic formation which demands a slow, almost plodding, approach. It takes a year to even begin as a Novice. It take two more to begin the process of vows. It takes 6 or 7 years to "graduate", to take Final Vows. Who wants to hand around for 7 years? And not even get an MDiv out of it?

Over and over again I have seen people come to me for spiritual direction or to one of my lectio retreats, who almost physically vibrated with anxiety (which is a St. Vitus's Dance of Immediatists). Over and over they had to find a way to slow down, to surrender to a more organic pace. To put up with psalms being recited slowly.

In monastic life, in the life of the Church, agitation is a disease. Chomping at the bit to jump at the next thing, without properly stopping before to pray for assistance from God and upon completion for a prayer of thanksgiving is like trying to hammer cold iron: a lot of noise and effort, not much result.

Anyone who takes some serious spiritual work learns first of all to move at the "speed of God." This does not mean some artificial speed. In fact it is the opposite of all our artificial speeds. Sometimes the work is frenetic; sometimes the work is measured and slow. The speed of it is based on the intrinsic properties of the work that God has set before us. It comes from nowhere else.

Monastic life treasures patience. Wait for things to evolve. Wait longer than you think you can wait, and the wait a little longer. The novice is usually wanting to move on - but move on to where? There is nothing that a senior knows or does which the novice is forbidden. The very act of waiting is formation. The need to move ahead and get to Vows and so on tells most Formation Masters that the Novice should be made to wait a little longer.

The same thing with our Sunday services. It has little to do with the type of music (classical or contemporary), or the amount of charismatic experiences we have. The order of the service ensures that there are enough pauses and enough slow moments for every person to take a deep breath and bask in adoration of God.

So, begin practicing a little more patience. Look for opportunities to be slowed down or even delayed. Look for those moments when life conspires to slow you down. Those are epiphanies - and only the patient will know God.

Brother Leo Campos is the co-founder of the Community of Solitude , a non-canonical, ecumenical contemplative community. He worked as the "tech guy" for the Diocese of Virginia for 6 years before going to the dark side (for-profit world).

For the sake of the oppressed, move ahead

By Adrian Worsfold

In his recent lecture on economics, the Archbishop of Canterbury stated:

Ethics, I suggested, is about negotiating conditions in which the most vulnerable are not abandoned.

And later:

The reduction of pain or of frustration, the augmenting of opportunity for human welfare and joy - again, these are obviously good things. They are good because they connect with a sense of what is properly owing to human beings, a sense of human dignity.

And later still:

But the task is to turn people's eyes back to the vision of a human dignity that is indestructible. This is the vision that will both allow us to retain a hold on our sense of worth even when circumstances are painful or humiliating and sustain the sense of obligation to the needs of others, near at hand or strangers, so that dignity may be made manifest.

I hope that I am not accused of quoting these out of context: applied to the economic crisis they are nevertheless, surely, universal statements.

Recently, referring to bullying in faith schools within England, the Bishop of Manchester also gave some words that are, again, of the character of universal statements. He said :

It is vital that the Church does as much as possible to keep dialogue going between all God’s people. That means everyone – whoever, whatever, wherever we are - including of course the gay community.

I extract them because dark clouds are gathering over Nigeria and it is the Anglican Church there that is helping pushing them into place.

This is the Church's contribution there :

Same sex marriage apart from being ungodly is also unscriptural, unnatural, unprofitable, unhealthy, uncultured, up-African and un-Nigerian. It is a perversion, a deviation and an aberration that is capable of engendering moral and social holocaust in this country. It is also capable of extincting mankind and as such should never be allowed to take root in Nigeria. Outlawing it is to ensure the continued existence of this nation. The need for doing this is urgent, compelling and imperative. The time is now.

The Most Revd. Peter S. Akinola
Archbishop Primate and Metropolitan
Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion)

This is towards a law that would outlaw same sex marriage in Nigeria, but same sex marriage is not available in Nigeria. So what it actually amounts to is the legalising of a witchhunt against gay people living together, giving the police powers because there would be prison sentences for gay couples and those who assist gay couples.

To call this a moral and social holocaust is itself a perversion of the actual holocaust, that of systematic death carried out to groups and individuals. The effect, to Nigeria, of leaving same sex couples be, of living and let living, is precisely nothing. It is of no impact on all the laws they want to pass on promoting heterosexual marriage, if Nigeria is so motivated. What is surely not acceptable - not locally, nationally and internationally - is instituting a regime of oppression.

Now the time must come when the Churches have to show another way forward. This is another way to be Church, to stand as some sort of beacon or model that flatly contradicts the oppressiveness of the Nigerian Church to its minorities and those who would copy its stance. There has to be a real, material, alternative: a way forward that gives a different vision. The Church clearly most able to do this is The Episcopal Church, closely followed by the Anglican Church of Canada, but also by a number of others once the lead is taken.

Yet we have the Archbishop of Canterbury intending to go along to General Convention 2009 and we know why. He is going to plead for more stalling, more patience. He wants to nudge the Anglican Communion towards centralisation, towards it becoming more like a Church, for it to start making decisions among primates. He is going to put the religious bureaucracy first, as he has all along, asking others to sacrifice themselves for this bureaucracy. The principal people to be sacrificed again are the gay and lesbian community: not him, not bishops, not a communion, but a people for whom inclusion would be like freedom at last. He wants this not because of some prime belief, but simply to wait. Wait for what - Nigeria?

Back in 2006 the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke to the Guardian's editor Alan Rusbridger and said this:

I'm very struck by what Bonhoeffer writes in the middle-30s about the division of the church over the Aryan laws in Nazi Germany, where he says both that it's extremely important not to try and work out in advance every circumstance in which it would be necessary for the church to break.

However, when actually you do have to break I have called a Bonhoeffer moment. This is what Bonhoeffer did: he joined the Confessing Church, and although safe in the United States he was effectively called back to Germany by the Swiss theologian Karl Barth and Bonhoeffer met his death at the hands of the Nazi regime. He sacrificed himself in the service of others.

It is time to stop playing games of religious bureaucracy. There is no ethical position of flogging a dying horse of a centralisation project when that is based on sacrificing others. This argument, presumably the purpose of the Archbishop's trip to the General Convention, simply should not carry, and the Archbishop should be reminded of his own words about what it is to be ethical. Perhaps he might have to be asked if they mean anything in this material world, the world of the body as so identified.

If it was thought that pausing actions of inclusion in the United States, Canada or elsewhere would help the people of Nigeria, then surely it would be done; indeed, arguably, this has been done so far. Patience has been shown, but patience is for a purpose and a goal. The goal is not towards producing a worldwide Church, which is probably acquiring its own dynamic anyway (and thus patience towards building that is patience towards an unwanted project?). The goal is towards the inclusion of people further than one's own shores. However, that Bonhoeffer moment does come when you need to make the other vision material and real.

Say to the Archbishop of Canterbury when he comes, 'Thank you, but your argument no longer applies. Please, in this real, even desperate situation abroad, when some people need a vision they can grasp of a tomorrow in their land, refer to your own words.'

Say, 'It is time to move ahead and we just happen to be the first able to do so.'

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.

The wisdom of "Whatever"

By Heidi Shott

My prayers have taken a certain turn in recent months. Increasingly my supplications tend toward “Whatever God.” Not spoken in a flip, slangy tone, but with the growing recognition that I am in no position to dictate terms to the God of the Universe.

Not that I have this dynamite prayer life. When I wake early and, in a myopic haze, happen to catch a beautiful, impressionistic sunrise that I’m usually not privy to, I whisper, “Way to go, God.”

When I leave my Portland office late and race to pick up my son whose carpool has dropped him in the Moody’s Diner parking lot, I plead for traveling mercies and step on the gas. The “Whatever God” prayer has entered my repertoire as a substitute for “Please heal this dying loved one right this second” or any number of other extremely specific demands I’ve been known to make of God. The big picture about what we need, what is best, what blessings we will count further down the road is not, I’ve decided, for me to know in great detail.

But I’m beginning to perceive this spiritual myopia as a gift. By not being allowed to see, we’re required to trust. Were we to have the whole, big show of our lives, our congregations, our Church, our world laid out before us, how smug we humans would become. Were we to know, “Oh yeah, that problem will turn out fine,” would we ever grow or attain new strength from having to work our way through it? Were we to know the sadness and tragedy that await us all from time to time, would it color and ruin our joy today?

Graham Greene once said, "You can't conceive, my child, nor I nor anyone, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God." Perhaps, to paraphrase his fellow poet, T.S. Eliot, we could not bear very much of it. Perhaps God gives us clear vision – God-eyes – in small moments, in little doses because it’s all we can handle. With near-sightedness we’re required to get close, nose-to-nose like lovers. We work to eliminate hunger by serving hungry people on Tuesdays. We model loving-kindness by treating gently those who challenge us. When we can’t see, we’re not afforded the luxury of distance. Our blurry, temporal vision keeps us both engaged and in need of frequent spiritual sustenance.

The wisdom of “whatever” is not Doris Day singing “que sera sera” or a gloomypuss affectation, but rather shorthand for the prayer, “Into your hands, God, I commend my spirit and the whole nine yards.” St. Peter, with all of his problems during that first Holy Week, probably never stopped to pray too specifically. I can’t imagine, “Dear God, please let Jesus rise from the dead, later send the Holy Spirit, and then pull this whole worldwide church thing together,” ever left his lips.

As I open my eyes these late winter mornings, the big blurry Norwich maple in our backyard is outlined by the rising sun. Without my glasses, the bare branches are indistinct, but I have faith that the leaf buds are present and will burst forth on a fine spring day of their choosing.

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

Is celibacy the preferred Christian option?

By George Clifford

Elaine Pagels in her book, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, insightfully observed that people who study Christianity’s origins are usually searching for the “real Christianity.” Instead, she noted, these searchers discover multiple early Christianities. Then unable to identify the one “real Christianity,” an individual must chart her or his own spiritual path.

Sexuality is integral to human identity and therefore an inescapable element of spirituality. Many of the debates about whether celibacy or marriage is the preferred Christian option illustrate Pagels’ observation, both sides claiming their arguments rest upon Scripture interpreted through the lens of primitive Christian practices. Based on such flawed analyses, Christians have too often accepted celibacy as normative sexual behavior for Christians as illustrated by some of the comments on my Thoughts on Marriage: Part I and Part II posted here in January. According to this view, only people unable to remain celibate should marry.

Human sexuality has acquired sufficient importance for contemporary ecclesial and moral controversies that reexamining the issues pertinent to the celibacy versus marriage debate may yield some clarity by highlighting differences and agreements. To keep this essay to a reasonable length, I intentionally ignore other questions about sexuality and sexual behavior that Christianity faces. These unaddressed questions include: identifying a heuristic for determining which sexual behaviors are appropriate within and without monogamous bonds; articulating the theological purpose(s) of sexual behavior; and assessing the import, if any, of in vitro fertilization and other non-traditional reproduction methods on sexual intimacy and moral standards.

Humans are inherently sexual beings, both from a biological and a biblical perspective. Humans, like most other animals, have a sexualized reproductive drive. The urge to reproduce, evolutionary biologists contend, drives all other behavior in a living organism. Freud correctly saw sex permeating every nook and cranny of human existence. From a biological perspective, intercourse, not celibacy, characterizes life. Concomitantly, humans’ long gestation and extended childhood help to explain the human tendency toward monogamy.

The strength of the human sexual drive is a constant theme in scripture, often negative but occasionally positive. David famously lusts after Bathsheba, for example. Conversely, the positive approach to sexuality generally receives less attention but is rooted in the creation myth in which God concludes that man being alone is not good and thus creates woman as man’s companion. The Song of Solomon celebrates physical love between a man and a woman, perhaps using that relationship as a metaphor to describe God's love for humans.

The totality of the scriptural witness is similarly conflicted about whether celibacy or marriage is the preferred option for Christians. A brief and incomplete look at sex in the New Testament can clarify the conflict. First, one can read the gospel record of Jesus either way. On the one hand, Jesus graces a wedding with his presence and first miracle, deprecates divorce (or bans it, depending upon one’s interpretation), and affirms the goodness of the body through his enjoyment of food and drink as well as his healing ministry. On the other hand, Jesus teaches that in the resurrection humans do not marry, implying that perhaps sexuality may end with death or find a new form of expression in the resurrection. Jesus also exhorts his disciples to value loyalty to God's kingdom more than family, from which some Christians infer that celibacy is better than marriage (Luke 20:34-36). Gregory of Nyssa echoed this theme, writing that a Christian should abandon marriage for God's kingdom.

Incidentally, Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene has intrigued generations of artists and authors, most recently receiving tremendous attention thanks to Dan Brown’s blockbuster, The Da Vinci Code. Was the relationship sexual or platonic? Before answering that question, remember that sexuality touches many aspects of human existence and behavior, a concept far broader than Bill Clinton’s facile, self-serving, and narrow definition of sex as intercourse. Did the fully human Jesus experience electrifying moments of attraction and pleasure in Mary’s presence? Did Mary find herself strangely warmed by Jesus? If so, how far toward intercourse did their relationship progress?

Second, reading I Corinthians and I Timothy in support of a preferential option for celibacy seems as misguided as interpreting the New Testament in support of an exclusively male priesthood. The mixed advice offered women differs from the advice given to men: 1 Timothy 5:14 advises that young widows are to remarry, 1 Corinthians 7:9 limits that to widows aflame with passion, and neither letter says anything about widowers remarrying. These conflicting, misogynistic passages lack the clarity of Paul’s declaration that in Christ there is neither male nor female, on which we base arguments for equal treatment of men and women.

The underlying assumption of these passages is that the flesh exists in tension with the spirit, a theme some exegetes contend runs throughout Paul’s writings. That theme contradicts modern biology’s understanding of humans as physical beings, the ancient Hebrew belief that humans are physical beings, and the Anglican emphasis on incarnation that underscores the fundamental unity of a human. Dichotomizing spirit and flesh may function as a useful metaphor but not as an accurate description of a human being. A human is his or her body; the body is the human.

Third, in 1 Corinthians 7:28 Paul advises people not to marry because he would spare them the suffering he associated with marriage. That view has also led many Christians to perceive celibacy as the preferred option. However, not all married persons experience substantial suffering in their marriage. Many find the companionship of married life far more valuable and enduring than any transitory suffering associated with their marriage (cf. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).

Fourth, 1 Corinthians 7:7 implies that celibacy is a gift from God. Being male is a gift from God. Being female is a gift from God. Being straight is a gift from God. Being gay is a gift from God. None of those gifts is superior to any of the others – they are all simply gifts from God. So it is with celibacy, a gift from God. Many find the complexities of relationships that Paul wishes for us to avoid the most rewarding aspect of life.

Paul’s apparent antagonism to close relationships, whether the relationship is sexual or platonic and regardless of the gender orientations involved, seems more indicative of Paul’s personal issues than revelatory of the God who is love, the God whose love our relationships model and reveal. For example, Bishop Spong in Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism suggested that the Apostle Paul’s mysterious thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7) was Paul knowing he was gay. If so, then we must interpret Paul’s views about sexuality against the backdrop of his internal conflict between his gender orientation and the Christianity of his day. Thankfully, Christians have begun to discover that sexual orientation is God's gift, whether one is gay or straight, a gift that the Church should celebrate rather than deny or punish. Many persons receive gifts of both monogamy and celibacy, each in different seasons of his or her life.

The historic priority Christians have given to celibacy over marriage has partially contributed to sad distortions of the goodness of sex and life. For many years, the Roman Catholic Church taught that sex was evil, even with one’s spouse; the only moral excuse for intercourse was procreation. The Church viewed physical desire for or enjoyment of one’s spouse as sinful lust. The Christian rejection of sex is a component of a broader Christian rejection of the present world in favor of heaven, something for which Marx rightly criticized Christianity. Today, some Christians ironically (hypocritically?) level the same criticism at Islamicist suicide bombers who prefer paradise to earthly existence.

Theological and ecclesial conversations about sex and sexuality would do well to stop presuming that celibacy is the preferential Christian option and instead view both celibacy and monogamous relationships as equal good gifts from the one God, who created us as sexual beings and said, “That is good.”

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.

The Braided Leather Cord

By Donald Schell

Hanging thirty feet above the ground, I was only half way up the rope. My mind and every muscle in my body pulled up, up to the cliff top. From up there my son and five other pilgrim friends cheered me on. We were climbing this braided leather cord to see Debra Damo, the oldest church and monastery in Ethiopia.

I’d done vertical rappel in a ropes course. This was different - harder because climbing this line was all shoulder and arm work, and harder still because the monastery and church are at 8000 feet altitude,. My whole upper body ached for oxygen. Up on top an old monk and his young helpers drew up the safety line’s slack. They were ready to brace themselves and catch my weight if I slipped, but slipping would turn me into a pendulum weight banging against the cliff. Hand over hand, I pulled my way to the top. And I made it up.

If I’d had any breath left, the view across the mesas and gorges to Eritrea would have had been breathtaking, and yes, the thousand-year-old chapel of a fifteen hundred year old monastery was well worth the climb. But that braided leather line lingers in memory as powerfully as anything we saw at the top. Clinging to it, I looked up to the cliff edge and the sky’s intense blue, felt the rope in my hands, swayed with it, and smelled its long-handled age. Muscle memories fix a wild mixture of fear and excitement, elation and exhaustion. So now a month later, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve told myself that something was ‘hanging by a thread.’

- The future of the Anglican Communion hangs by a thread.
- The U.S. economy hangs by a thread.
- With new work of teaching, consulting, and leading workshops, my priestly vocation hangs by a thread.

Just as the three strands of interwoven flesh - animals’ skins - made a lifeline and a way of ascent, the sixth century Syrian monks who built Debra Damo, despite their fierce asceticism, confidently wove Pleasure, Desire, and Gratitude into a line sturdy enough to carry us up into God’s embrace. Most Christians of that time braided this same line.

In our consumerist culture, and especially in the present financial crisis (which we suspect was brought on by greedy desires and the pleasures and power that money can buy) it won’t be easy to renew the crucial strands of our life line. But who is trying? For a single sermon commending pleasure or desire, we’ve probably heard twenty urging us to give or share because we ‘should be grateful.’ We’re in the grip of fearful Christian thinking from those bitter centuries that came to mistrust pleasure and desire.

The 14th century the Black Plague swept across Europe leaving in its wake a crippling mistrust of human flesh, largely focused in misogyny (why would men sin without a temptress?). As the Western church forced parish priests to put away their wives and live in celibacy, priests and patrons had artisan stone carvers carve the seductive temptress Eve and the horrors of a decaying woman’s body in the grave. Even then, though, there were other voices like Dame Julian of Norwich, who heard Jesus the Word saying that if there was any good thing he could have done to increase her pleasure and delight that he’d have gladly done it.

A few centuries later, Protestant reformers and the Catholic Inquisition furthered Christian mistrust of pleasure and desire. There are many such voices of warning, and a brief piece in the Café can’t re-weave the cord of pleasure, desire, and gratitude, but I can ask us to do the work. I’ll offer some accidental reflections on pleasure and desire and on gratitude, the third line, which makes it possible to braid a single, strong line.

1. Pleasure

“Thou Lord didst make all for thy pleasure,
Did give us food for all our days.”

Some readers will recognize this pair of lines from Francis Bland Tucker’s wonderful 1939 hymn, “Father we thank thee who hast planted.” The English text was brand-new in the 1940 Hymnal and people loved it, so it was kept for the 1989 Hymnal. I like to think that singing congregations’ delight in God’s pleasure contributed to the hymn’s success.

Tucker’s hymn paraphrases the Eucharistic Prayer from the Didache, a Jewish-Christian document from the late first or early second century (so, around 100 A.D.). Leonel Mitchell and Michael Merriman, two friends with many good years of liturgical teaching and practice between them, helped distill my question about who the Didache taught was experiencing pleasure. Lee looked back at the Greek to observe that in the original text God’s creation of all is ‘for his Name’s sake’ while God gave US food and drink ‘for our pleasure.’ And Michael recalled ancient Jewish blessings prayers (and some texts from the Psalms) that thank God for wine that ‘makes our hearts glad.’

Tucker’s neat synthesis for the hymn obscures something the Didache prayer emphasizes, that God gives food for OUR pleasure, so that it’s our pleasure that moves us to give thanks for God’s good gifts to us from the vast world of God’s creation.

My old congregation altered Tucker’s text to synthesize these ideas like this -
“Thou, Lord, didst make all for OUR pleasure.”

And then from pleasure in God’s gifts of food and life, we come to receive and enjoy God’s gift of Christ our true bread, and our pleasure at both moves us to offer awestruck thanks.

As an ex-Presbyterian, I’m tickled (maybe ought to be humbled) to hear my Puritan forebears fearlessly affirming their pleasure in God and creation. Eric Liddell, the ‘flying Scotsman’ who ran in the 1924 Olympics before going to China as a Presbyterian missionary famously said, ‘When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.’ And Liddell was simply echoing graceful wisdom from The Westminster Catechism of 1647, that Presbyterian voice from Cromwell’s England bold teaching that ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.’

Our pleasure delights God. Both giving us our daily bread and giving us Christ the bread eternal please God because both ordinary bread and Christ our living bread delight and pleasure us. We’re all of us the prodigal welcomed home to a Great Feast in OUR honor and for our pleasure. Receiving God’s vast blessings with pleasure moves us (makes us want or desire) to offer God our thanks. We’re in bolder and more paradoxical territory than ‘It is right to give God thanks and praise.’

2. Desire

‘Whoever does not dance, does not understand what is coming to pass.’- The Acts of John

Gospel scholar Joachim Jeremias in his Unknown Sayings of Jesus, argues that Jesus spoke this challenge in his lifetime. Naturally enough, early Christian liturgies did include congregational dance. The fourth century Easter Troparion—“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life.”—describes and celebrates Christians’ stomping dance to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection.

But some pastors and theologians feared that the pleasure and desire of dance tipped too easily toward sinful thoughts and whatever else might follow. In fact, like them, we find it hard to receive our bodies and our bodies’ irrational desires gratefully, so after only a few centuries, dance lost its place in Christian worship except in Ethiopia where it remained part of ordinary congregational life. Thank God that Anglican worship in other parts of Africa includes a renewal of drumming and congregational dance.

But speaking my gratitude skips a step. Like many other Episcopalians, I grew up in another church community, one where all dance was reckoned sinful. As it happens, my parents weren’t peddling the line, “we don’t dance.” For them dancing wasn’t a taboo. They admitted they didn’t dance because they’d never learned how and were afraid to begin. They didn’t dance, but they’d rejected their church’s moralism. These two faithful Christians joked about the undifferentiated morass of “don’ts” they’d grown up with in Christian Endeavour – not just no smoking and drinking, and no dancing (because dancing ‘led to other things’), but also no playing cards (not even Old Maid), and no movies or physical labor on Sunday. We didn’t go to movies on Sunday to avoid offending weaker sisters or brothers. My dad was a physician. My parents said they didn’t smoke because of the health risk.

1960. I wince to think of Fridays in junior high school gym class. Friday gym period was a sock hope. Once the girls were in place, their gym teacher would put a 45 record on the turntable, our cue as guys to pad across the polished floor in our socks and ask a girl to dance. ‘I don’t dance’ was not an excuse. ‘You’re here to learn.’ I always crossed the floor as slowly as I could. One day on the other side, I found that fate left the girl who was universally reckoned most desirable of our whole class standing alone against the wall. I approached her cautiously and asked, barely speaking, “May I have this dance.” She grimaced and said, “With you? You’ve got to be kidding.” The gym girls gym teacher insisted she had dance with me. I didn’t die, though I felt like I might.

An intellectual pal who was easy to talk with and only happened to be a girl classmate suggested I put some music on at home and try ‘just wiggling’ in front of a full length mirror. I tried. Even with no one watching, I couldn’t cut loose and wiggle my hips. Sunday School had frozen my hip joints, spine and shoulders. Though I felt stupid, I knew condemning words like ‘profane’ and ‘lewd,’ lay in wait for me if I let the music move my body. I wanted to dance, and I wished my body could hear, but the music drenched my cells in adrenaline for flight.

I first got what I wanted in a high school visit to an Episcopal Church. Hearing the Christian call to prayer, “The Lord be with you,” unlocked my hips and I knelt. My body in that small way was expressing something that mattered to me. The joy at bending knee and hip for prayer was so exhilarating that I refused to hold myself back, so went forward to kneel at the rail to receive communion, even though I wasn’t confirmed and knew I was breaking the rules to receive. This was an altar call I welcomed joyfully.

Finally had desire unlocked what was frozen. Desire hadn’t let me rest, and in the end it moved me to a path I’m still pursuing. Gregory of Nyssa in his Commentary on the Song of Songs says that we are most like God in our infinite desire.

3. Gratitude

‘Give thanks in all things.’
- I Thessalonians 5:18,

In college I discovered folk dancing. Learning each new dance, I still felt like the tin woodman with un-oiled joints, but after several rote repetitions of the stiff-jointed angular movements, music and repetition unlocked my joints, movement flowed. I was dancing. I loved that breakthrough moment when I could feel real dance beginning. Gratitude came with the promise of freedom. For the next dozen years, circle and line dances from around the world offered me a place I could move with music.

When I married Ellen I wanted to live deeper into that freedom and really dance with her. Some shuffling memory from junior high school plus a little bounce from folk dancing at least got us the dance floor. For me, a crowded dance floor felt best. Less visible. One day about eight years after we were married, Ellen and I were at an Episcopal Social Ministries Benefit Tea Dance at San Francisco’s Mark Hopkins Hotel. A couples’ elegant ease with big stand style dancing captivated us. They weren’t showy, but they moved together as we wanted to, so when the band took a break, I asked where they’d learned to dance. ‘We teach’ they said. I wrote down time and address and the next Sunday we started ballroom dancing lessons. For three years we hardly missed a week. Week by week for three years, we danced our way to deeper understanding and love. Learning to dance together was as deep as any conversation we’d ever had.

There’s the three braid strand - pleasure, desire, and gratitude. I started this reflection with pleasure. Braiding, each is equally essential. I might have told other stories if I’d begun with desire or gratitude, but once braiding has begun, each is line is important in turn, and as Christians of the first centuries knew, together they carry us to Life.

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

Searching in "the mirror of the soul"

By Greg Jones

In the ancient Church of Syria and Iraq, emphasis was placed on the spiritual value of "wonder." The fathers of the Syriac Church understood that to attempt to fathom the sacred truths of God was a difficult exercise for the faithful Christian to say the least — and nearly impossible if approached in the wrong way. The wrong way would be to attempt to seek after God's truth using only deductive, rational or purely intellectual methods. As John of Dalyatha, an 8th century Iraqi Christian, understood it: the seeker after divine truth must "carry the remembrance of God in one's heart" and search for the vision of God's glory in the "mirror of the soul." (Mary T. Hansbury, The Letters of John of Dalyatha, Gorgias: 2006.)

Pursuing the truths of God is a work of wonders, not a work of the rational mind alone. It is a sweet and mystic thing to attempt communion with the God of all things. And, as the wise have discerned over the millennia, it ultimately is a work offered to us by God's own giving. In other words, the path to the Kingdom is there for us to walk on and is not made of the stones we put there, but of the handiwork of the King who made it for us to find. Seeing the path to the Kingdom is a work of wonder, of soul, of heart. Yet, surprise, surprise, while it is not discernible by our reasoned grasping alone, when the path is found, the human mind does indeed delight in its finding.

John of Dalyatha taught that by Christ's incarnation and Baptism, the garment of God's light is offered to us, who since the Fall have been wearing garments of shadow. By putting on Christ, we put on the light, which enables to see the King and the Kingdom — and thus we are robed in glory enough to see the path which has been laid for us to follow. Peter and the others did not quite get this at first, of course, and neither should we. The whole thing is a matter of wonder and is of course hard to grasp on our own. Yet, if we will trust those who went before us and who became enlightened, we may then begin our own seeking after God with a kind of head start, by trusting that by putting on the garment of Christ, even if we're not quite sure what that all means, He will come to enlighten us.

John of Dalyatha, like so many of the ancient fathers and mothers of the Church, took to life in the desert, bereft of worldly distractions, so he might become enriched by the pursuit of wonder and the truths of God. Lent for us modern folk is an opportunity to do the same.

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.

Hedge funds won't get us to heaven

By Stephanie Nagley

Jesus talked about money more than anything else – the love of money, the desire for money, the lack of money, the abundance of money. Money, he knew, challenges and changes us like nothing else. Money is powerful – so powerful that something that is supposed to be useful too often just leaves us feeling used.

We’re smart people so we know what happened on Wall Street. We may not grasp all the complexities but we know what happened in the broad scheme. We know that a lot of other smart people got greedy, and the love of money took them on a magical mystery tour. The ride is over and all of us will pay the price.

Hedge funds won’t get us to heaven or make heaven on earth. “Where your treasure is there your heart will be too.” Giving to the church and organizations that believe, trust in and hope for heaven on earth says volumes about what we hope, believe and trust. We aren’t trying to buy our way to heaven for heaven can’t be bought. But giving to heavenly causes brings us closer to our reason for being and helps further God’s work in the world. That’s our slice of heaven here and now.

As I watched the Dow drop and heard about credit markets freezing, I felt nervous like most everyone else. But I also sensed an opportunity, an opportunity to get my own house in order and to reallocate where I put my treasure.

The word economy is rooted in the Greek word household. Our churches are part of the household of God. A pledge is our way of living God’s household, a household guided by the economy of abundance. Our participation matters – it matters not just to our individual churches, but to something greater. When we write a check or make a stock transfer, we’re making an investment in the household of God. We’re placing our money and our lives on the line for a dream. We are saying that we believe that the dream, the dream of God, can, must, shall come true.

The Rev. Dr. Stephanie Nagley is rector of St. Luke’s Church, Bethesda, Md.

Thanksgiving in the wilderness

By Elizabeth Carpenter

It is easy to be thankful when everything is going well—our important relationships are healthy and mutually satisfying, the job is rewarding and secure, the kids are thriving, the economy is booming, nobody is sick or suffering any serious loss, the future looks rosy. But how to be thankful when things are not going so well? The company is on shaky ground and the job may disappear; the kids are going through a really rough time; the economy appears as unstable as it has been in many years; people we love are seriously ill or have died; the future is uncertain. What do we find to be thankful for under those circumstances? What can I say to those suffering, to you, about these things in your lives?

I will not offer the kind of trite encouragement intended to make one “look on the bright side” of every situation. That would be to trivialize the depth of your pain and suffering.

I will not say, “God never sends us more than we can bear,” because I think that is untrue on two accounts. First, some people do actually crack and break under the strain of their burdens; and, second, I don’t believe God “sends” everything that happens in this world. Why try to cure illness if it comes as God’s will? If God wanted people to be sick, Jesus would not have gone about healing the suffering. If everything that happened were the will of God, there would have been no need of the prophets to tell us to change our ways. Surely we don’t think that the evils which human beings have perpetrated upon one another throughout history have been administered in accordance with the will of God. Human beings have free will and often act contrary to what Jesus and the prophets tell us is the will of God.

I also think, though I cannot prove it, that there is a degree of randomness in the universe, that just as God granted free will to human beings, the universe does sometimes “do its own thing.” Or maybe we just cannot discern the level of determinism that may be operating; I don’t know. I don’t think God chooses one child to have cancer and another to be born hopelessly deformed and another to be mentally deficient. Jesus said of the man born blind, “Don’t try to figure out why this happened, but let’s see how God might be glorified in healing him now.” I will accept that admonition and not try to explain why evil exists in this world.

What can we count on? I believe that we can count on Jesus to be faithful, to be with us always, in our joy and in our sorrow. I believe we can count on the Holy Spirit to bring us the wisdom and comfort and strength we must have to get through times that truly try our souls. And I believe that God gives us into one another’s care and keeping, to help us bear one another’s burdens, to pour out our love and caring in ways that testify to the truth that we are truly members one of another. God’s love is manifest in the love we share. I am deeply thankful for the love I see operating among us and for all the gifts of God that bind our hearts to him and to one another.

The Rev. Elizabeth Carpenter is rector of St. Anne’s Church, Damascus, Md.

The flame shall not consume you

This is the first of three meditation on the role of faith during difficult economic times. All three originally appeared in Washington Window.

By Joseph Trigg

My mother was 10 years old and my father was 12 when the stock market crashed in 1929. Just as I told my children about the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War, my parents told me about the Great Depression and World War II. I heard about the grandfather who lost a farm because he co-signed a note for a less provident brother, the grandfather who kept a farm because a New Deal program enabled him to pay a mortgage note just in the nick of time, a once prosperous great-grandfather who managed to pay off all his depositors in his small town bank before dying a broken man, and the year my father and his brother shared $13 between them after sweating all spring and summer to bring 10 acres of tobacco to market. Many of you have heard or could tell similar stories.

In the accounts of the Great Depression I heard growing up, people sometimes spoke about feeling helpless. More often they spoke about finding capacities for self-discipline and inventiveness they did not know they had. They spoke about how they learned the value of money, but also how they learned the value of friendship and cooperation. They would never want to go through such a time again or wish it on anyone, but they cherished their memories of it.

Their story was a story we hear again and again in the Bible, the story of finding a way through hard times and finding a better life on the other side of them. It is the story of the Wilderness and the Babylonian exile in the Old Testament, and of the Passion of Christ in the New Testament. The Bible gives us no assurance of avoiding hard times, but multiple assurances that God will be with us and help us through them. My favorite is Isaiah 43:2, echoed in the hymn How Firm a Foundation:

When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and through the rivers,
they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire
you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.

I have no idea whether or not we face an economic collapse as serious as the one my parents went through in their teens. It is possible that we may have to learn lessons they learned the hard way. I hope not. Bitter experience is a terrible way to learn, even if it is the most effective way for many of us. If so, I am confident that one of those lessons will be that God is with us in hard times.

The Rev. Dr. Joseph Trigg, author of Origen, is rector of Christ Church, Port Tobacco, in Charles County, Maryland.

The habit of kindness

By Heidi Shott

After a number of years together, my husband and I determined that we are not meant to be opponents. We can’t play singles tennis; we can barely play ping-pong. We end up feeling bad whether we win or lose. So instead we ski and scuba dive together when we get the chance. There’s no winning or losing, just companionship and wonder. Recently I came to realize that my desire not to whip my husband also applies to my sons and almost everyone else.

I was wasting some time on a game of computer hearts. The game allows you to name the dealer as well as your opponents. For a few weeks I’d been dealing under the name of one of my sons who’d been fiddling around with my computer. But that evening I decided to re-christen myself dealer and name the three other players after my husband and our twin boys. After a few hands, I felt awfully sad. I can’t bear to beat my loved ones, even virtually.

So I thought about people I’d really like to cream. One name, a boss from early in my career, rose to mind immediately, but for the other two – I’m pleased to report – I had to dig down deep. I finally settled on a particularly difficult member of an organization I used to work for and a vindictive college dean about whom I will say nothing because my mother taught me not to say mean things about dead people.

Suddenly, playing computer hearts became exceedingly fun.

While I didn’t mind losing a hand to these three people, I began to take tremendous pleasure in beating them. I thought about what they had in common: one man, two women; two from Maine, one from Virginia; two professional contacts, one academic. What was it that allowed me to hold this antipathy all these years? Then I hit upon it: All three of these people had, at one time, made me feel very small and unworthy.

God has made us so vulnerable, particularly when we are young. An unkind word, a public humiliation, a thoughtless putdown can stay with us over the course of our lives. I have a friend who worked as a newspaper intern during a college summer. One day the paper’s popular columnist carelessly told him, “You can’t write.” It was a throwaway line, but my friend believed it for about 15 years until he took a job that required writing everyday. After awhile he realized he was a very good writer. It had never occurred to him to brush aside what the columnist had said.

On the other hand, those moments when we are singled out, praised and recognized can change the entire course of our lives. We become like spaniels, eager to please, full of good will and belief in all we are capable of.

Here’s a confession: I often think kind things about people, but seldom take the time to tell them. Last week, my sons and I went to a niece’s sixth grade Colonial history play. Though she and her family live nearby, in the busyness of daily life, we seldom connect. After the performance, she approached us to say she was delighted we had come. Will it matter that we attended? Who knows? But I think supporting her interests and cheering her successes over the years will matter a great deal, if we can keep it up.

Practicing the habit of kindness is my discipline this Lent – my plan is to take a moment to write one kind and encouraging note or email to someone who won’t expect it. It’s impossible to know when the stray compliment or the “well done” will indelibly mark someone’s life. As that anonymous 17th Century nun has often been quoted:

“Give me the ability to see good things in unexpected places, and talents in unexpected people. And give me, O Lord, the grace to tell them so.”

The habit of kindness can be practiced in all of our worlds – among our families and friends, in our congregations, in our workplaces, in our neighborhoods. It’s free, it’s Christ-like, and, unlike ping-pong, everybody wins.

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

Anglican reduction?
Anglican roux?

By Marshall Scott

My wife and I are foodies - or, at least, we cook. I like to cook. It's a form of recreation for me, with immediate feedback (I'd usually say, "No pun intended;" but I like that one).

So, because I cook, I know something about sauces. I can deglaze a pan. I can make a roux, and I can make it as dark and as rich as you want. I can even do a reduction, that slow, steady process of cooking down a liquid until the color is deeper, the consistency thicker, and the flavor more intense than one could ever imagine from the original.

Perhaps that's why it got my attention when Archbishop Williams said this in his Presidential Address to the recent General Synod of the Church of England:

"The Communion we have: it is indeed a very imperfect thing at the moment. It is still true that not every Primate feels able to communicate at the Lord's Table alongside every other, and this is indeed a tragedy. Yet last week, all the Primates who had attended GAFCON were present, every one of them took part in daily prayer and Bible study alongside the Primates of North America and every one of them spoke in discussion. In a way that I have come to recognise as very typical of these meetings, when talk of replacing Communion with federation of some kind was heard, nearly everyone reacted by saying that this was not something they could think about choosing. We may have imperfect communion, but we unmistakably want to find a way of holding on to what we have and 'intensifying' it – to use the language I used last summer about the proposed Anglican Covenant. Somehow, the biblical call to be involved with one another at a level deeper than that of mere affinity and good will is still heard loud and clear. No-one wants to rest content with the breach in sacramental fellowship, and everyone acknowledges that this breach means we are less than we are called to be. But the fact that we recognise this and that we still gather around the Word is no small thing; without this, we should not even be able to hope for the full restoration of fellowship at the Eucharist.”

What concerns me is this thought of "intensifying what we have." In the first instance, I’m not sure we really have agreement on “what we have.” Actually, I’m certain we do not. I’m not sure what to make of his experience that “when talk of replacing Communion with federation of some kind was heard, nearly everyone reacted by saying that this was not something they could think about choosing;” for if we’re not agreed what we have now, we don’t know what it would mean to choose a “federation,” and so why “this was not something they could think about choosing.” We are a group of “regional and national member churches” (that’s what the Anglican Communion Website says on its front page: ”regional and national member churches”). Sometimes we speak of a “fellowship,” and sometimes a “family,” both terms well represented in Christian rhetoric. On the other hand, either a fellowship or a family can be disparate or enmeshed – too loose to work together, or too tight for all members to work to full potential – and arguably a “communion” can be, too. Is what can be accomplished by the Lutheran World Federation somehow less important or less successful or “less church,” than what can be accomplished by the Roman Catholic Church?

And if we’re not agreed what we have, what would it mean to “intensify” it? Would that mean clearer rules and clearer values? Would that mean tighter rules around common values? Would it leave us with more facility in including, or in excluding – or, perhaps, both?

This wasn’t made easier by the next paragraph in the Archbishop’s address. He said,
“Underlying this is something that dawned on me last week with a renewed force. We have not yet got to the point where we can no longer recognise one another as seeking to obey the same Lord. To make a very simple point, common Bible study would not be possible if we did not see in one another at least some of the same habits of attention and devotion to Scripture, whatever the diversity of interpretation. We can see that the other person is trying to listen to God's self-communication in scripture, not just imposing an agenda. But this entails a more complex and challenging point. If we recognise this much, we have to recognise that the other person or community or tradition is not simply going to go away. They are near enough to be capable of conversation, shared prayer and shared discernment with us. They are not just going to be defeated and silenced. For the foreseeable future, they are going to be there, recognisably doing something like what we are doing. We can't pretend.”

That would all be wonderful, if some of the points weren’t demonstrably inaccurate. I wish it were true that, “We have not yet got to the point where we can no longer recognise one another as seeking to obey the same Lord;” but the rhetoric of many who would see the Episcopal Church restrained or excluded says just that: that they no longer recognize us as seeking to obey the same Lord. That is the stated reason that “it is still true that not every Primate feels able to communicate at the Lord's Table alongside every other.”

I like his statement that, “common Bible study would not be possible if we did not see in one another at least some of the same habits of attention and devotion to Scripture, whatever the diversity of interpretation. We can see that the other person is trying to listen to God's self-communication in scripture, not just imposing an agenda.” But neither is that entirely accurate. We might see in one another “some of the same habits;” but how many would be required to support “communion?” In the American context (and I would bet in the British as well) it’s quite common for folks to cross denominational lines for common Bible study. At another level, one with which the Archbishop is intimately familiar, scholars do it all the time. And every person involved brings an “agenda,” a set of expectations based on what they’ve learned elsewhere – largely in their various churches – even if he or she doesn’t seek to “impose” it.

Granted, those on both sides – on all sides, since I for one think there are more than two – aren’t going to simply disappear. Indeed, they might well be “near enough to be capable of conversation, shared prayer and shared discernment with us.” They may be “recognisably doing something like what we are doing;” but, how “near?” And, how “like?” Christians, Jews, and Muslims are, at least in some contexts, “near enough to be capable of conversation, shared prayer and shared discernment.” All communities that recite one or another variation of the Golden Rule are “recognisably doing something like what we are doing;” but we wouldn’t say in either case that all were “near” enough, “like” enough, for something we would call “communion.”

Perhaps what we forget to do is to step back. We commonly say that communion, and so the Communion, is God’s gift to us, and not simply ours to determine, much less to structure. There have been discussions about a distinctive Anglican charism, our own unique spiritual gift. Perhaps we need to rethink how we want to consider that gift, that charism. We have assumed that it is there, without thinking about why it is there.

That question of why is important. Paul says consistently that the charisms, the gifts of the Spirit, are given, not for their own sake or for the glory of the recipient, but for the building up of the Body of Christ. If communion is such a gift, then surely it has such a purpose. We think we want communion and this Communion, and we think God wants it; but what do we think God wants it for?

Perhaps that would provide a renewed starting point (if not an entirely new one) for us as Episcopalians to consider our relationship with the Anglican Communion, both as we have had it and as we discover it coming to be. It would allow us to be clear about what blessings we saw in participating, and what price; what we would expect of it and what we would be willing to let go of to be a part of it.

In the meantime, there is more than enough heat, more than enough simmering, to intensify things. All the more reason, then, that we need to be clear what we are working for. Would this be a roux? Then the longer we simmer it the more intense would be the flavor, but the weaker the thickening power, the cohesion to hold together disparate elements. Would this be a reduction, with the flavor and color defined and strengthened, but at the cost of significant loss in volume? And how long would be too long for things to simmer? For if the heat is maintained long enough, however low and measured, eventually the sauce will be scorched, unfit for use.

I think, especially for us as the Episcopal Church, this is the unfinished task. Before we might agree to the value of “intensifying” something, we need to be clear, at least for ourselves, what we think we have, and what we think we want. This is a General Convention year. While Convention is not always the best forum for clarity or definition, it is the widest and the broadest forum we have for such discussion. Can we this year as a gathered community address these questions? If we can, we can take our part in this process of intensification; and perhaps produce together a sauce fit even for the heavenly banquet.

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.

Coming home to Lent

By Kathleen Staudt

On the Sunday of the Transfiguration, February 22, I began my day in summer sunshine, sitting on a patio in Sidney, Australia watching the sailboats and ferry boats that were just beginning their day, and reading, for my morning devotion, the story of the Transfiguration. We spent those last 12 days of Epiphany “down under,” -- away from the awful brushfires though they were very much in our awareness all over Australia, a national tragedy—and mostly by the sea. For us it was a sojourn into summertime, a conference by the southern beaches (our reason for going) along the Great Ocean Road, and four days of pure vacation on a tropical island in the Great Barrier Reef, living alongside Creation at its liveliest – with nesting birds and turtles, and a whole colorful and unimagined world right under the surface of the water, off the beach, on a part of the reef that still seems healthy and beautiful. It was a time of reconnecting with my “summer self” – the me who spends time each morning in summer on the patio, writing poems and watching the birds, claiming that season as the time of regrouping and regeneration that the summer is for those of us who live by the academic calendar.

Even sitting there that Sunday morning I knew it might be hard to remember my “summer patio self” by the end of the day. Because the end of the day would be almost a day later. Before February 22 ended for us, we would be back in Washington, in freezing cold weather, and ready or not, called to jump back into the busy life of teaching and formation that is characteristic of my winter-time --- AND it would be Lent 3 days later!

Now, a week later, after a wonderful whirlwind weekend of teaching, barely recovered from jet lag, I look back on that time on the patio as a quiet example of what the Transfiguration story gives us: a lamp shining in the darkness, the letter of Peter calls it; a moment on the summer patio, sipping tea, resting in the quiet of a Sabbath morning on the harbor, reflecting on what it means to be invited into the presence of the living Christ and seeing, just for a moment, that it’s all true. I wonder if those disciples connected, just for a moment, with their own deepest selves, the part of themselves that was called out and loved – as he showed them, just for a moment, that ‘yes – it’s all true”; and they heard “This is my Son, the beloved” – before they headed back down the mountain to discover how much work there was to be done, how much the world needed healing, and dealt again with their own inadequacy to the task of healing and reconciliation that called them back down the mountain.

This Lent, the vastness and smallness of the world, revealed through the time of travel, offers a special gift to me: I am hoping that the memory of my “summer self,” sitting with Jesus on that patio down under, will stay with me this season, as I enter the swirl of activity that this season inevitably brings for someone engaged in retreat and formation work. Perhaps that time as my summer self is the “lamp shining in the darkness” that I’ve been given, this Lenten season.

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.

Prayer in the desert

By R. William Carroll

As is true with other portions of his Gospel, Mark’s account of Satan tempting Jesus in the desert is remarkable for its brevity. Mark’s is a simple, punchy story, filled with movement. An incident is recorded, often in very few words, and then, boom, the camera cuts to the next scene. Mark knows nothing of the devil’s three famous questions or the three equally famous replies of our Lord. Instead, he inserts just two short verses between the baptism of Jesus and the beginning of his public ministry. Still dripping wet with the waters of Jordan, Jesus is plunged into the wilderness and tested. Listen to what Mark says: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

In early Christianity, as for Jesus himself, the desert is a place of temptation and prayer. Early monks withdrew from inhabited places, such as Alexandria in Egypt, so that they could face their demons and discover the mercy of God. This week I’ve been having an online discussion with a small group of friends around the world. We’ve been talking about prayer. How do we pray? Why do we pray? What, if anything, do we ask for? Do we use words? Or do we pray better through our desires and actions? What is going on in our hearts? These are questions that can become the focus of reflection for each one of us in Lent.

In the course of our conversation, a friend of mine named Ted Mellor observed that he finds that “when words fail, it can be an invitation to move beyond the kind of praying we've been doing, full of words, words, words, about our plans for ourselves (and for others!). A chance to move into a wordless reliance on the Word, an utter dependence on the wisdom and love of God.” Ted went on to tell a story about one of the desert Christians of ancient times. “Abba Macarius was asked, 'How should one pray?' The old man said 'There is no need at all to make long discourses; it is enough to stretch out one's hands and say, 'Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.' And if the conflict grows fiercer say, 'Lord, help!'"

Brothers and sisters, it should not surprise us if we find ourselves in desert places this Lent. The Christian life is filled with temptations. In fact, it may only be in the context of Christ’s calling to holiness that we can name our temptations for what they are. Our lives in the early twenty-first century are filled with things that are killing us but have come to seem normal.

Whatever temptations and dangers we face, our Lord knew them first. For he chose to live and die as one of us. The path from the waters of baptism to the joys of the Kingdom runs straight through the wilderness. Christianity is not safe. It is not all sweetness and light. If we are to find God and discover our true lives, we will often walk on wilderness paths. Forty years, the People of Israel wandered in the desert. Forty days, our Lord fasted and prayed. The saints have always returned here, year after year. The disciplines of Lent are meant to remind us of the desert, which, if we are honest, is where we often find ourselves. Even the inhabited places—our cities, our neighborhoods, our churches—can become so many deserts for us. Do we dare to hope that we may also discover here the half-remembered promise of freedom? The flight from the world can also be a flight into real community with others. Our most pressing temptations involve sins against love.

On Ash Wednesday, we confessed our “blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty.” We also confessed our “false judgments,” “uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors,” and “our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us.” It is these sins among others—sins that are deeply ingrained in us—which have helped transform paradise into a dry and barren land. Our greed and malice have turned the manifold gifts of God into so many things to clutch—into so many weapons to hurt each other with. The desert is a place we go to be disarmed—to rediscover our radical dependence on God and our interdependence with one another. On Ash Wednesday, one of the possible Old Testament readings comes from Isaiah. In it, the prophet calls us to a fast that involves housing the homeless poor, feeding and remembering our own kin.

This Lent, we intentionally journey into the wilderness, but we do not go alone. We go, first and foremost, with Christ, who shows us the way. We go also in the presence of our brothers and sisters. Even the desert hermits came to one another for counsel and strength. Hence, the brothers went to Abba Macarius to ask him how to pray. His answer is profound, and it comes straight from the Gospel. There is no need for so many words. What we do need is a direct appeal to Christ for mercy. We are to raise our hands up and say, “'Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.'” And if our conflict grows fiercer, we are to cry out, “Lord, help!”

True prayer finds its power in a simple confidence in God’s goodness, as well as the depth of our own need. All prayer, moreover, is the work of the Spirit within us becoming our very own. As Christians, we believe that even now, the Holy Spirit, the Lord and lifegiver, is at work in the world. The Spirit is an outpouring of God’s mercy and love, who is always moistening our dry places and preparing us for new graces. The Spirit does so, even when we have no idea God is there.

This Lent, may we rediscover what one great spiritual teacher (Karl Rahner) called the “need and blessing of prayer.” May we be delivered from every temptation by the never failing presence of Christ. May we be caught up in the wordless presence of the Word. And, if we should find ourselves moved to speak at all, may our hearts cry out continually to God for mercy, in these or other words: “Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.”

Like those who sought wisdom on the subject from Abba Macarius, the disciples of Jesus also asked him how to pray. His answer still forms the heart of our prayer in the Eucharist. There is some evidence that it was the original form of the Eucharistic Prayer and that all the other words we pray are but an elaboration of it. Recently, I encountered a tradition that goes back at least to Saint Augustine, according to which each of the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer is a request for one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Whatever we make of this tradition, the Our Father draws us into the prayer of Jesus. It involves crying out for God’s mercy and our daily bread in power of the Holy Spirit.

I commend it to you, along with the simple prayer of Abba Macarius and the wordless prayer of the heart. These are powerful tools as we confront our ancient enemy and “every power that corrupts and destroys the creatures of God.” As we walk along desert paths, may God make speed to save us.

“Lord, help us!”

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. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He is a member pf the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

Hope, spring, baseball...Lent

By Sam Candler

It’s time for baseball again.

This is the time of year I make my formal apology to non-sports fans everywhere, as I take the time to rejoice in the ritual of baseball’s spring training. I suppose I must also apologize to the fans of other sports, those sports which are ever so noble but regrettably inferior to baseball.

As our winter takes another chilly turn, baseball players gather in Florida and Arizona for spring training. Seasoned veterans and raw rookies all have hope in their veins. They will make the team this year, after years of “almost.” All the batters believe that batting .300 is achievable. All the pitchers believe 15 wins or 20 saves is achievable. Everyone’s home team has a chance to win the pennant. All baseball fans, from the wisest newspaper writers to the most naïve local fans, take a renewed interest in the home team. Baseball in the spring is the very definition of “hope springs eternal.”

Hope and endurance are the foundations of success in baseball. Baseball is the sport for those who can endure, and hope is source of that endurance. Baseball is the sport of endurance. First off, of course, is the sheer length of its incessant schedule. Even the worst professional team will play 162 games this year. The difference between a first place team and a second place may turn out to be one game among those 162.

Baseball is the sport of humble aspirations. By “humble,” I mean down-to-earth. There will be no such thing as a team that wins every game, or even a batter who gets a hit in every game. In fact, the expectations are much more “down-to-earth,” “humble.” A successful batter needs to get a hit only 30% of the time. A player’s inner hope and emotional endurance will inspire him to return to the batters’ box after he has made seven outs in a row. After all, three successive hits in a row would then give him that ongoing .300 batting average.

Baseball will test the endurance of fans, too. It takes a lot of time to appreciate and enjoy the art of baseball. Fewer and fewer of us tend to devote much time to anything these days. We prefer the quick e-mail message, the short phone call, the casual glance at the newspaper or the television news. The game of baseball introduces long periods of no action into the game. A play itself lasts only twenty seconds; and then we all wait two or three minutes for the next play. By then, many of us have changed the channel.

But the art of baseball lies in appreciating those moments between the actual plays. For the game of baseball is the thinking and strategizing over how that play will develop. How do the fielders position themselves? What pitch does the pitcher throw? What will the batter anticipate? Who is scheduled to bat next inning? Who is warming up in the bullpen? The play itself is quick; the art—the discipline—takes a lifetime.

I could go on, just like baseball goes on and on. But if you’ve read this far, you deserve the closing Christian analogy. The analogy is that we all need Spring Training. We all need to get our muscles and training routines back into shape. We all need a review of techniques and strategies. We all need to work on what we are supposed to meditate on “between plays,” or between crises. We all need to renew our hope and our endurance.

In the church, we have another name for this Spring Training. We call it Lent. It’s time to get our aching prayer routines back into shape. It’s time to renew our hope. It’s time to focus on what God really wants us to do in this life. We call it Lent. It is the intentional training of our spiritual lives, so that we can succeed in the long season of resurrection life.

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

The wisdom of jailed prophets

By Martin Smith

Have you ever received a letter from a friend, only to discover that he or she was already dead by the time you opened it? It does sharpen the message to fine point. I remember being so touched when I opened a package sent by Henri Nouwen containing a signed copy of his latest book. And then I learned he had died within hours of mailing it. His inscription made me think even more reverently of the craft of spiritual writing to which he was so dedicated, and to cherish powerful words he wrote about this vocation in his book Reaching Out. “Writing about the spiritual life is like taking prints from negatives…Maybe it is precisely the shocking confrontation with our hostile self that gives us words to speak about hospitality as a real option, and maybe we will never find the courage to speak about prayer as a human vocation without the disturbing discovery of our own illusions. Often it is the dark forest that makes us speak about the open field. Frequently it is prison that makes us think about freedom, hunger helps us to appreciate food and war gives us words for peace.”

“It is prison that makes us think about freedom.” Henri was talking wisely about all kinds of spiritual constraints, but that wisdom is founded in real history too. Some of Paul’s most liberating words are found in the letters smuggled out from his prison cell. The transcendent Spiritual Canticle of St John of the Cross was composed in a stifling jail cell in Toledo. And there is Martin Luther King Jr.’s immortal Letter from a Birmingham Jail of April 16, 1963. The power of words of freedom that issue from captivity is the reason why hundreds of former prisons are now pilgrimage sites. We are on holy ground when we lean against the bars of Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island. Those who have always taken liberty for granted can never craft words about freedom that have anything like the ring of those voiced by imprisoned prophets.

Perhaps the mysterious providence that guided those who put the books of the New Testament in their present order really meant the book of Revelation to be the “last word” of God’s Word, because it is the supreme example of the truth that those who have experienced the despair of imprisonment have the most right to call us to the task of setting one another free in the Spirit of God. Last year I visited some of the sites of the tiny struggling Christian communities to which the prophet John sent his galvanic tract about resistance and hope from his exile on the isle of Patmos. Standing in the ramparts of the castle that juts out into the sea at Kusadasi, looking out towards the island, one can sense how near the churches he cared for must have seemed—just across the water—and yet how far. “I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.”

This wasn’t a supernatural vision revealing the plot of the so-called second coming. It was a summons to hope in the coded poetry of apocalypse, recasting the whole resplendent array of biblical imagery. It was an up-to-the minute appeal to contemporary churches, and paradoxically that’s why it can strike us now with such force. Its core is the appeal: Expect God to surprise us. Jailed prophets specialize in reminding us that God is not merely the God who is, let alone the God who was. God is the one “who is to come, the Almighty.” Conventional religion looks to the past, but the passion of prophetic religion leans into the future of God. The God who is to come overturns our predictions and confounds plans. Divine innovation sets in play the unforeseen and makes human forecasting look ridiculous. Expect surprise, and let that expectation liberate you from all that oppresses you with a sense that power structures are immovable, custom set in stone, that history runs inexorably on rails of steel, and we are impotent to make an unprecedented future for humanity’s wellbeing.

We are praying at this time as nation taken by surprise through its own flawed but magnificent democratic process. We thought it was just another election, but surprise!—the launching of the third stage of American history is upon us! We open our Bibles again, and return to a message forged by prophets who let captivity become the crucible for hope. Our hope is in a God of surprises, of resurrection, and we can awaken again to the fact that the one certainty we have to offer is that God will continually take the world by surprise.

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

Breakfast with Jesus and 30 of his closest friends

By Lauren R. Stanley

Nine days after departing for Sudan, I returned to the United States on an emergency trip. A visiting teacher from America had taken ill and needed to be escorted home. We arrived late on a Friday night, after nearly 24 hours of travel, and immediately got care for my friend.

On Saturday, I realized that for the first time in a long time, I had nowhere to go on Sunday. I was supposed to be preaching at the Cathedral of St. Matthew in Renk, Sudan, but that obviously wasn’t going to happen. Usually, when I am in the United States, every Sunday morning and half my Sunday afternoons and evenings are filled with preaching and teaching and forums. This weekend, however, I was foot-loose and fancy- (and sermon-) free.

Then a friend contacted me, the rector of a large Northern Virginia parish. Would I like to come celebrate the Eucharist at the family interactive service the next morning? I told him I didn’t have any of my vestments, not even my collar, because I had left Renk in such a rush to get our visitor to the hospital in Khartoum. Not a problem, he said. We’ll take care of that; you just come celebrate.

So on Sunday morning, I showed up, found some vestments and into the parish hall we went. While the regular 9 a.m. service took place in the Nave, we had a few hundred parents and children with us for a service that included a lot of singing, a video show of the saints of the Church and the saints of the church, and a Eucharist celebrated at a small, short table in the center of the room, surrounded by about 30 children.

“OK,” I told the kids, “it’s time to have breakfast with Jesus.”

“I’m not hungry,” one little blond boy, aged 3 or 4, promptly declared.

“Well, the rest of us are,” I replied. “You can join us if you want.”

Then I told the kids I needed their help, that to get ready for breakfast with Jesus, we needed to pray, but that I couldn’t do this alone. “Will you help me?” I asked. “Yes,” they said. “Good,” I told them. “So when I put my arms out like this (in the orans position), you do that too,” I said. “And when I lift my hands up over my head to pray, you do that as well. And,” I said, “when I cross my hands over the bread and wine, you do that with me. That way, we’ll all be getting ready for breakfast with Jesus.”

My little questioning boy wanted to know: “Where’s Jesus?”

“Right here in the bread and wine,” I said, pointing. “And right here,” I added, pointing to my heart and then to all of theirs.

I asked the “big kids” (aka the adults) to say the responses for Prayer C, so that they could help as well. And then we celebrated the Eucharist together.

“The Lord be with you,” I said, putting my hands out. Thirty pairs of hands rose into in the air.

“Lift up your hearts,” I continued, putting my hands over my head. Those same 30 pairs of hands went straight up.

“Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” I said. The hands stayed up until I brought mine down, and then they all put their hands out to their sides.

When we sang the Sanctus, which most of them knew, I put my hands over my head again, peering under my arms at all these little faces. In the middle of the hymn, I told them: “This is what I’m going to get to do in heaven; I’ll get to sing this song in the morning choir to God.” A few of the children nodded.

When we did the epiclesis, calling down the Holy Spirit to bless the bread and wine, 30 pairs of hands matched mine, crossing over at the wrist and hovering over the elements in a tremendously holy and touching moment. These children really wanted to participate in getting breakfast ready.

Then came the anamnesis, the remembering. I held up a small loaf of bread. “Take, eat,” I said, showing the bread to them at their eye level. Thirty pairs of eyes followed the bread closely as I showed it next to the “big kids.”

Then I picked up the cup of wine. “This is my blood,” I said. Before I could go any further, my little blond-headed boy disgustedly interrupted:

“Blood?!?!? I’m not drinking blood!”

“It’s a rep-re-sen-ta-tion,” a 5-year-old girl replied, taking special care with her pronunciation.

“It’s not really blood,” I said. “It’s wine.”

“It’s a rep-re-sen-ta-tion,” the little girl said again.

“It’s OK. You don’t have to drink it,” I told the boy.

“I’m not drinking blood!” he said again.

The “big kids” all around us were smiling, and I was thinking to myself, Oh, my, out of the mouths of babes. I turned to my friend the rector, who was at the end of the parish hall, watching all of this. “Isn’t doing Eucharist with the kids great? They ask the best questions.”

On we went with the prayers. Thirty pairs of hands went over 30 heads for the Lord’s Prayer, then clapped together during the fraction anthem.

Finally, breakfast was ready and it was time to eat.

I gave out the bread to the children first – after all, they had worked so hard to get it ready. When I got to the little blond boy, he took his bread right away. Apparently he was hungry after all. When a chalicist brought the cup, he took some of that, too. We might have called it “blood,” and he for certain wasn’t going to drink any of that, but this wine in the cup? Well, that was all right.

Then we communed the “big kids,” some of whose children came back with them.

“Do you want seconds?” I asked the returnees. One girl, not the 5-year-old with the incredible vocabulary and understanding, took me up on the offer. The blond boy did not.

And then we sang some more hymns, and cleaned up the table, and said some more prayers, and we were done.

Did we celebrate the Eucharist the way they taught me at seminary? No. Was it the most orthodox way to celebrate? Again, no. And I know there probably will be some who object to allowing the children to participate in this way, and others who will say that I wasn’t solemn enough and that I shouldn’t have talked with the children or my friend the rector during the prayers, but really, that’s OK with me.

Because we had a holy time together, and there was much of God present, and that is something I definitely learned in seminary, and for which I have striven all the years I have been a priest.

And now I go back to Sudan again, where we do not commune the children and where there will be no side comments, no objections to drinking “blood!”, no explanations from 5-year-olds carefully explaining that the “blood” is a “rep-re-sen-ta-tion” and I will miss having little children crowding around me and lifting their hands to praise God and crossing their wrists to bless bread and wine with me, and I will regret not having them present.

But I will not forget what happened last Sunday. I will not forget that a friend called and said, “Wanna come celebrate?” and then let me truly do just that, with 30 little children in the center of a parish hall.

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

The power--and limits--of Christian symbols

By George Clifford

In the early 1980s, I served a tour of duty as the chaplain for the Marine Corps’ Officer Candidates School in Quantico. Marine OCS differs from Army, Navy, and Air Force OCS. Unlike the other military services, the Marines do not train officers at OCS. Instead, they screen and evaluate candidates to determine whether each has the ability and potential to become a leader of Marines. Those who successfully complete OCS receive a commission as a Marine Officer and then spend the next six months at The Basic School learning to be officers.

During my tenure at OCS, roughly 50% of all candidates did not receive a commission, either dropping out at their own request or OCS dismissing them as not qualified. For these young men and women, many of whom worked for years to get to OCS, disenrollment was emotionally devastating. The rigid insistence on meeting Marine expectations combined a pervasive boot camp mentality and intense physical program to make OCS an incredibly high stress environment for most candidates.

I soon learned that Isaiah 40:31, “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint,” had great symbolic meaning for Christian candidates. The Marine Corps emblem is the eagle, globe, and anchor. By envisioning him or herself wearing that emblem, the eagle a reminder of God's promise to help, the idea of God's presence with them in the midst of a great personal struggle, unrelenting stress, and unending physical weariness acquired fresh and considerable power. (Obviously, one must avoid conflating the eagle’s two meanings; Christianity and patriotism are not the same and often have competing agendas.)

Feeling stress in 2009 is also easy to understand. Many have lost jobs and others wonder if (and when) their job may disappear. Stock portfolios have steeply declined in value, curtailing or perhaps threatening to curtail, the lifestyles of those dependent upon investment income. The credit crunch has affected the ability of many to buy or sell a house, car, or other item. Each of us could personalize this list with our stressors that might include family problems, a loved one in harm’s way, illness, etc.

Against that backdrop, one line from a recent Sunday’s gospel reading especially struck me. Those who went searching for Jesus when he sought some early morning private time told him when they found him, “Everyone is searching for you.” (Mark 1:37) What those who found Jesus were really saying was that people were distressed, like the Marine officer candidates to whom I ministered, and these people wanted God's help. They had seen or heard of Jesus mediating that help to others – this is what the stories of healing are all about – and now they wanted, needed, God's help for themselves.

Unfortunately, no amount of searching can bring us face to face with the historical Jesus. Thankfully, the Christian tradition has a rich panoply of symbols through which people can still experience God's life-transforming love.

Historically, many Christians have found the bread and wine of Holy Communion powerful mediators of God's grace. This common experience of grace explains why the Church early in its life literalized its interpretation of Jesus’ words of institution, “This is my body … this is my blood.” Transubstantiation, pursuit of the Holy Grail, prayer before the consecrated host, and a wealth of other traditions all grew out of the reverence that Christians attached to symbols through which many experienced God's presence and grace so powerfully mediated. The Church hoped that literalizing the symbols would preserve the symbols’ power and help expand the number of those for whom the symbol mediated God's grace.

Similarly, with the advent of printing and widespread availability of Bibles, many other Christians discovered that the printed words of scripture symbolically mediated God's life-transforming love in an equally powerful manner. They too literalized their experience in an effort to promote its power and to prevent sacrilege. The words of scripture became words that God had spoken. One never set the Bible on the floor or placed another book on top of it. Bequeathing one’s Bible to a member of the next generation conveyed a sense of continuing spirituality between generations.

The saddest example of church architecture I have ever seen is the Dunker Church situated on the Antietam Civil War battlefield in Maryland. My visit to that Church building has remained vivid for over thirty years. What saddened me was neither the damage from cannonballs nor inadvertently poor choice of location. What saddened me was that the church, structurally and in terms of its décor, was distinguishable from some mid-eighteenth century schoolhouses that had benches instead of desks only by the absence of a chalkboard.

Dunker opposition to symbolic expressions of the faith, apart from one book, the Bible, lies at one extreme of the spectrum of Christian reliance on symbols. The Eastern Orthodox Churches, with their unapologetic reliance on multiple symbols – gilded icons, incense, chant, and elaborate, highly stylized ritual – occupy the other extreme of the spectrum of Christian expression.

The Episcopal Church falls broadly between those two extremes: low-church Episcopalians toward the Dunkers and high-church Episcopalians toward the Eastern Orthodox. No one set of practices is normative for us; individuals and congregations gravitate in directions that they find helpful. Yet Episcopalians unite around two truths. Symbols can mediate God's presence and love. But the symbol is only a means for receiving God's grace; identifying the symbol with grace results in idolatry that destroys the symbol’s ability to convey God's grace.

Symbols that fill our Church and spiritual lives include:
• Water in Holy Baptism, fonts at church entrances, and ablutions;
• The taste of bread and wine in Holy Communion;
• Oil used in anointing;
• Metaphors and images incarnated in word, music, paint, fabric, and stone;
• The smell of incense and evergreens;
• Touch in the laying on of hands in prayer and ordination, and physical contact – hugs, shaking hands – when we exchange peace;
• Changes in posture, as we stand, kneel, sit, bow, genuflect, and make the sign of the cross.

Which symbol or symbols resonate most deeply with you at this point in your life? If, like the people in Mark’s gospel, you search for God's powerful presence, then live into the symbols that resonate most deeply with you. When we think on meaningful symbols, incorporate them into life in appropriate ways, and explore their mysteries, then we, like the Jews to whom Isaiah spoke, Jesus’ contemporaries, and the Marine officer candidates to whom I ministered, can experience anew God's loving, life giving presence.

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