The no longer hidden agenda of the Anglican Covenant

By Adrian Worsfold

I was always told by my academic tutors, and when employed in the role I tell students that there is no virtue whatsoever in length of an essay beyond giving the argument.

This advice seems to have been missed by the academics who promote the Anglican Covenant. We have seen it in the Anglican Communion Institute, and now we see it with the latest offering by Michael Poon of Singapore.

The idea seems to be, however, that if they write in huge length there is a sort of gravity effect towards their new or parallel universe of alternative Anglicanism.

This reminds me of the Large Hadron Collidor, that as it goes beyond its achievement of 3.48 trillion electron volts it could possibly give indication of another parallel universe very close to our own, where dark energy comes through with its influence felt here through its gravitational pull.

If we start at these Michael Poon paragraphs:

66. The Anglican Covenant is an invitation to the particular Churches to be the Anglican Communion as one ecclesial body.

67. In so doing, the Anglican Communion sets a concrete model of a Christian World Communion that is formed in and out of particular Churches worldwide.

We see again, however, the attempt not at continuity but at an innovation, that is to make the Anglican Communion an Anglican Church.

54. Here we come to see why the Anglican Covenant is important. It provides a canonical structure that unites the Churches of the Communion to be "Church".

His argument says that this joining up should be done from the perspective of time not space, using a comment of the Orthodox.

63. The four Sections of the Anglican Covenant spell out the canonical structure of the Anglican Communion.... The unity between particular Churches does not merely come about with inter-Anglican agreements "in space" (to borrow the phrase that the Orthodox Church used in their response to the New Delhi Statement on Unity 1961.)
But this ignores the fact that back in time, in those Anglcian origins, the mother Anglican Church specifically rejected governance from outside. So have other Anglican Churches, doubly so in the American Church having origins in a Scottish Episcopal bishop. That was the Anglican origin. Now sometimes there is congregationalism, in which every congregation is independent; there is Roman Catholicism, which is centralised; and there is Orthodoxy, in which there is autocephalous organisation yet where division is regarded as schism through time; but there is also Anglican organisation, in which international bodies were simply bases of friendly consultation and exchange and not instruments of governance. The Churches of governance are in each land.

He wants to change instruments of friendly exchange into instruments of governance.

8. ...the four existing instruments ...must be authorised structures that arise from the inner being of ecclesial life, and so would enable the Church to make concrete ecclesial decisions that lead to concrete and efficacious ecclesial actions. The four existing instruments need to find their proper place within such canonical structure.

59. The Anglican Covenant provides the canonical structure that constitutes the particular Churches to be a confident Communion of Churches.

What is happening is that people are fighting over the meaning of the Anglican Covenant. For some, it is another invitation to be together on the old model. For others it is a means of disciplining. For Poon, it is more than that, a formation of a worldwide Church. The essays are getting longer and longer as they try to indicate 'authority' for their innovations.

The danger of signing up to the Covenant is that you think you might make up or join into one thing, and end up being in another. The Covenant is itself divisive, and any Church seeking to maintain an Anglicanism as it is would better find other means to deepen relationships without enforcing new international governance.

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.

Tweeting the House of Bishops

By Wendy Johnson

Somewhere about the middle of the recent House of Bishops meeting it became clear that something was very different. In the past, the bishops met in relative privacy, some may even call it secrecy. As a rule, very little information about any House of Bishops meeting was made available until everyone was headed home. The result? The interested public received mainly finished product -- reports, statements, and maybe the opportunity to view a video conference with a few of the bishops reporting on the meeting’s outcomes.

This time, however, we had a handful of bishops (and maybe even more) communicating in real-time -- Twittering, blogging, and using Facebook to keep folks back home and around the Church up-to-date on what was being said and done. I counted at least five bishops actively using Twitter, Andy Doyle of Texas, Greg Rickel of Olympia, Kirk Smith of Arizona, Brian Prior of Minnesota and Pierre Whalon of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. Tweets ranged from video links to quotes from Phyllis Tickle to the actual reporting of voting and election results.

Before this meeting, I don’t believe that anyone in official communications channels anticipated any bishop choosing to stay connected online, much less Tweeting. After all, it had never really happened before. Perhaps there was some unstated expectation that bishops would turn their electronic life off. However, it seems that the information age has caught up even to the House of Bishops. Through Tweets and blogs, this handful of bishops have grabbed the reins of authority and changed communications patterns and expectations, I believe irreversibly.

If you think about it, it had to happen. In our continuously connected realities, private meetings with controlled communications are far from an acceptable norm. These days everything happens out in the open, everything is publicly debated, and all news is distributed in real-time. Events that don’t embrace this criteria? Frankly, they’re suspicious, driving folks to connect around their shared consternation with the closed nature of the event. Not a good thing…and these bishops who chose to Twitter probably know that, at least intuitively.

The church as an institution has been slow to fully adopt the social media platform, mainly (I would guess) due to the effects it has on the organization. Sure, we’ll webcast news conferences and Tweet headlines, but embracing true and open peer-to-peer interaction is still a novelty. The uncontrolled nature of social media can be unsettling and the redistribution of authority that ensues is downright revolutionary. When the opinion of a little ol’ individual like me can appear next to one from bishop (as it could in Twitter) we are certainly living into a new paradigm.

With this landmark House of Bishops meeting now behind us, the question about ramifications of these events return to the wider church for parsing out. I suspect that in the past the ‘powers that be’ in the church would simply put a lid on these interactions. But I don’t think that is a realistic response and I don’t think the church is foolhardy enough to go there. So the question becomes one of how far the church will go in embracing this new media reality.

Will bishops be given limiting Twitter protocol or will we see the free and open use of hashtags at the next House of Bishops meeting?

We will wait and see.

Wendy Johnson is director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota.

“Sacrifice”:
Some Musings on Psalm 51

By Kathleen Staudt

On most days in Lent this year my prayers have included Psalm 51, the penitential psalm, and various parts of it have been resonating for me. Some fresh insight seems to be coming as I pause over the verses late in the psalm:

Had you desired it, I would have offered sacrifice, But you take no delight in burnt offerings The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Ps 51: 17-18)

I haven’t been sure what I meant, praying this psalm, by “sacrifice,” but an article I’ve run across just lately by Orthodox theologican Andrew Schmemann has opened this up to me in ways that will probably carry my meditations through much of the rest of Lent. Here are some directions that meditation is taking.

Schmemann resists the western notion of sacrifice as a legalistic “satisfaction” of an unpaid debt – something offered to make up for sins or to earn forgiveness – or to satisfy the anger of a sinned-against God. Instead he insists that “sacrifice” is “an ontology” – a way of being. The word literally means “to make holy.” When the people of Israel went up to Jerusalem and offered sacrifices they were responding to the holiness of God by offering back something from their own flocks, thus making holy the things from their daily lives; when they feasted on the meat of animals offered as “burnt offerings,” they saw themselves as sharing in a meal with the God to whom the sacrifice was offered, and so they, and their offerings, were “made holy.” And so the sacrifice also was one way that they responded to and renewed the Covenant – assented to God’s desire that ‘you will be my people and I will be your God” – the sacrifice is reciprocal, mutual. God was often delighted (though in the psalm the sacrifice demanded goes beyond burnt offering and into the human heart). Sin offerings work the same way: because we were made to be holy people, by a God who longs for us, acts of repentance or turning back to God, become celebrations of a feast of reconciliation – the feast ordered up by the prodigal son’s father because his the beloved has returned home. (I now see even more clearly why this image of the prodigal son figures so prominently in one of our rites for the Sacrament of Reconciliation (BCP p.450))

“Where there is no sacrifice there is no life,” Schmemann writes in his essay "The Energy of Life: Sacrifice and Worship.” “Sacrifice is rooted in the recognition of life as love: a giving up, not because I want more for myself, or to satisfy an objective justice, but because it is the only way of reaching the fulness that is possible for me.”

As we are made holy, through God’s loving invitation, we want more and more to offer ourselves, and all that we we have – and so Schmemann wisely suggests the opposite of sacrifice is ‘consumerism” – the belief that we own what we have and have control over it and need to own more and more. An ethic of sacrifice recognizes that growth toward God always requires a letting go and a receiving, a mutuality that is part of the divine nature, part of what we share in because we were made in the image of God.

Of course the divine invitation to a life of sacrifice – a life energized by the desire for greater communion with God – can be distorted by all kinds of power dynamics. Women for generations have been familiar with the expectation of “self-sacrifice” often before any mature sense of self has been built or affirmed, and this can be profoundly wounding—one of the sadder results of an authoritarian reading of the notion of “sacrifice.” But this is exactly to the notion of sacrifice that Schmemann refjects – “a legal transaction. . . a duty of the creation to the Creator, like an income tax”( Schmemann, p.142) -- the notion that our giving of self is a transaction, a condition that wins us the love we long for.

That is not how God works: the process of being “made holy” is one that invites a constant, willing giving over, giving up, of parts of ourselves we thought we controlled; and it also invites a practice of receiving with gratitude – a practice that we lose very easily! Because our deepest identity is that we are made by God and beloved by God, the process of sacrifice is ultimately a life-giving and freeing one: “Unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains but a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) – Jesus is talking here about his own sacrifice and how it gives life. There is much more here for further meditation.

Repentance, sacrifice, being made holy, bearing much fruit – it is all part of the same process, a way of being that Schmeman calls “sacrificial living.” To return to the psalm: a “troubled spirit,” the sense of separation that comes when I truly examine my conscience in relation to the faithfulness of God, is a gift that “makes holy” – a returning to the One who loves me. If it hurts to look honestly at myself, I can rely on God to receive what I bring – a heart made a little bit more sincere by self-examination. Another small step toward the trust-filled returning, the self-offering that gives life.

I hadn’t realized before reading this Schmemann piece how much this psalm of contrition is also a psalm of celebration – an invitation to deeper connection, through deeper honesty, with the One who made us and calls us. For Schmemann the idea of sacrifice (making holy) is integrally connected to worship and to Eucharist and here too is much more food for meditation. But perhaps it is enough for now to observe that the same psalm contains these familiar words of worship:

“Open my lips, O God And my mouth shall show forth your praise.” (Ps 51:16)

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt 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.

The tensions of Palm Sunday

By George Clifford

Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 270)

As a Navy chaplain, I generally met few worshippers at Protestant services who were familiar with anything resembling a liturgical reenactment of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem comparable to the Liturgy of the Palms in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (pp. 270-272). Although few people complained about including the Liturgy of the Palms in Protestant services, I suspect that most attendees preferred quiescently sitting in a pew to parading around while waving palm branches.

Protestants are not the only people who feel that way. My current congregation annually participates the Liturgy of the Palms, but I cannot honestly say that many people appear to embrace it wholeheartedly.

Sitting in a pew offers a level of emotional comfort that exuberant processions lack. Pew sitting can engender feelings of familiarity, anonymity, and detachment. Conversely, participating in an exuberant procession can feel awkward, encourage physical and emotional interaction with others, and demand engagement. In other words, exuberant processions clash with the self-concept of many Episcopalians as God's frozen chosen.

Furthermore, being enthused about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is difficult when we know what follows, i.e., Jesus’ passion. The Liturgy of the Palms can almost feel like cheering as Jesus moves toward his inevitable and agonizing death. Just as most people prefer to cheer for a winning sports team, so it is perhaps difficult to muster enthusiasm for the lost cause of Jesus’ triumphal entry.

A good friend, who is a Methodist and was a member of one of my Navy congregations, in a feeble attempt at humor once suggested that I was lazy, reducing my workload by involving as many lay people as possible in leading worship. That, however, is central to our Anglican liturgical tradition. Palm Sunday’s parade represents one pinnacle of this tradition, involving the entire congregation in commemorating the hope for freedom from Roman oppression that poor Palestinian Jews thought Jesus represented.

Carefully scrutinizing our intercessory prayers may reveal a similar set of expectations about how God interacts with the world. We want God to make everything right (fair, just, loving, beautiful, perfect, etc.), especially for us and our loved ones, and we want God to do that now. We’re ready to cheer – as soon as God acts. We’re wary about cheering until God acts, even though we continue to pray that God will now do what God failed to do on the first Palm Sunday. If nothing else, our unexamined prayers reveal our desires. Our unexamined prayers may also reveal a failure to integrate sound theology into our spirituality.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossnan underscore the tension between the unfulfilled expectations of Jesus’ followers and the reality of Roman power in their book, The Last Week. They suggest that Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem occurred as a concurrent counterdemonstration to Pilate’s arrival with troops to reinforce the Jerusalem garrison, preparatory to the large influx of crowds who came to Jerusalem for Passover.

I know that I do not want to applaud Pilate’s arrival with its stark emphasis on imperial power and loyalty to the state in the person of the emperor – nor any modern equivalent orchestrated by today’s domination system. I also find myself wanting to avoid the crowd that welcomed Jesus, knowing what lies ahead for him and that the crowd’s high hopes about what Jesus will do are misplaced. Yet I also do not want to be left on the sidelines, oblivious to the great events of the day. Where then should I stand?

Perhaps this points to what really makes Palm Sunday processionals so uncomfortable. The forced and generally artificial reenactment of Jesus’ triumphal entry by palm toting parishioners clashes not only with our culture but also with our spiritual selves. For when I look honestly at myself, I discover a fractured self: misplaced expectations of Jesus, false loyalties, and more apathy than I want to acknowledge. There is no safe high ground on which to stand. The truth is that God enters into our brokenness, not into our wholeness, into our imperfection and not into some false illusion of perfection.

We know the end, yet walk this way with song. With each step into the story the story permeates us.

This annual trudge to Calvary
the impulse to Jerusalem
no angel encouragement
no accompanying miracle.

We cluster like women who weep
recruited like unwilling Simon
offering our crooked consolations,
yet Christ took comfort from a thief.

Girls lift altar cloths aloft
borne in graceful arms like shrouds
or banners, woven in white linen
heralding this sacred way we walk.

Kathy Coffey, “Palm Sunday,” Theology Today, Vol. L, No. 4, January 1994, p. 595.

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 serves as priest in charge at the Church of the Nativity in Raleigh and blogs at Ethical Musings.

Say no to Christian seders

By Ann Fontaine

As Holy Week nears I see church bulletins and websites publicizing liturgies and events, welcoming others to come and participate. One of the more popular offerings is a Seder. As soon as I see this, I remember a student colleague from divinity school saying, “Why do you Christians steal our sacred rites? You have not suffered as we have suffered at your hands, yet you feel free to take our liturgies for your pleasure.”

This is similar to questions Native Americans ask when Euro-Americans hold sweat lodge ceremonies. How can those of us who have not walked the path of another tradition and lived with the oppression and violence skim off the cream of an “interesting” ritual? Doesn’t taking a ritual out of it’s cultural context cut off its roots? Rather than a living tradition, tended and shaped by history and the life around it, the ritual seems to become only the flower picked for its ability to decorate.

Asking others why they have the ceremonies out of the context in which they emerged I receive a variety of answers. Many have never thought about the roots of the ritual. They enjoyed it and thought nothing more of it.

In the case of a Seder - a rationale is that Jesus celebrated Passover with his disciples or Christianity emerged from Judaism so we are just continuing that tradition. A second reason give is as a learning experience about another religion.

If it were not for the history of justification by Christians for violence against Jews and the Holocaust, perhaps holding a Seder could be seen as a fairly benign practice of pretending to be another by trying out their rituals. I wonder, though, how Christians would feel about Jews or Muslims having play Eucharists? Dressing someone up like a priest and saying the words from the Book of Common Prayer?

Addressing some of the reasons that are given in spite of the history

Jonathan Klawans, writing in Biblical Archaeology Review, discusses the question - Was the Last Supper a Seder? The short answer is “Most likely, it was not.”

Most scholars currently doubt that the Passover meal and the Last Supper were the same or even historically related. The Gospels do not offer a consistent timing of the Last Supper. Also where are the other elements: bitter herbs, the lamb, the four cups of wine?

Modern day celebrations of the Passover are a melding of traditions from shortly after the destruction of the Temple (70AD), through the early church and Middle Ages using the Exodus story as the base. To this day more is being added to the Haggadah (the book that is used for the Seder)

It was, however, common in the time of Jesus for followers to have meals together with their leader. There is record of this among many groups centered around a single leader.

According to Klawans:

In Chapters 9 and 10 of the Didache, the eucharistic prayers are remarkably close to the Jewish Grace After Meals (Birkat ha-Mazon).7 While these prayers are recited after the Passover meal, they would in fact be recited at any meal at which bread was eaten, holiday or not. Thus, this too underscores the likelihood that the Last Supper was an everyday Jewish meal.

The German New Testament scholar Karl Georg Kuhn believes that contrary to Jesus having a Seder with his disciples the synoptics actually prohibit it. Kuhn notes:
… that the synoptic Last Supper tradition attributes to Jesus a rather curious statement of abstinence: “I have earnestly desired to eat this Paschal lamb with you before I suffer, for I tell you that I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God...[and] I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:15–18; cf. Mark 14:25 [“I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God”]=Matthew 26:29). The synoptics’ placement of the Last Supper in a Passover context should be read along with Jesus’ statement on abstinence; in this view, the tradition that the Last Supper was a Passover meal argues that Christians should mark the Passover not by celebrating, but by fasting, because Jesus has already celebrated his last Passover.

It seems that perhaps Christians should not celebrate at all during Passover and especially not Seders.

What then could Christian do for a meal during Holy Week if we take seriously the objection of our Jewish brothers and sisters? One possibility is to attend a Seder offered to non-Jews by Jewish synagogues or friends. In one church I served – a Jewish family invited the members of that church to a Seder. It has become a long-standing tradition and has helped the two religious traditions get to know one another and work together on other projects. In another, a church began its life renting space in a synagogue. Now that the church has its own building, the 2 groups along with the nearby Presybterian church, who also started in the synagogue, have a lamb dinner together with each contributing food for the meal.

Another possibility is to use an early church Eucharist combined with the footwashing on Maundy Thursday. The rite of Hippolytus is from the third century (c. 225 AD). The Education for Ministry Common Lessons and Supporting Materials has a form of this service. Combining the early eucharist with the service of footwashing can offer a better teaching experience.

Other churches offer Agape or fellowship meals. An example can be found in the United Methodist Book of Worship. This could be an opportunity to learn about our joint agreement between the UMC and TEC.

No doubt there are other ideas your church has experienced you can share. Holy Week can be a time of sharing meals and deepening our spiritual lives without ripping off the spirituality of others.

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.

Naming women's names

By Christopher L. Webber

There are those who think it’s a sin to add to the Book of Common Prayer and there are those who think it’s a sin to be bound by the levels of political correctness current in the 1970s. One of the most frequent additions made by the latter for the sake of a more enlightened inclusivity is that made to Eucharistic Prayer C where it’s the usual thing to add the names of their wives to the names of the Patriarchs. Thus we have Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob supplemented by Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah.

But why? Giving birth is no light thing and being married to a patriarch wasn’t always a lot of fun either, but this is not a complete list of the patriarch’s wives. Abraham also married Keturah (Gen. 25:1) and she gave him six children. So why not Keturah? You might say, “Well, she wasn’t Isaac’s father and had no bearing on the direct line of succession.” But neither did Rachel. She may have been Jacob’s first love and second wife, but the Davidic line passes through Leah. If you want Rachel on the list, why not Keturah? Indeed, why leave Hagar out?

Let me suggest, however, that a desire for inclusive language ought to have some higher view of the importance of the female side of things than just being married to a patriarch. Why are we not including some of the women of the Hebrew Covenant who made a difference in their own right? Wouldn’t it be more sensible to include, say, Deborah, Ruth, and Esther. Deborah, after all, was one of the Judges, a ruler in Israel in a day when women didn’t often lead. Ruth and Esther have their own books, something Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob can’t claim. Ruth also was a Gentile, which adds ethnic balance to the list. And Esther was one of those who took events in her own hands and saved her people. Other names that come to mind are Rahab, without whom Joshua would not have gotten to first base in Jericho, and Judith, another sister who took events in her own hands and changed them. Yes, she’s Apocryphal, but the Thirty-nine Articles tell us we should read the Apocrypha for “example of life and instruction of manners” and Judith is a remarkable example. Then, for a more challenging example, there was Jael, who nailed the opposition down by her own right hand; or even the three ladies listed in Matthew’s Gospel in an early effort at inclusivity: Tamar, Ruth (again), and Bathsheba. Bathsheba, there’s a name to consider. Think how she shaped the course of history by maneuvering Solomon onto the throne.

So we have some choices here, but all of them better, it seems to me, than the three otherwise anonymous ladies who just happened to be around when the patriarchs needed partners. Let’s have some names in the Canon to inspire us by reminding us of the wisdom, leadership, and executive ability of some of our foremothers who were significant in their own right.

"I am having a hard time with this, Chaplain"

By Marshall Scott

I’ve been thinking about another of my frequent conversations at the bedside. It begins with, “How are you doing?” And while it might wander a bit, frequently it comes back to this: “I’m having a hard time with this, Chaplain; but they say that God won’t give you more than you can handle.” My initial response to this is, “Perhaps; but I often find myself wishing God didn’t have quite so much faith in me!”

“God won’t give you more than you can handle.” This is another of those axioms that most folks think is found somewhere in Scripture. It’s like “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” a saying so pervasive in our culture that it has its own aura of authority. Everyone says it, so it must have an authoritative source; and since the subject is God, the source must be Scripture.

Like to many other common sayings about God, though, this one doesn’t really paint God in that good a light. Perhaps we wrestle with the second half of the saying, “more than you can handle;” but I have a great deal more trouble with the first: “God won’t give you.” It continues that belief (and, honestly, one that can be based in Scripture) that God is directly and personally responsible for each event in our lives, both the blessings and the injuries.

Now, often we rail against this, we chaplains, as do others. “What does that say about God?” we ask. “Do we really want to believe in a God who ‘tests,’ who does harm?” We find it more attractive to think of Lamentations 3:33: “for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone;” even if it means that we have to ignore the verse just before, 3:32, which begins “Although he causes grief….”

I can see, though, why the image of the God who tests, the God who causes grief, continues to be attractive. In a time when people feel out of control – and few people feel more out of control than hospital patients – there is some comfort, some security in the thought that this is all managed. Even if I am not in control, God is; and so this time of trial and confusion has meaning.

Even more powerful, perhaps, is the sense that the suffering person has God’s attention. Even if God has afflicted me, it is at least a sign that I have God’s attention. It may not be undivided, but it’s certainly clear. I have sufficiently held God’s interest for God to decide to test me.

Still, many of us, and not just chaplains, would resist this image of God. We would look, for example, to the lessons for Lent III. We would look at God as Moses encountered him at Sinai. “Then the LORD said, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey….” He has seen suffering and has come to deliver. The suffering isn’t some kind of test, some affliction from God; but that doesn’t mean that God isn’t interested or concerned for his people.

Granted, the Gospel lesson for Lent III might not seem so helpful. Well, perhaps we might consider it a mixed bag. Certainly, Jesus calls for repentance; but neither the murdered Galileans nor the victims under the Siloam tower were identified as worse sinners, worse offenders.

And then there’s that parable of the unfruitful fig tree. The owner of the vineyard has expected results, results that haven’t come despite years of waiting. It is not the owner of the vineyard but the gardener who shows patience, even if that is limited.

But, I wonder if we read this right. It seems obvious to read this and think that the vineyard owner must represent God. But what, I wonder, if this isn’t so obvious? What if there’s another way to read this? What if Jesus is more subtle than we expect?

And Jesus is really central to this question. Which character is more like Jesus? Which character is more like God as God has revealed himself in Jesus? Which character seems better to reflect forgiving seventy times seven? Which character seems in all things to do good for those under his care? Which seems more like a high priest who intercedes for us unceasingly? Isn’t it the gardener?

How, then, shall we account for the tests, the challenges? Well, certainly there are challenges in life. Some we can even attribute to God, without making any suggestion of personal animus on God’s part. There are circumstances of the world as we know it, not least of them our free will, that present us with tests and challenges and setbacks. So we read in Paul the passage that I think lies behind our problematic maxim: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” Suddenly, the point is not that God won’t test us beyond what we can bear. The point is that when we are tested by all the things that flesh is heir to, God will be with us, and will provide us what we need to endure.

And, really, that is the focus of the passages from Lamentations: “Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.” It isn’t really about God putting us to the test, for “he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.” Rather, in the face of pain and grief, even if it seems God has some hand in it, his compassion is with us and his love is steadfast.

“I’m having a hard time with this, Chaplain; but they say that God won’t give you more than you can handle.” Well, I can’t endorse the thought that God has brought this affliction; much less that God has calibrated it to the individual limitations of this patient. Still, I’m less interested in teaching patients the right theology than I am demonstrating it myself. So, my call isn’t to challenge or to correct. Rather, my call is to reflect by my care the steadfast love and compassion of God in Christ. I am called, I think, to be like the gardener, providing resources for health and wholeness so as to give the patient the best chance. Then I, and all of us caring for the patient, staff and volunteers and family alike, take our part in God’s providence. We can become for the patient the extra care, the extra strength, the extra love: we can become for the patient “the way out” that God intends, so that the patient can endure.

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.

A trip that changed my life

By Deirdre Good

How often can you say of a trip: it changed my life? I can say it of our recent visit to Turkey. I touched the Hellenistic and Roman worlds of Asia Minor, and because I saw where Paul was, where the cities of Revelation are, and where John and Mary may have been, these two thousand year old New Testament texts now seem new and alive.

We traveled from Izmir (ancient Smyrna) on the western coast of Turkey to Istanbul through Ephesus, Sardis, Pergamon, and ancient Troy, approaching Istanbul from the north. On the first day we went south to Miletus. We stood in the theatre where Paul, according to Acts 20, made his farewell speech. And we were able to calculate later how long the author of Acts envisaged it would take the Ephesian elders to get there and to return home knowing they'd never see Paul again. Two days later we gazed sadly at ruined buildings in Thyatira thinking of the judgment of Revelation 2:18-23 and wondering who "Jezebel" might have been. And who was the Lydia (Acts 16:14) of Thyatira offering Paul hospitality? Where did she live? In Sardis, we were awed by the central location and size of the synagogue. On the acropolis in Pergamum, we looked out across the valley at the sweeping view and just below us at the empty place where the Pergamum altar (now in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin) had once been and we wondered if it would have survived without being moved.

What about Ephesus? Everyone should see it before they die. Now a UNESCO world heritage site, Ephesus is one of the wonders of the ancient world. To visit Ephesus is to grasp what an ancient Hellenistic city looks like: you can walk down ancient intersecting streets. I've been down Roman roads in Europe. And I've been on Roman roads that intersect with other Roman roads but these roads are built up into modern streets. I've never been on Hellenistic streets that intersect with other ancient Hellenistic streets so that when you walk down them you can turn left or right at the end and keep walking.

At Ephesus, the main street is the Arcadian way. It is 100 feet wide and paved with marble slabs. At night it was lit by lanterns. Adjacent Curetes Street is named from the Curetes (priests serving Artemis) who guarded the sacred fire of the hestia (hearth). The most beautiful building on Curetes Street is the Temple of Hadrian (117-138 CE).

Halfway down is perhaps the most photographed building in Ephesus--the Library of Celsus built in 135 CE by Julius Aguila in memory of his father, Celsus, who was a Roman senator and governor-general of the province of Asia. Thousands of parchments and papyri were stored here long before books were thought of.

Opposite the Hadrian Temple we saw several of the best-preserved Roman houses for the elite in Asia Minor. Many had interior courtyards restored to show heating systems and clay pipes. On the floors are mosaics and on the walls are rich interior decorations including blue frescoes of birds and fish. Further on down opposite Harbor Street is the largest theatre in Asia Minor seating 25,000 people. Acts 19 locates the silversmiths of Ephesus there chanting, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians!" in opposition to Paul. We would have read the passage out loud in the theatre if it hadn't been raining.

Our group was composed of religious professionals for whom sacred sites were important. Some of us prayed with Muslim women at the house of Mary, a place of religious devotion in the hills above Ephesus. At nearby Selçuk we visited the church of John where John apparently took Jesus' Mother after the crucifixion to live out her days. In Istanbul, we spent hours in the former Byzantine church and mosque of Aya Sofia, now a museum. Scaffolding that had been on the walls for seventeen years had just been taken down. In the restoration of murals, a face of one of the seraphim had recently been revealed which our Muslim guide could hardly wait to see. Others of our group visited a display of sacred objects in a museum in the nearby palace of Topkapi. While the imam chanted verses from the Qur'an and vast crowds shuffled past each glass display case, we gazed at a footprint of Mohammed and at the rod Moses used to part the Red Sea.

We spent our final days in Istanbul. Istanbul is an international city at one and the same time both European and Asian, both secular and religious. The muezzin outside our hotel window called the faithful to prayer each morning. Shopping and drinking tea in the Grand Bazaar is like no other shopping experience in the world. The cash machines offer Turkish lira, Euros or dollars. But it's the same everywhere. Even in the smallest villages, everyone makes change in lira, Euros or dollars. Turkey has something for everyone. I'd go back there in a heartbeat.

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. An American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and keeps the blog On Not Being a Sausage.

What I learned at MIT

By Amy McCreath

This is my last semester as Episcopal Chaplain at MIT. After nine years for which I am outrageously thankful, it is simply time for me to move on to whatever God has in store for me next (which is TBA -- a good lesson in trust.). The corridors of a world-class engineering school is a fascinating vantage point from which to watch for the Holy Spirit. So before I go, I want to share some of the most important things I’ve learned at MIT.

Matter matters: I slid through the science requirement in college by taking botany and social psychology. Not my thing, or so I thought. MIT students steadied my gaze on the outrageous beauty and mystery of the material world. From the night sky to neutrinos to the laws of physics, the MIT crowd have an innate cosmic sacramentality, and the ones I love have a passion for using “stuff” to do peace and justice in ways abstract theories can’t touch. As an example, read about the tremendous Amy Smith.

The merits of meritocracy: At MIT, no one cares what you look like, where you grew up, or who your father is. It’s all about one thing: Can you help us solve a problem? Now, there are theological problems with this rather utilitarian ethic, but compared to most communities I’ve encountered, and many corners of the church I’ve passed through, it has been refreshing. And it has kept me on my toes, as resting on laurels or credentials or personal charm is simply undoable at the ‘Tute.

In the footsteps of St. Anskar: Campus ministry is mission work, pure and simple. That is increasingly true, as a smaller percentage than ever of the students grew up with any religious practice. And because the public face of Christianity during the lifetimes of most of today’s students has been largely strident and self-righteous, the students who do affiliate with our ministry are reticent to come out as Christians on campus because of what their friends would (wrongly) assume about them. I am so thankful to have learned in seminary that blessed St. Anskar, missionary to Scandinavia, had his first convert after 36 years of work. It has helped me keep going, feel like I'm actually doing pretty well, and see my work as part of a worthy tradition.

How to identify left-brained prayers: Engineers pray best without words. They build flood warning systems in river basins in Honduras, to save lives in real time. They make furniture out of used boxes and whip up a nice offertory-collection basket out of a piece of paper during the peace (see photo). Physicists pray in labs, giddy with amazement at the workings of the world, and computer scientists pray by creating networks to help students in the developing world get a good education in the face of poverty and restricted freedoms. Read about the IDEAS competition, where outlandish prayers take flight. (http://web.mit.edu/ideas/www/)

The trickiest problems are non-technical: Early in my time at MIT, I attended the memorial service of a graduate student who had taken his own life. He was known and loved all over campus – a genius and a truly beautiful person. He had eaten Christmas dinner with me and the brothers at SSJE in Cambridge just months before. But he had carried inside wrenching turmoil as he tried to reconcile his own dreams with the hopes of his family. He could not reason or engineer his way out of this inner knot. In the following years, at times when I was tempted to think that what I had to offer was not enough or not relevant, when I was tempted to be intimidated by the Nobel prizes and the cutting edge research and the fancy labs where they were working on things I could not pronounce, I remembered this young man. And I kept going, kept speaking, kept offering what I could.

No apologies: an apology: My nine years at MIT was Time Well-Spent. That is so clear to me, despite comments I’ve gotten periodically from clergy colleagues who say things like “When are you going to move up the food chain?” (Not kidding). As a chaplain, I had to recreate leadership every year, do the same programs over and again as our congregation kept walking off in mortar boards, give 100% to both my diocese and the Division of Student Life. It was pretty humbling being “the priest of one religion in the temple of another,” as one of my predecessors put it. But I leave wiser, amazed, and blessed.

The Rev. Amy McCreath is the Episcopal chaplain and coordinator of the Technology and Culture Forum at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is a member of the Council of Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission.

Hot cross buns

By Jean Fitzpatrick

It was an impulse buy. Spotting a tray of hot cross buns in the window of Junior's, the New York bakery famous for cheesecake, I popped inside and picked up two, one each for myself and my husband. Definitely not as divine as Junior's Brownie Marble Swirl, but to be fair, Junior's buns -- with a velvety yeast dough and not too sweet -- were better than many I remember. Wikipedia says hot cross buns are believed to predate Christianity, and most of the leaden ones I've eaten tasted at least that old.

So why did I buy these buns, you ask? I guess they remind me of my childhood. I don't mean they inspire an extended reverie, like the famous madeleine did for Proust. Instead, they bring me back to some of my earliest, somewhat perplexed theologizing. When I was growing up, back in the days of black and white television, we usually had Rice Krispies for breakfast. During Lent, which was -- as I understood it -- all about giving up things, the sweet, iced buns would inexplicably appear on our Formica kitchen table instead. A treat -- and yet, not entirely. No matter how recently they had arrived from the bakery, they always tasted stale. They were called "hot cross buns" but they were never (in those pre-microwave days) remotely warm. That, I reasoned, was why they were okay to eat during a season of gloom. And then there were all those raisins and candied fruit. Yuck. For years I figured hot cross buns were a Lenten cousin to the dreaded Christmas fruitcake. Like many aspects of religion, hot cross buns were full of paradoxes and were not as good as other people seemed to think they were but, by virtue of their annual reappearance, they managed to be somehow comforting.

I didn't know then that the buns have a long and complex history. Turns out buns marked with a cross were eaten by Saxons in honour of the goddess Eostre. The cross is thought to have symbolized the four quarters of the moon. ("Eostre," of course, is probably the origin of the name Easter.) According to the food writer Elizabeth David, Protestant English monarchs saw the buns as a dangerous hold-over of Catholic belief in England, since they were baked from the same dough used to make communion wafers. The monarchy tried to ban the buns altogether but they were too popular. Instead Elizabeth I passed a law allowing bakeries to sell them, but only at Easter and Christmas. (So maybe I was right about the fruitcake.)

These days in the UK hot cross buns are in demand long before Lent. The Brits are now selling hot cross buns as early as January, when they've hardly had time to digest their plum pudding. Warburtons, another UK baker, has invented a Hot Cross Bun Loaf, presliced and plastic-wrapped, and sold only during Lent. Such a delicacy this is, apparently, that there is now a Facebook group called A Plea to Warburtons to Make Hot Cross Bun Loaf All Year Round. Isn't it strange that in a country where religion has, by all reports, declined, hot cross buns are, well, a hot item?

In Australia and New Zealand chocolate-flavored varieties seem to be all the rage. (I wonder if they ship to North America.) One Australian bakery advertises that it prides itself on always using as much fruit as flour. (That sounds much less appealing.) According to the Daily Telegraph, the CEO of one British bakery chain whose sales of the buns were up 10 percent last year considers them "particularly appropriate to consumers in the current climate." I assume he means they are a snack whose penitential associations suit the world economic crisis better than, say, a jelly doughnut.

Actually, I think what I most like about hot cross buns is that are not particularly commercial, at least not here in the States. You can't, to my knowledge, buy them at McDonalds or Starbucks. As far as our big chains are concerned, they're under the radar.

And yet, for those of us who grew up with them, in all their raisin-filled semi-staleness the buns convey a somberness that people have connected with for a long time. They inhabit that ambiguous cultural realm of grassroots customs and practices that connect us to who we are and where we've come from. In their annual reappearance the buns tie us to the procession of ordinary mortals who came before us, and to everyone else who seeks them out.

I hear the ones at Amy's Bread on Ninth Avenue are really good. Must try.

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

Going home

By Greg Jones

Can you go home?

A longing for home is a universal human thing. We all long for home...where it's safe, and warm, and comforting. Home's a place we were made for -- and we've tried to make them wherever we can, whether cave, caravan or condo.

Since God knit us together in our mothers' wombs, we have yearned to be connected, cared for, and expected at home. But, can you go home?

Home is what we long to go to -- and come from -- and work towards. And yet, so much of this life involves our leaving home. In good ways and bad. Certainly a big part of growing up is leaving home, and making a new one.

But, can you go home? Jesus had a hard time at home. Consider his home life. His first home was a barn. Then he lived on the lamb in Egypt as a refugee from Herod. Then he was raised in a podunk town. And in his religious homelife -- the synagogue where he knew them all and spent his faithful young life tried to kill him, and the Temple which he called "His Father's House" did eventually get him killed.

Yes, even Jesus had it hard at home (and his parents were saints.) What about you? Home, like life, can be a mixture of hopes and hurts. Maybe like Jesus you feel you cannot be yourself when you return home -- either to parents, family, hometown, friends, or whatever. Maybe you don't now. Maybe you've had to start a new life, away from too much hurt at home, and not enough hope. I think we all struggle to match the inner yearning for home with the realities of where we are.

Jesus presents the Good News in an interesting way. I believe he presents the Kingdom of God as the fulfillment of our longing for home. If one substitutes the word 'home' for 'Kingdom' you can see what I mean. Imagine if he said, "home is a place of enrichment, it is good news for the poor in body, mind and soul." Or, "home is a place of liberation, not captivity." Or, "home is a place of light and vision, not shadow."

Jesus tells us that God's dream is that all people have a home like this -- ideally on earth as in heaven. The Good News of Jesus is that He has come to build the way to that home, and to offer us the building materials for building such heavenly homes on earth (as best we can with God's help.) The building materials of such homes are grace, mercy, forgiveness, and above all, love. Love not for self, but for other. These building materials are precious, and of course, we can't forge them ourselves. This is where our prayer life and corporate life in Christ come in -- we must obtain all we need to build our Kingdom homes from the Maker himself.

Can you go home? Allow Christ to bring you by His way.

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

Lessons from snow

By Bill Carroll

Snow brings out the best in people. Here in Athens, Ohio, I spend a dozen hours or so each winter clearing our driveway, sidewalks, and walkways. All around our neighborhood you can hear the familiar sounds of metal snow shovels on concrete.

The first year Tracey and I were married, we lived in Hyde Park, on Chicago’s south side. Like most people in that wonderful and bizarre little neighborhood, we parked our car on the city streets, observing arcane rules about which side of the street we could park on when the city needed to plow. We had to slow down and be very careful, because snow removal came late to Hyde Park (reportedly, because our alderman didn’t always vote with the mayor).

Sometimes, large sheets of ice would form and cars would skate through red lights or a four way stop, even if we were only going 5-10 miles per hour. We kept old cardboard boxes in our trunk, in case an ice pit formed in the gutter where we were parked. We’d layer the cardboard under the tires to improve traction, but sometimes that wasn’t enough. If we were still stuck, we could ask anyone walking by and they’d likely give us a push.

Hyde Park was by no means perfect. There were racial tensions and a history of difficult relationships between the University and the surrounding neighborhoods. Our neighbors, and we ourselves, had our vices and flaws, and we were involved in systemic injustices of many kinds. After a snowfall, however, we helped each other.

For most of us, snow brings out our latent tendency to live as neighbors. It summons us to responsibility. We look after snow removal, because we don’t want people to fall. We help one another, because one person needs help and another can provide it. We don’t count the cost. We don’t stop to ask “What’s in it for me?” Snow brings with it the possibility of moving from self-centeredness, for which we have powerful cultural inducements, to other-centeredness. As horrible as they are, natural disasters bring out similar good things in people. They awaken generosity of spirit, even self-sacrifice. Who would not risk his or her life to save a child, even someone else’s child? But snowfall seldom poses serious risks to life and limb. It gives rise to an ordinary level of caution, concern, and neighborliness. Most of the time, no sacrifice is needed, just a helping hand.

Snow also brings us opportunities for play. We throw snowballs and make people and angels in the snow. How difficult it is to contain the excitement of small children, especially when they have the day off from school!

When Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves, he isn’t saying anything new. He is reminding the People of Israel of something God has already commanded them (See Leviticus 19:18). Even the pagan world knew nothing of our isolation and rugged individualism here in the contemporary U.S.A.. In the ancient world, people were bound by a set of social obligations to everyone around them. Sometimes, these were oppressive (there is a reason the Enlightenment fought for individual rights, however limited and imperfect its vision); nevertheless, these real obligations gave people a sense of belonging and meaning.

What is new with Jesus is the command to love the enemy, and, if necessary, die for those who hate us. This is what it means “to love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). Also new with Jesus is his insistence that the commandment to love our neighbor, together with the commandment to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength, summarizes the entire law and gives us the key to understanding the whole of God’s will. Paul puts the same point this way: “Love does no wrong to the neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:10; cp. Galatians 5:14)

Just because a teaching is old doesn’t mean don’t still need to hear it. A functioning community involves obligations to our neighbor, but we often fail to fulfill them. Moreover, we also need Jesus’ radical redefinition of who counts as our neighbor. (See Luke 10:29-37.) Otherwise, we retreat into closed communities, impoverished by lack of difference, and help those who are sufficiently like ourselves.

The lessons of the snow are something we easily forget. Seeking our neighbor’s good, even when it conflicts with our own, is not something we have to wait to do. Every snowfall gives witness to the possibility of community and love. The Church, despite the teaching and example of Jesus, is not always good at practicing active, Christ-like love.

We could learn a lot about following Jesus in milder seasons by paying attention to what we do when it snows.

The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

Burning bushes

By Sam Candler

On the Saturday before the Third Sunday in Lent, I stood around helping my brother burn off some of the woods. My father was there, too. My brother-in-law, my mother, my wife were there. A family afternoon. Burning the woods is a regular affair on the farm where I grew up. I was glad to turn aside that day.

My brother had a nifty device filled with two-thirds diesel and one-third regular gasoline. When lit, its twisted nozzle functioned like a flame thrower, but it really just dripped fire out into the pine straw and bushes and sweet gum saplings. We always have to get rid of the sweet gums. My brother had already driven around the designated patch of woods with his tractor and plow, carving out a shallow fire line.

Burning the woods is critical to clearing out the underbrush that might start another, more serious, fire in those woods. But its main accomplishment is to clear out the underbrush for more birdlife and wildlife, and to provide for sturdier pines and primary trees.

We watched the wind, and we set the fire on the leeward side. That way, the fire would stay controlled and burn backwards into the wind. Fire likes to feed into the wind, probably like all of us do. And fire really does start quickly. I watched with my folks, mesmerized by the sheer chemical reaction spreading before us. We talked randomly about whatever was on our minds. Younger folks might call it "hanging out." Hanging out is much more enthralling when a fire is burning before you.

Occasional sparks drifted out over the fire line, and we put them out. A few of the larger pines caught fire at their bases. The water from the back of my fathers's four-wheeler put it out easily. That four-wheeler is really a mule, but it's a different sort of mule from the one that trudged through these same fields so long ago.

We heard a pileated woodpecker and then saw it sail through the glade in front of us. We listened to still another flock of sandhill cranes, but we never saw them, above the thick pines towering over us. We wondered why several deer sat nonchalantly in a nearby thicket, watching us, but never running away. Too many tame deer these days.

The next day I was at church, hearing about Moses, who turned aside from tending his family's flocks one day. He watched a bush being burned and yet not being consumed, He heard an angel remind him of his father's God. "I am who I am," Yahweh said. Holy ground.

Holy ground is where fathers and sons can stand around together. Mothers and daughters, too. With nothing important to do except burn something. With nothing important to say, except maybe "It is what it is." The standing around is more fascinating than the words. Something powerful is burning all around us. It burns, but it does not consume. Instead, it enthralls and inspires. Fire destroys the straw, but it germinates the seed. Fire creates fertility. Burning bushes makes for holy ground.

The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta. He chaired the House of Deputies' Committee on Prayerbook, Liturgy and Church Music at the General Convention. His sermons and reflections on “Good Faith and Common Good” can be found on the Cathedral web site.

Schooling Nicodemus

By Adam Thomas

In the film Men in Black, Jay discovers that aliens exist and many of them live on Manhattan Island. When he confronts Kay about this unnerving new detail, of which he (Jay) was previously unaware, Kay deadpans: “A thousand years ago everybody knew, as a fact, that the earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on it. Imagine what you'll know tomorrow.”

The season of Lent invites us to examine what we know, or, put more precisely, what we think we know. When we tackle this examination, we open ourselves up to encounters with Christ, which tend to augment, rearrange, and expand our knowledge with the addition of deeper faith. The Gospel contains myriad stories of Jesus blasting people with new knowledge, so we should expect nothing different in our own lives. One such story co-stars the Pharisee Nicodemus (read up on John 3 before you continue).

As a general rule, if someone in the Gospel besides Jesus says “I know” or “we know,” then that person either knows a small fraction of the whole or, more commonly, nothing at all. Strangely enough, knowing nothing at all can even manifest itself when the statement made is quite true and correct. Such is the case with this leader of the Jews, who comes to see Jesus one night.

Nicodemus uses his “knowledge” displayed at the beginning of the conversation as a weapon to corner Jesus into a particular set of expectations. The Pharisee says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Apparently, so far so good. This statement is true: Jesus has come from God and most definitely stands forever in the presence of God. But there’s irony in the statement, also. Nicodemus calls Jesus “teacher” twice — once in Hebrew (Rabbi) and once in Greek (didaskalos, from which comes the word “didactic”). But at the same time, Nicodemus’s conversational opener allows no room for Jesus to teach. Instead, Nicodemus is the one attempting to teach Jesus, to pigeonhole him into what Nicodemus and his colleagues have labeled him.

But Jesus refuses to be put on the defensive. In usual fashion, he completely ignores Nicodemus’s opening salvo and immediately expands the conversation to a depth and height that Nicodemus is not expecting. Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above/again.” There’s a delightful ambiguity here: in Greek, “from above” and “again” are the same word (anothen). They both work in the context, and Jesus probably means both when he says the word. How better to jostle someone loose from his rigidity than with a small helping of ambiguity?

But Nicodemus grasps at the more mundane of the two meanings and responds: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” This may seem like a sarcastic response, but at least this Pharisee, who has always been the one answering questions, is now (albeit haltingly) beginning to ask some of his own. But Jesus doesn’t seem interested in staying on the terrestrial plane, so he ignores Nicodemus questions and pushes him to a new level of understanding. “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” At this point, I imagine Nicodemus’s brain starts hurting.

But Jesus keeps pushing him. Nicodemus’s opening “we know” now sounds empty in comparison to the mysteries Jesus is revealing to him. To begin to absorb these mysteries, Nicodemus must turn this empty “we know” into an “I don’t know” full of desire and curiosity. With his next words, Jesus gives Nicodemus license to let go of what he thinks he knows: “The wind/Spirit blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (Here’s another delightful ambiguity—in Greek, “wind” and “spirit” are the same word, pneuma.) Nicodemus must now consent to trusting in things he can never quite figure out. Indeed, he must realize that the truest things that have ever been or ever will be can be believed without being adequately explained. In a word, Jesus asks Nicodemus to have faith that the words he speaks are true, no matter how difficult, preposterous, or confusing they may sound.

And Nicodemus takes a tentative step into the shallows of faith in Jesus. He asks one of the sincerest questions in the Gospel: “How can these things be?” With this question, Nicodemus allows the cognitive dissonance that has been cresting to break on him like a wave. This dissonance is the necessary distress that happens when he realizes he doesn’t know something he thought he knew. But dissonance isn’t a bad thing. In music, dissonance is the interesting part, the part that pushes the piece onward. A pleasing harmony (called “consonance”) can hang in the air indefinitely, but a dissonance begs to move forward to the next consonant chord.

So it is with Nicodemus and anyone who opens up himself or herself to the possibility of the unknown. Allowing the cognitive dissonance to enter our comfortable worldviews pushes us to grow into the next consonant chords in our lives. When Jesus confronts us, like Nicodemus, with the mysteries of the faith, we can either step backward into the comfort of what we think we know or step forward, fully expecting the boundaries of possibility to be far wider than we can perceive. This confrontation goes by another name: revelation.

Every encounter with Jesus, whether in the text or in life, promises an opportunity for revelation, which obeys no boundaries of possibility. Revelation is that thing you know, but don’t know how you know it. Revelation is visceral as well as mental because the brain alone is ill-equipped to handle it. Revelation infuses us with an odd mixture of peace and exhilaration—peace because we know God is there, exhilaration because we know God is calling us to serve. Cognitive dissonance is the birthplace of such revelation. The dissonance reminds us that what we know is far less than the whole. When we can acknowledge that we don’t, in fact, know where the wind comes from or where it goes, we are primed for receiving the revelation of God’s love that Jesus is forever revealing to the world. This is a scary proposition, for if we do, indeed, remain attentive we might actually hear God calling us to serve in a way that doesn’t fit our plans.

But revelation bursts our ability and our desire to control because it blows where it chooses on the wind of the Spirit. When Nicodemus says to Jesus, “We know,” he is seeking to control the conversation that will follow. But he immediately discovers he’s in over his head. When we acknowledge that Jesus has things to reveal to us that we couldn’t possibly imagine, we discover we’re also in over our heads. The trick is to learn to breathe in the wind of the Spirit while underwater (to grow gills and fins) and to find a new natural state submerged in the revelatory love of Christ.

When Nicodemus says to Jesus, “How can these things be,” he allows the possibility for revelation to strike him in his head and in his gut. His cognitive dissonance jettisons his need to control. He is open for Jesus to reveal new and wonderful things to him. And Jesus does — things about the Son of Man ascending to and descending from heaven, things about the Son of Man being lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, things about eternal life and self-giving love and believing and salvation.

I imagine Nicodemus left his encounter with Jesus in a daze, his heart and mind on overload attempting to process all he had seen and heard. Is he able fully to put his trust in Jesus, to allow the dissonance to resolve into a new and deeper consonance? Not quite yet. But we are lucky enough to meet Nicodemus twice more in the Gospel (check them out! John 7 & John 19). His journey towards the consonance of a life of faith following Jesus models for us our Lenten journeys of self-examination. If we open ourselves up to encounters with Christ during this season of Lent, then (as Kay says), “Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

The Rev. Adam Thomas, one of the first Millennials to be ordained priest, is the assistant to the rector at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Cohasset, Mass. He blogs at wherethewind.com.

If you feed them, they will come

By Susan Carter
It is painful to watch the transitions taking place here in Michigan, the Mitten State, the once proud home of America’s automotive prowess. The parishioners in our pews are facing challenges they never thought they would confront. A number encounter regular furlough days, or have had salaries reduced, or – worse – have lost their jobs. The cans and boxes of food they once brought to our food pantries they now take home with them.

And thus, we are broke. Or almost, so it seems. Detroit, once hailed as the “Paris of the Midwest” has seen its housing stock gutted, its jobs evaporate, and its people searching for a future different from the present. Michigan, as a state, lost more than 150,000 service, construction, and manufacturing jobs in 2009 alone. Of all the American manufacturing jobs that were exported or eliminated during the past decade, fully one-quarter of them were in Michigan.

Many are affected and seeing their lives or their landscape changed. Twenty-percent of our children, in both peninsulas, live in poverty. Flint – once the heartbeat of American automobile production – is looking to turn vacant lots back to farmland. Even the Episcopal Church is hurting. Staff cuts have hit all four Michigan dioceses, the Cathedral in Detroit is stressed to remain viable, and the majority of parishes seeking priests cannot afford full time clergy. Are we the canary in the mine or, we hope, the vision in the rearview mirror?

Yet we are rich in ways not measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics or the latest Consumer Confidence Index. Research from Michigan State University reveals that nine out of ten people have continued to give to charities, though admittedly in smaller amounts. Further, virtually one-half of Michiganians volunteer, a percentage that remains steady. (Notably, women are volunteering at higher rates than men, and that gap is widening.)

In our own churches, vestries are working hard to implement balanced budgets. In many parishes pledges have remained fairly steady, driven down principally when congregants lose their jobs or depart to find work elsewhere. We are managing.

In this confusing and jumbled time of transition, when a recession feels like a depression, God is giving us an opportunity to change, to step away from the Seven Last Words: “We Have Always Done It This Way.” It is apparent that if we, as Episcopalians, hunker down in a bunker mentality, we are not fully hearing God’s call to love one another – really love one another – and proclaim the Gospel.

It is true that, as people of faith, we can hang on to what we have, improving at the margins, but not manifestly moving forward. Or, we can look to Paul and his experience with the Jerusalem Council. In Galatians 2 Paul, in his own words, lays out his encounter with the leaders in Jerusalem. He had taken the radical move of fully accepting the uncircumcised; they were different and not eligible to join, according to the rules. We are told in Acts that some from Judea even held that the uncircumcised could not be saved. The circle was narrowed, not widened.

Paul, along with Peter, wisely and bravely fought against the distinctions, instead trusting that salvation comes through grace and not blind obedience to rules. In so doing, these early leaders threw off the yoke of intransigence and flung wide the doors to all. There was no longer a Dr. Seuss differentiation between those with stars on their bellies, and those with none.

In Michigan, we are given the marvelous gift of being a laboratory, a modern Council of Jerusalem nearly two-thousand years later. We are called to meet the needs not only of those who look like us, share common background with us, or even worship with us. Rather, we are being asked by our loving God to meet God’s people where they are, not only inside our churches but, more especially, on the other side of our Red Doors. We are asked to feed the sheep, tend the sheep, to feed the lambs. All of the lambs.

If you feed them, I believe, they will come. And when they arrive, let’s fully open our arms so that those who come may experience Christ’s love.

The Rev. Susan Carter is rector of St. John’s, Howell, Mich. She teaches journalism at Michigan State University.

Why Episcopalians need to care about reproductive ethics: Start talking

By Ellen Painter Dollar

In this final post encouraging Episcopalians to learn about and discuss reproductive ethics, I will briefly review some major ethical questions related to Christians’ use of reproductive and genetic technology, and end with a couple of recommendations.

Major Ethical Questions

As is clear from the review of various faith traditions’ handling of reproductive ethics, the ethical questions that reproductive and genetic technologies raise are closely linked with how each tradition views sexuality, marriage and procreation. Christian perspectives on suffering and disability come into play as well, raising questions, for example, about whether preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) is good preventive medicine that uses our God-given scientific knowledge to alleviate suffering, or a eugenic process that emphasizes secular values of perfection and achievement over God’s abundant grace. Sometimes, as I write about these questions, I feel like I’m in some tortuous maze—I go down one path only to find four more paths I could travel down in search of answers. None of it is easy. None of it is simple.

But I’m going to try to simplify it anyway, breaking down the ethical questions into several broad categories.

The Nature of Disability and Suffering: What do Christians believe about genetic disorders that cause pain and suffering? Are they part of God’s plan, the result of a fallen world, or the natural result of a God-given genetic code that relies on change and diversity for its success? What is the nature of the suffering people experience as a result of disability? Are social stigma and exclusion as much factors in how we perceive disability as physical pain?

Desire, Vocation and the Choice to Have Children: Why do many people have such a strong desire for biological children? Is adoption the best answer for those dealing with infertility or genetic disease? Can parenthood be a vocation? Do parents have a duty to protect their future children from suffering?

The Blessing and Burden of Having More Choices: How do assisted reproduction and genetic screening affect our perception of humans? Of God? Is there a “voluntary eugenics” or quality control at work in reproductive and genetic technology? How does increased use of these technologies change our culture’s perspective on disabled people? Can parents be held responsible for disabled children (e.g., barred from public support for their children) if they choose not to use available technology to prevent disability? How do assisted reproduction and genetic screening contribute to or benefit from our culture’s commodification of children?

Money, Medicine and Consumer Culture: How does the money-making side of assisted reproduction affect the relationship between doctor and patient? What values are promoted in the standard procedures followed by most fertility clinics? Is there a “slippery slope” of assisted reproduction (i.e., nearly impossible to stop once you’ve started)? Can genetic screening at the embryonic stage be classified as primary preventive medicine (i.e., a better alternative than therapeutic abortion as the result of prenatal diagnosis)? Is there any evidence that technological reproduction has adverse health effects for parents or babies?

The Status and Selection of Embryos: Given that natural conception often involves selection of healthy embryos and destruction of unhealthy ones (e.g., many miscarriages are attributed to genetic anomalies), whose job is selection—God’s, nature’s, ours? How do patients, doctors and Christians view embryos? Do embryos have rights? Is there a continuum of traits that are acceptable/not acceptable to select for—e.g., life-threatening disorders, non-life-threatening disorders, gender, traits? Because our knowledge of embryos is limited (we can’t always identify the severity of disease in utero, we can’t know what personality or skills the embryo will have as a fully developed person) can we justify making selection decisions based on one characteristic, such as a particular genetic mutation?

Why Episcopalians Need to Care About Reproductive Ethics

As I hope that long list of questions illustrates, reproductive ethics are not only about debating pro-life and pro-choice arguments (although questions of who gets to choose and why are involved), nor are they focused only on whether we think an embryo has the rights of a human being (although that is an important question). Reproductive ethics raise questions about who we are, who God is, our health care system, the nature of procreation and parenthood, and how our culture perceives children. These are big questions—questions no person or couple should have to grapple with on their own, especially if they are part of a faith community.

The most compelling reason for Episcopalians to care about reproductive ethics is that reproductive and genetic technology is getting more sophisticated and available. We can now not only identify genes for life-threatening disorders that will kill or seriously disable an infant, but also for adult-onset diseases with a genetic component, such as breast cancer. In vitro fertilization, originally designed for young, otherwise fertile couples who had some clear physiological problem (a blocked fallopian tube, for example) is now routinely used to assist women in their 40s to have children with the use of donor eggs. While genetic screening has traditionally been available only to couples who have family history of a specific disorder or are part of an ethnic group predisposed to certain disorders (such as Tay-Sachs in the Jewish community), a company called Counsyl recently developed an inexpensive test that allows any couple to be tested for approximately 100 single-gene disorders. It is now possible for a couple to pay for eggs from an anonymous woman, sperm from an anonymous man, a womb from a surrogate mother, and go home nine months later with a child who is genetically unrelated but legally theirs.

More and more people sitting in the pews of Episcopal churches, and more and more people you know—your friends, your siblings, your children, yourself—will face the question of whether to use reproductive and genetic technology to fulfill their dream of heaving a healthy baby. If and when they come to the church, to their fellow believers, for guidance and support, we need to have something to offer them.

What To Do

Avoid easy answers. Infertility is not easy. Living with genetic disease is not easy. Figuring out the right thing to do in light of the long list of major, soul-searching questions raised by new technology is not easy. Easy answers don’t help. When it comes to easy but unhelpful responses, my two pet peeves are: “Why don’t you just adopt?” and “Everything happens for a reason.” I’ve written elsewhere about why I find these responses so unhelpful, misguided and even hurtful, and won’t go into it here. Just don’t say them, or any other easy answer that pops into your head. Please.

Learn and talk about reproductive ethics. There are lots of ways to do this at the congregational level. Sermons, adult forums and book groups are all places where questions raised by reproductive technology can be discussed. Invite an ethicist from a local college or seminary to give a talk or lead a discussion. My book (warning: shameless self-promotion ahead) is designed to be accessible to a diverse audience, and is written in a narrative, non-scholarly style. But it won’t be out until fall 2011, and there is lots of other reading material available: theological discussions, official church documents, memoirs, and short journal and magazine articles. I have developed a reading list of resources I have found inspiring or helpful; if you would like a copy, you can contact me through my Choices That Matter blog.

Thank you for sticking with me through all three parts of this series. There’s a lot to talk about, so let’s get started.

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work focuses on faith, parenthood and disability. She is writing a book on the ethics and theology of reproductive technology, genetic screening and disability, and she blogs at Choices That Matter and Five Dollars and Some Common Sense.

Why Episcopalians need to care about reproductive ethics: What believers believe

By Ellen Painter Dollar

In Part 1 of this series, I told my story of living with a genetic disorder and choosing to have biological children with a 50/50 chance of inheriting the disorder. My exploration of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD—in vitro fertilization with the added step of testing fertilized eggs for a particular mutation) led me to focus on reproductive ethics in my work as a writer. Here in Part 2, I’ll summarize current ethical perspectives of the Roman Catholic, Protestant and Jewish traditions.

The Roman Catholic Tradition

Catholic opposition to artificial contraception, abortion, and any type of assisted reproduction, from artificial insemination up to IVF, PGD and surrogacy, stems from several basic principles:

• Marriage, instituted by God to unite one man and one woman, has two necessary and complementary purposes: unitive (two people becoming one flesh) and procreative (producing children). Each conjugal act that takes place in a marriage needs to be open to the potential for procreation, even if each act does not (or even, in the case of an infertile couple, cannot) result in conception.

• Sexual intercourse and procreation, both God-given blessings reserved for marriage, cannot be separated. Sex should not occur without the potential for procreation (hence the objection to artificial contraception), and procreation should not occur without sex (hence the objection to any method of assisted reproduction in which conception occurs independently of intercourse).

• When people separate the unitive and procreative purposes of marriage, deciding when they are and are not open to having a child through calculated use of artificial contraception, children become a project to be achieved or a product to be obtained to fulfill parental desires, rather than a gift that arises naturally from the marital union.

• The temptation to view children as entitlements or commodities, rather than gifts, grows with the use of reproductive technology. Because IVF and PGD require embryos to be selected for implantation in the mother’s uterus, an element of quality control is introduced (i.e., choosing the “best” or potentially healthiest embryos). This element, again, transforms children from gifts of a loving God to products manufactured by medical personnel to parental specifications.

• Because intercourse and conception are inextricably linked with each other, and intended for an exclusive marriage relationship, any reproductive technology that introduces a third party into conception, such as with donor gametes or surrogate motherhood, is unacceptable.

• An embryo is fully human, with all the rights of a human being created in God’s image, from the moment of conception. Any use, destruction or manipulation of an embryo, including freezing, genetic testing, disposal, abortion or medical research, violates the embryo’s dignity as a human being.

Many Catholics argue that they are not so much against all these technologies as they are for a perspective on marriage and sexuality that is radically different from that of mainstream culture. For example, Catholics who advocate natural family planning (NFP) argue that couples can make wise decisions about family size and pregnancy timing while also being open to God’s design for sex and procreation within marriage. In NFP, couples avoid conception at certain times by abstaining from sex during the wife’s fertile period, which she determines through detailed observation of such factors as body temperature and cervical mucus. Those who practice NFP argue that by subordinating their sexual desires to the God-given fertility cycle and their sense of when and how God calls them to parenthood, NFP enhances marital intimacy and interdependence, bringing marriage closer to the way God intended it.

Mainline Protestant Traditions

Mainline Protestantism, of course, comprises a diverse group of churches, so there is no one perspective on reproductive ethics. There are, however, some common assumptions and values that inform many Protestant churches’ discussion of the topic, as well as some specific conclusions that several mainline Protestant denominations share.

• Mainline Protestant churches tend to value individual autonomy and choice, and assert that individual Christians can inform their own consciences to grapple with moral decisions with the guidance of the church, scripture, tradition and reason.

• Given the value of autonomy and conscience, many Protestant churches encourage both clergy and laypeople to educate themselves about reproductive technology and related ethical concerns. Pastoral and genetic counseling are held up as vital resources for church members dealing with infertility or family history of genetic disease.

• Protestant traditions tend to emphasize marital companionship more than procreation, and allow more leeway in how the purposes of marriage play out for individual couples. For example, some argue that while it’s important for married couples to be open to the possibility of children, such openness occurs in the context of a lifelong marriage relationship, not just when the couple engages in discrete acts of intercourse. Therefore, using contraception to limit family size and time pregnancy is acceptable (and some argue further that because Catholic natural family planning, or NFP, attempts to control fertility just as artificial contraception does, there is no moral difference between the two). It is also acceptable to separate sex and procreation in limited instances, by using assisted reproduction to overcome infertility within a marriage.

• Many Protestant churches approve the use of assisted reproduction techniques to help couples conceive children within a marriage. However, techniques that compromise the exclusive marriage relationship or that allow for childbearing outside of marriage (such as donor gametes and surrogacy) are viewed with concern or disapproved altogether.

• Genetic screening is generally acceptable for disorders that significantly affect health and well-being, but should not be used either for gender selection (except in the case of sex-linked genetic disorders) or screening for non-disease-related traits. Human cloning is unacceptable.

• Embryos have moral status and should be treated reverently, but their status is not equal to that of a more developed human life. Embryos should not be created for the purpose of being destroyed through scientific research. Donation of embryos left over from IVF cycles is viewed more favorably, but efforts should be made not to produce more embryos than can reasonably be used in an IVF cycle.

• Protestant documents tend to emphasize issues of justice, recognizing the potential for assisted reproduction and genetic screening to be used in ways that compromise the inherent dignity of every human being, such as by ensuring that certain types, classes or races of people are not born.

Evangelical Protestant Traditions

With their strong pro-life ethic, evangelical Protestants tend to have more in common with Roman Catholics than with mainline Protestants when it comes to reproductive ethics. Concern for the human dignity of embryos fuels evangelical opposition to reproductive technology, such as IVF, that leaves behind thousands of unused, frozen embryos, as well as to the use of those embryos in stem-cell or other medical research. Preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) is problematic both because it requires discarding embryos testing positive for a particular genetic disorder, and because of its potentially eugenic nature (i.e., the potential for people’s worth to be judged based on their genetic history, leading to the breeding of people for certain traits perceived as positive and the elimination of people with traits perceived as negative).

There is also an emerging openness among younger evangelicals to the Catholic practice of natural family planning (NFP) and the vision of marriage and parenthood that it entails.

Jewish Traditions

Judaism emphasizes the procreative purposes of marriage—its role in fulfilling God’s command to be fruitful and multiply—to a greater extent than either Roman Catholicism or Protestantism. Having children is one of the 613 mitzvot (commandments or rules) that Jews are to live by. Persecution of Jews has reinforced their emphasis on maintaining Jewish identity and community by having Jewish children.

Judaism tends to view assisted reproduction as a tool to help Jews fulfill God’s procreative purpose for marriage. In fact, Israel has an unusually high birth rate of babies conceived through assisted reproduction (about 5 percent, compared with about 1.5 percent of U.S. babies). Because the procreative purpose of marriage is valued so highly, Jewish authorities have few reservations about separating the reproductive process from the sexual union of married spouses. Because Jewish identity is passed down through the mother, however, Jewish authorities have expressed concern with third-party reproductive technology that uses donor gametes or surrogates, which might lead to confusion over the child’s Jewish identity.

Even though Jews have been targets of eugenic policies and prejudices for centuries, they have embraced the use of both genetic testing and preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to help eradicate disorders common in the Jewish community. For example, Dor Yeshorim is a Brooklyn-based organization that has helped lower the incidence of Tay-Sachs disease (a fatal genetic disorder that primarily occurs in Jewish families) and other recessive genetic disorders through a proactive screening process. Young, unmarried Jews consent to genetic testing to identify whether they carry genes for any of a list of recessive disorders. If a couple determines, early in their dating relationship, that there is potential for marriage, they can call a special phone number, type in a PIN, and find out if both the man and the woman carry any recessive genes in common. If they do—meaning their children would have a 25 percent chance of inheriting the disorder in question—it is recommended that the couple end their relationship. The program has been successful because many couples do just that.

The Need for More Discussion

My goal in this series, again, is not to argue for any one approach as better than the others. (Although, as a good Episcopalian, I do tend toward a moderate, nuanced view of what is acceptable and unacceptable. This may doom my work to failure because, as my husband remarked recently, our culture does not do nuance very well.) Rather, I am motivated by that fact that, though Protestant resources in particular recognize the need for education, prayerful consideration and supportive counsel for both congregations and individuals making reproductive decisions, many Protestant churches, including the Episcopal Church, have not engaged as fully as they can with the moral quandaries raised by evolving technology. In the final, third part of this series, I will briefly review what the major moral quandaries are, and suggest some steps that congregations and individual Christians can take to move the discussion forward.

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work focuses on faith, parenthood and disability. She is writing a book on the ethics and theology of reproductive technology, genetic screening and disability, and she blogs at Choices That Matter and Five Dollars and Some Common Sense.

Why Episcopalians need to care about reproductive ethics: My story

By Ellen Painter Dollar

If the title of my post has you concerned that you will be subjected to a treatise on the politicized, polarizing topic of abortion, I hope you’ll stick with me anyway. Reproductive ethics go far beyond pro-life/pro-choice debates. They also address the rapidly expanding, increasingly accessible and highly lucrative field of reproductive and genetic technology. Beyond that—and the main reason Episcopalians and all Christians should pay attention to this topic—reproductive ethics touch on fundamental questions of our identity as human beings made in the image of God and loved by God just as we are, how our sacred and secular cultures provide (or don’t provide) hospitality to people made in God’s image, and how we welcome children into our families, churches and communities.

Still with me? Good! You may be wondering why I’m writing about this topic—who I am and my professional background. Pastor? Theologian? Ethicist? Doctor? Genetic counselor? Nope, nope, nope, nope, and nope. I am a writer who focuses on reproductive and genetic ethics on my Choices That Matter blog, and I am writing a book that will be published by Westminster John Knox Press in 2011. But though I have some skill at putting words to paper, I write about reproductive ethics primarily because I have a story—a story that led me to ask wrenching, sometimes unanswerable questions of myself and my God, and then led me to read everything I can get my hands on about how people of faith have answered those questions. So I’ll start there—with the story.

My 10-year-old daughter and I have had, between us, about four dozen broken bones. We have a genetic bone disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta (OI), which causes fragile bones, short stature, bone deformities, spinal curvature and generalized weakness. We have the mildest type of OI; babies with more severe types are often born with dozens of fractures, and one form is fatal shortly after birth. But even relatively mild OI is no picnic. In addition to about 35 broken bones, I’ve had more than a dozen surgeries to insert and replace metal rods to stabilize my leg bones, and now, at 41 years old, I live with chronic pain as my joint cartilage, worn down by years of my uneven gait, falls to pieces. My daughter Leah, who inherited OI from me, broke her first bone on her second birthday, and since then has had nine more fractures. Two resulted from a scooter accident, but the others came about in the most ridiculously mundane ways possible. She slipped on a piece of paper, fell while dancing in her sister’s room, even broke a leg mid-stride—the leg broke and then she fell, not the other way around.

Because OI is an autosomal dominant genetic disorder, any child of mine has a 50 percent chance of inheriting it. My husband and I started contemplating having another child just as Leah was going through a cycle of six fractures between her second and fourth birthdays. She was encased in a series of pink fiberglass casts for an entire summer. So while we knew we wanted more children, we were intimidated and heartsick at the idea of having another child who would suffer as she was suffering (and, let’s be honest, we were suffering too, and it was no fun). We decided to look into preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), which is in vitro fertilization (IVF) with the added step of testing fertilized eggs for a particular genetic mutation.

In September 2002, three days after Leah broke her femur (thigh bone) when she slipped on a picture book left on the floor, I started injecting myself with hormones to launch our IVF/PGD cycle. About six weeks later, we learned that the cycle had failed. I was not pregnant. We planned to try another PGD cycle in a few months. But before we got the chance, I discovered in late January 2003 that I was already pregnant. Our second daughter, Meg, was born in October 2003, and we had a son, Ben, in 2006. Both were conceived naturally, and neither has OI.

But even before I discovered my unexpected pregnancy in January 2003, we were leaning toward abandoning the second PGD cycle. We were emotionally exhausted and financially drained. More important, I was increasingly uneasy with the ethical implications of our using reproductive technology to produce a child without my bone disorder. My brain was swimming with hard questions about using reproductive technology in light of my Christian faith: Was it ethical to spend thousands of dollars to prevent our child from inheriting a disabling but non-life-threatening disorder? By allowing embryos with my OI mutation to be destroyed, was I committing murder? By ensuring that my child would not be disabled, was I contributing to a culture that would eventually become intolerant of, and refuse to care for, children who are disabled? Was my sense that God was calling me to biological motherhood authentic, or just a way of cloaking my selfish desires in a spiritual mantle?

In my search for guidance and support, I discovered that the Episcopal Church, and Protestant Christianity in general, are not well-equipped to counsel someone like me. This is, of course, a generalization. There are certainly individual clergy who could provide excellent ethical discussion and pastoral support. Indeed, our own pastor asked some good questions of us. Though his knowledge of the ethical issues involved was limited, his pastoral concern and acceptance were abundant. But for the most part, the Protestant clergy and laypeople we talked with seemed uncertain of what questions we should even be asking about reproductive ethics, much less what the answers might be.

The progressive Religious Institute recently issued a report confirming that, due to lack of training and education, as well as discomfort with issues related to sexuality and the controversy they stir up, clergy and other religious leaders are often ill-equipped to engage topics of sexual justice and ethics, including reproductive ethics. In a 2009 report specifically addressing assisted reproduction, the Religious Institute noted that, “Unfortunately, these topics are usually not addressed in seminaries, and if they are, it is likely in the context of a medical ethics course that does not engage the pastoral issues that religious leaders will face.”

The exception to this is, of course, the Roman Catholic Church, which has plenty to say about reproductive ethics. In the past 18 months alone, the Catholic Church has released two major doctrinal statements clarifying and expanding on their opposition to all forms of assisted reproduction and genetic screening. The 2008 encyclical Dignitas Personae came directly from the Vatican, while last fall, the U.S. Catholic bishops released their own document, titled Life-Giving Love in an Age of Technology. Both documents provide extensive explanation of the theology, reasoning and ethical concerns behind the church’s position.

In contrast, the Episcopal Church has released three very brief, very general resolutions: A 1982 approval of the use of IVF to conceive children within a marriage; a 1991 resolution urging couples considering IVF to get counseling and consider adoption as an alternative; and a 2003 statement that genetic screening is appropriate for avoiding “clearly serious” disorders, and that human cloning is unacceptable. Well, I guess that’s something. But it’s not enough, given the complexity of reproductive ethics, and the fact that, as reproductive technology evolves, more and more people sitting in the pews of our Episcopal churches will be facing decisions about whether or not to use it.

As I research reproductive ethics for my book and blog, the most consistent and informed sources tend to be Roman Catholic. In fact, the person who ended up being most helpful to me and my husband in making our decisions was a good friend who also happens to be a Roman Catholic sexual ethicist. He and I disagree—vehemently in some cases—on the answers to some difficult ethical questions. But he, my other Catholic friends, and the Roman Catholic web sites and bloggers I follow have been my most valuable resource. I may not always agree, but because the Catholic Church gives priority to reproductive ethics, these resources are generally well-informed and thoughtful—two qualities especially important when discussing the emotionally charged questions of whether, why and how people should have babies.

In writing about reproductive ethics, I am not aiming to convince anyone of a particular position. In fact, I am still working out exactly what my position is. Rather, my aim is to convince people—especially my fellow Protestant believers—that reproductive ethics are worth talking about seriously so that people who have to make difficult reproductive choices do so with the guidance of their brothers and sisters in Christ, within a supportive community responding with common values.

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll review the Roman Catholic position—whether you agree with it or not, their position lays out some important questions and provides food for thought—as well as summarize both Protestant and Jewish approaches to reproductive technology. I’ll finish up in Part 3, with a brief discussion of the major ethical questions raised by reproductive technology, and recommendations for moving the discussion forward in our Episcopal congregations. I hope you’ll stick around, because all of us, both clergy and laypeople, are vital partners in providing loving, supportive, knowledgeable counsel to people struggling with complex reproductive decisions.

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work focuses on faith, parenthood and disability. She is writing a book on the ethics and theology of reproductive technology, genetic screening and disability, and she blogs at Choices That Matter and Five Dollars and Some Common Sense.

Holy Women, Holy Men, a different definition of sanctity?

By Derek Olsen

The first half of Ephesians 4 clearly lays out the purpose of the institutional Church: that we may all come “to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13). Appropriately, then, we find it in our baptismal liturgy where parents and godparents solemnly promise that they will “help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ” (p. 302).
But what does this mean? What does this look like? If this is a central purpose of the Church, what guidance does the Church give us for what this may be?

In my doctoral dissertation on how early medieval monks read Scripture, I spent a large portion of chapter 2 looking at how the monks talked about saints. The monastic hagiographies—the accounts read in the liturgical Offices—gave communities a picture of sanctity, a glimpse of how the full stature of Christ looked, incarnate in different places and different times. Now, the history that I found in these could sometimes be…a little questionable, and I discovered that (for my purposes, at least) the less the monks knew historically, the better off I was. The least historical accounts were the most ideal: these texts sketched mostly clearly the idealized holy goals of monastic living.

Now—the Episcopal Church doesn’t talk about saints so much. In fact, within our prayer book only the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Apostles, Evangelists, Mary Magdalene, and Stephen the Protomartyr are so honored. However, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have them… Even before the authorization of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the Episcopal Church envisioned a supplementary volume that would include Days of Optional Observance to liturgically commemorate heroes of the faith. With the authorization of the Prayer Book, General Convention also authorized this volume known as Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1979-A056) which commemorates Christians East and West from the earliest times down to the twentieth century.

Striving for clarity, 1994’s General Convention passed a set of criteria for subsequent additions to the book. The 1994 General Convention Resolution (A074a) can be found in full here. The money section is contained in the 8 bullets under Guidelines; the contents of these bullets describe qualities held by suitable candidates for inclusion:

1. Heroic Faith. This means bearing witness to God in Christ "against the odds." Historically, the greatest exemplars of such faith have been martyrs, who have suffered death for the cause of Christ, and confessors, who have endured imprisonment, torture, or exile for the sake of Christ. Following this precedent, the Episcopal Church in the United States of America has been very specific and has restricted the designation of martyrdom to persons who have chosen to die rather than give up the Christian faith, and has not applied it to persons whose death may have resulted from their heroic faith but who did not consciously choose martyrdom. There are other situations where choosing and persisting in a Christian manner of life involves confessing Christ "against the odds," even to the point of risking one's life. For this reason the Anglican Communion traditionally has honored monks and nuns like Antony, Benedict, Hilda, Constance and her companions, missionaries like George Augustus Selwyn, and people as diverse as Monnica, Richard of Chichester, and Nicholas Ferrar. More recently the Church has learned to honor social reformers like William Wilberforce and Jonathan Daniels for the same reason. Heroic faith is, therefore, a quality manifested in many different situations.

2. Love. "If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all that I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing...So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor. 13:2b-3, 13).

3. Goodness of life. People worthy of commemoration will have worked for the good of others. It is important to recognize that the Church looks not only for goodness but also for growth in goodness. A scandalous life prior to conversion does not disqualify one from consideration for the Calendar; rather, the witness of perseverance to the end will confirm holiness of life and the transforming power of Christ.

4. Joyousness. As faith is incomplete without love, so does love involve "rejoicing in the Spirit"--whether in the midst of extraordinary trials, or in the midst of the ordinary rounds of daily life. A Christian may not fail in the works of love, but still lack the joy of it--thereby falling short of true Christian sanctity. Such joy, however, is as much a discipline of life as an emotion. It need not lie on the surface of a person's life, but may run deeply and be discerned by others only gradually.

5. Service to others for Christ's sake. "There are varieties of gifts...and there are varieties of service" (1 Cor. 12:4-5). There is no true holiness without service to others in their needfulness. The Church recognizes that just as human needs are diverse, so also are forms of Christian service--both within the Church and in the world.

6. Devotion. People who are worthy of commemoration have shown evidence of seeking God through the means of grace which the Church recognizes, having "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). We look both for regularity and for growth in the discipline of prayer and meditation upon God's Word; and we look for this devotion to be manifested not only in a person's private life but also in visible company and communion with his or her fellow Christians.

7. Recognition by the faithful. Initiating the commemoration of particular saints is the privilege of those who knew, loved, and discerned the special grace of Christ in a member of their community, and who desire to continue in the communion of prayer with that member now departed. Such instinctive recognition by the faithful begins naturally at the local and regional levels. Evidence of both (a) such commemoration growing locally and (b) such recognition of sanctity spreading beyond the immediate community is essential before the national Church has an obligation to take heed. It may, in fact, decide that the commemoration in question is best left to local observance.

8. Historical perspective. In a resolution on the Calendar, the 1958 Lambeth Conference of Bishops stated, "The addition of a new name should normally result from a widespread desire expressed in the region concerned over a reasonable period of time." Generally this has been two generations or fifty years after death.

Clearly items seven and eight are particular to the sanctoral process—otherwise, these criteria are a solid start towards what we’re looking for. This gives us a set of qualities that are specific enough to ground one’s character, yet broad enough to envision myriad ways in which they can be implemented.

This past year, General Convention authorized a new book. This text supersedes Lesser Feasts and Fasts and is entitled Holy Women, Holy Men. While it took some twenty years for guidelines to be placed in LFF, this new book has criteria in it from the start. Even at first glance it’s clear that something has changed, though. Here are the principles of revision from Holy Women, Holy Men which begin on pg 131 of the PDF from the Blue Book:


1. Historicity: Christianity is a radically historical religion, so in almost every instance it is not theological realities or spiritual movements but exemplary witness to the Gospel of Christ in lives actually lived that is commemorated in the Calendar.

2. Christian Discipleship: The death of the saints, precious in God’s sight, is the ultimate witness to the power of the Resurrection. What is being commemorated, therefore, is the completion in death of a particular Christian’s living out of the promises of baptism. Baptism is, therefore, a necessary prerequisite for inclusion in the Calendar.

3. Significance: Those commemorated should have been in their lifetime extraordinary, even heroic servants of God and God’s people for the sake, and after the example, of Jesus Christ. In this way they have testified to the Lordship of Christ over all of history, and continue to inspire us as we carry forward God’s mission in the world.

4. Memorability: The Calendar should include those who, through their devotion to Christ and their joyful and loving participation in the community of the faithful, deserve to be remembered by The Episcopal Church today. However, in order to celebrate the whole history of salvation, it is important also to include those “whose memory may have faded in the shifting fashions of public concern, but whose witness is deemed important to the life and mission of the Church” (Thomas Talley).

5. Range of Inclusion: Particular attention should be paid to Episcopalians and other members of the Anglican Communion. Attention should also be paid to gender and race, to the inclusion of lay people (witnessing in this way to our baptismal understanding of the Church), and to ecumenical representation. In this way the Calendar will reflect the reality of our time: that instant communication and extensive travel are leading to an ever deeper international and ecumenical consciousness among Christian people.

6. Local Observance: Similarly, it should normatively be the case that significant commemoration of a particular person already exists at the local and regional levels before that person is included in the Calendar of the Episcopal Church as a whole.

7. Perspective: It should normatively be the case that a person be included in the Calendar only after two generations or fifty years have elapsed since that person’s death.

8. Levels of Commemoration: Principal Feasts, Sundays and Holy Days have primacy of place in the Church’s liturgical observance. It does not seem appropriate to distinguish between the various other commemorations by regarding some as having either a greater or a lesser claim on our observance of them. Each commemoration should be given equal weight as far as the provision of liturgical propers is concerned (including the listing of three lessons).

9. Combined Commemorations: Not all those included in the Calendar need to be commemorated “in isolation.” Where there are close and natural links between persons to be remembered, a joint commemoration would make excellent sense (e.g., the Reformation martyrs—Latimer and Ridley; bishops of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste and Hugh).

The first thing that jumps to mind is that we have a genre change. This is not, as the list before it was, a list of criteria that gives us that snapshot of Christian maturity; this is very much a process for selecting historical personages for commemoration. Thus, these lists don't function in the same way, either rhetorically or catechetically. The new principles focus on process rather than qualities of life. As a result, the explicit naming of components of the mature Christian life have been curtailed. In their place we have business notes.

Naming sanctoral qualities is neither an abstract task, nor simply a liturgical one: it is a fundamentally theological and ultimately Christological task. The people the Church identifies as models—whether we call them saints or not—say something important about how we construct our understanding of the Christian life. How we construct the Christian life, in turn, speaks volumes about how we understand Christ. Just as we strive to see Christ in all persons, it is in the composite image of the saints that we find Christ at work in our own time, place, and station.

It’s not that I’m against the new criteria (although I’m not convinced that “memorability” is a theological category…), it’s just that I feel we’ve lost something. The guidelines of 1994 were like a few quick brushstrokes, or like the charcoal wisps on a sketch-pad that suggest a scene, a figure, leaving the rest to the imagination. They weren’t a full picture of Christian maturity—but they gave us at least a few key dots that suggest a shape. Leaning on Ephesians, looking back at the monks, I have to wonder: do we have anything like this now in our church—a clear sense of the goal; a useful, sufficient, and functional picture of Christian maturity? Have the new principles moved us forward or back?

Dr. Derek Olsen recently finished his 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.

Denominations in decline in the UK

By Adrian Worsfold

I found the recent address to the Church of England General Synod by "David and Richard", clerical President and lay Vice President of the Methodist Conference, bizarrely childish. It was a presentation, one to the other and back again, much about basics of Methodism that many a Synod member should be aware, that is reminiscent of one of the awful methods of delivery given to trainee teachers in the manner that this is how it should be done to children in the classroom.

Beyond that was a basic message that Methodism in Britain would self destruct for higher ecumenical purposes, and not simply because of thoroughgoing decline.

I know about thoroughgoing decline in British religion, if only because I have returned to a denomination that started small and now has undergone structural faults at its central serving institutions. It has had to become more sparing and flexible, whilst interesting aspects are noted about how congregations hitting the floor do actually recover, over short periods, some even going on to prosper in comparative terms. When congregations decline that have continued on as doggedly sub-cultural, as sort-of-Protestants full of rules of process and cliques, they suddenly at a point of desperation learn to value the visitor, find flexibility, distribute roles and contributions, cut the little hierarchies, and use the unpredicted Internet to advertise an unconditional liberal unique selling point that relates to today's issues of new denominational identity. A congregation that sets its mind to the task can, with some luck and geographical fortune, turn itself around even in the tough environment of British non-involvement in churches. Well, if it doesn't it closes, and that's that.

Other denominations are much larger, and have always been so. The Methodists are one of the largest after the Church of England. The problem is that its attending population is top-heavy, and populations collapse in percentage terms. It has had an active policy of closing and disposing of unwanted chapels, but proportionately it can end up with one chapel per town (or less) as easily as the smallest denomination. Once the percentage decline hits the bottom, it hits the bottom. People die pretty much at once, no matter what the number.

Religious Trends used a survey in 2005 that demonstrated that a 4 million at least monthly attendance then would drop to under a million by 2050, a figure just about reached by Hindus (doubling in number) with nearly three times as many Muslim attenders as Christians. The reality of such a decline (should it come about) is that denominations will simply structurally collapse.

It is interesting how in Scotland there are continuous mergers taking place among so called mainline or reasonably moderate Protestant groups ('mainline' is a nonsense term these days - they are all tiny minorities) so that there will be the United Reformed Church (URC) and Church of Scotland there, but the URC is imploding already and establishment doesn't do a great deal for the Church of Scotland. The Scottish Episcopal Church is already quite tiny.

The decline is not helped by a few successful and somewhat deluded media churches, dotted here and there, nor even by the odd successful suburban church. Go to Bradford where evangelical churches struggle, because there is one media church that acts as a kind of vacuum cleaner over what's left.

One has to ask what is the unique selling point of Methodism, or the URC for that matter. Well, British Methodism has the uniqueness that its missing bishops are in its Conference. Whoopee, that'll attract them in. It does have an increased lay involvement, and rotates ministers on short contracts for little pay and increasing stress. Or take the URC, which preserves the notion that there are two rather than three orders of ministry. I bet that makes a difference. The URC is the merging of Scottish Presbyterians sent into England (most once Calvinist English Presbyterians became Unitarian) and Congregationalists (many of whom credally had resisted the liberal drift) that has since carried out more mergers, including into Scotland. The fact is that all these denominations were set up according to old arguments at the time, many of which have ceased to be relevant, many of which are now mergers waiting to merge again. The collapse of the Sunday school movement, or connections between church choirs and schools, has meant that there is no basic Christian memory across the population, never mind debate on the finer points of dividing up denominations.

Suggested figures by 2050 are just 3,600 churchgoing Methodists left, Anglicans at 87,800, Catholics at 101,700, Presbyterians (URC etc.)diminshed to 4,400, Baptists to 123,000 and independents to 168,000. Whilst big pinches of salt are needed for all such predictions (the Catholic figures included many Polish immigrants who have already gone home!), nevertheless the question has to be asked about what these denominations are for.

The Catholic Church knows what to do regarding Europe and the West. It is going on a mop-up operation to find and bring across remnants and others in different denominations sympathetic to itself, that can also bolster its conservative identity. It wants to be purer, if smaller, but it will take the Anglicans available and whatever other small groups exist. It makes sense - it also tackles its chronic clergy training shortage. It is amazing how rapidly Catholicism collapses after liberations as in Poland and, before it, Spain. Protestantism in East Germany, that allowed at least some popular democratic training under communism, is rapidly vanishing too.

It is because Methodists came from the Church of England and have 'missing bishops' that they can contemplate coming back into the Church from which they were ejected. On the other hand, as High Methodism (as in the Wesleyan denomination) is now pretty much defunct, some of the Anglican hierarchical and (even) liberal-Catholic tendencies might be too much of a cuture shock. A local group to which I present papers diverted its discussion to this issue recently, and no matter which way around the ecumenism would go, it all came down to adding a Methodist style extra service in the local Anglican church until it died out. Indeed, up and down the land, ecumenism would add up to one denomination's building hosting the other's service until one or the other approach died out with a bigger council and clergy numbers for the time being. And despite the five minutes extra walk, we said that the beginning of the ecumenical arrangement would involve a proprtion of the people using the transition as the moment to stop their attendance altogether.

But there is another point. Which Methodists would join with which Anglicans? The Anglicans are undergoing a kind of internal war, with the inheritors of the Oxford Movement leaving and the evangelicals taking on the liberal-Catholics for legitimacy. Liberal Methodists already get on with liberal Anglicans, and the same happens with evangelicals. Where there is a division in a town, as between, say, an evangelical Methodist church and a liberal-Catholic Anglican church, the ecumenism tends to be rather light and occasional at best - a sort of good wishes and a once a year dutiful mixing. The same divisions are within the URC and Baptists.

No matter which way one looks at it, the denominations will find their bureaucracies starting to cave in - too expensive and bloated for what is below. Perhaps with the traditionalist Anglo-Catholic wing bust and exported, the Anglicans will be able to absorb the Methodists. Perhaps, instead of a takeover, Methodists might merge with the URC and continue to sell-off plant and machinery more rigorously. Whatever may be the theological justification for structural ecumenism, or may be the resistances from old purist points of view, the fact is that the elephant in the room is the chronic decline going on now - and obvious just by looking around - and therefore effectively the ending of many once important but now unimportant traditions in the religious life of the United Kingdom.

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 wages of fear II

This is the second of two parts.

By Donald Schell

Though the attacks of September 11, 2001, had been a continent away, they had hit close to us in San Francisco. Two of our parishioners lost relatives who worked in the World Trade Center. Another parishioner’s best friend whom she’d just seen the week before was on one of the planes flown into the twin towers. ‘My best friend was killed by a terrorist,’ she said. ‘I’m frightened and I’m crying all the time, and I’m so angry I haven’t got the patience my kids need. And they’re frightened too.’ My cousin Bill was on the plane flown into the Pentagon. Bill was just my age. His younger sister Julia Caswell Daitch wrote about his death and the bitterly slow healing of angry grief in Not to Worry, I’m Just Collateral Damage.

The question persists – how do we live and love and serve without defining our lives by terror or a war on it? Don’t we really need to be afraid?

Another parishioner, an Israeli and former Israeli Air Force officer who had married to the daughter of an Episcopal priest, told us that San Francisco friends who knew he commuted to work across the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge kept asking him why he wasn’t afraid to cross the bridge. “Don’t you think it might be the terrorists next target?” they asked. He replied, “I’m from Jerusalem. You learn that you simply can’t live in constant fear.” My Jewish parishioner was speaking Gospel to us. ‘You can’t live in constant fear.’ And you can choose faith, hope, and love instead. I pray Ittai’s Jerusalem wisdom for us all.

Remember how often in 2001 we heard that ‘everything has changed.’ But what changed? Fear is so pervasive and deep for us humans that ‘Don’t be afraid’ seems to be the standard greeting for angels even bringing good news. Dare we protest that we’re more realistic than people two millennia and more ago, people who lived in cities that had been destroyed again and again by conquering armies. People whose babies died of simple, curable illnesses. People whose experience of the threat of every day life was as raw as our neighbors in Haiti or Somalia or Sudan or Thailand. Yes, we’ve always had really big things to fear. And probably there have always been people to make profit on our fears and use our fear to amass power. But when we accept fear as our baseline, defining condition, and as Clouzot and St. Paul suggest, our unconsciousness of the wages of fear will cost us dearly. And maybe that’s what ‘everything has changed’ meant it we accepted it. That fear become our postulate, the basic assumption underlying everything.

Fear fuels our country’s polarization. We’re so reluctant to trust one another that my good friend continued to suspect I’d re-written a national hymn for my own partisan purposes (and I have to acknowledge that I wished I had written those words). Fear undercuts friendship. Fear makes us xenophobic, anti-Islamic, anti-Republican (or anti-Democrat). Fear exults in the sloppy labels we paste on our enemies – Socialist! Fascist! Revisionist! Fundamentalist!

At worst our polarized church only offers its members and the broader society a different, more ‘Biblically’ or ‘theologically’ formulated list of fears from our polarized society’s politicians, public personalities and advertising firms.

In the early 1990’s our daughter Maria had a wonderful Croatian architecture teacher. She was a passionate, inspiring teacher though everything she had ever designed had been bombed to rubble in the methodical destruction of Sarajevo. She said she was finished with designing new buildings. “For me,” she said, “teaching the next generation is the only work I can do with integrity, that and telling anyone who can hear that what happened in Sarajevo could happen here.” She wasn’t afraid, and she hadn’t given up, but she knew that danger was real and that the chaos of war can eventually cross any border. So her teaching work was like Julian of Norwich’s ringing affirmation in the days of the Black Death, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Or as our twenty-two year old son says, “It’s all good.”

Neither Julian nor my Joshua imagine that ‘everything’s going to be fine.’ Their ‘well’ or ‘good’ are bigger than the simplistic security of gates communities (and our illusion that we can make the U.S. a continent wide gated community). Josh and Julian know that we live in a world where really hard things can happen.

In 2010’s continuing culture of fear, too often the church simply offers new fears for old, not inviting us into courageous trust and hope grounded in love, but the stern counsel that we’re fearing the wrong thing. Shouldn’t we fear the demise of our church? Global warming and other impending ecological disasters? Who wouldn’t fear tyranny and the loss of our liberties? Or priests who practice Buddhist meditation? Or leaders who mess with our Prayer Book? If perfect love casts out those fears, what will we have left?

Why are we so attached to our fears? And just what are we actually afraid of?

We might guess that the obvious answer is death, but my own experiences seems oddly distant when real threat of death presented itself -
- like when death on a bare ridge in Colorado was as close as the lightning hitting the ground all around us,
- or when I crested the hill in Idaho winter, saw the interstate traffic stopped dead for the jack-knifed big rig that blocked all lines, touched my brakes and felt the wheels lock on black ice, praying the Jesus prayer as I steered the icy 60 mile an hour slide from rear-ending a tiny sport scar and we skidded into a big, stopped truck,
- or when I was robbed at gunpoint walking home from the church one night.
In those moments the knowledge that death might come in the next moment only focused my praying. God felt alive and present in the trust or whatever could come (including death), the trust that’s sometimes hidden within or alongside faith.

So I don’t think it’s actually death that we fear.

We fear failure. We fear letting people down. We fear losing control? We fear that someone else may be right and we may be wrong? We fear getting found out or being judged or shunned. We fear decisions that may bring us and those we love suffering. We fear not knowing what to do.

In the moment he spoke it, and in that one phrase, Franklin Roosevelt wore the mantle of Anglican lay theologian – "We have nothing to fear but fear itself."

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

The wages of fear I

By Donald Schell

“Tell us why we shouldn’t be afraid. Then tell us again. We can’t hear it too often.”

When my parishioner gave me that preaching mandate, I thought immediately of “The Wages of Fear,” Clouzot’s title for his 1953 gritty white-knuckle thriller film of desperate men driving tanker truckloads of nitroglycerin. To my ear Clouzot’s title echoes and comments on what St. Paul said in Romans, “The wages of sin is death.” “ Ah,” Clouzot seems to reply, “so apparently sin and fear pay the same wages.”

I write of the wages of fear in 2010 in the long wake of 9/11/2001 when a new doctrine (or heresy) of constant fear claimed to change everything forever. Maybe it has. I hope not.

6 p.m. that night, just twelve hours after the attacks, thanks to mass email, a sidewalk sign and Pacific Time’s extra three hours, we filled our church for a requiem and mass for peace. About a third of the people came with friends or from the sign or phoning the church. Prayers and singing, silence and tears filled the church that evening with a spirit blending like the sadness and hope of our truest funerals, a blend of Good Friday and Easter.

But afterwards one parishioner angrily complained at my presumption rewriting the evening’s final hymn. Politically more conservative than me, my old friend knew how her preacher mistrusted any rush to war, so she’d flinched when the leaflet gave her the unexpected and uncomfortable immediacy of singing,

“O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life!
America! America! God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law.”

“No, those aren’t my words,” I said, a little too curtly, and showed her the hymnal. I knew that more than mistrusting heroes who loved mercy more than life or a prayer that God confirm us in self control; she mistrusted my underlying anger and fear that touched her own fear and anger.

Friday watching our President on TV preach his call to war from the pulpit of our Cathedral in Washington fueled my anger: ‘Our responsibility is clear’ he said, ‘to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil…this nation is peaceful but fierce when stirred to anger. This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way and at an hour of our choosing.’

‘Rid the world of evil?’ I muttered, ‘…an hour of our choosing?’

Hubris.

So the mercy and self-control I sort of wished I had written into that second verse were even farther from my mind as I prepared Sunday’s sermon. Most preachers feel it sooner or later; the exciting stirring of our inner Amos, the righteous, wrathful, prophetic voice we know will make people uncomfortable. Though I knew our congregation was raw and jittery, my Sunday sermon was full of angry, prophetic confidence. And it was after that liturgy that another voice, a real prophet, offered this preacher her urgent plea, “You’ve got to tell us why we shouldn’t be afraid. Then tell us again. And again. We can’t hear it too often.”

It is a strangely grace-filled thing to preach and preside for a congregation of friends and strangers who are desperately eager to pray, who long to hear a word of Good News, and who hunger to receive the body of Christ. With my mandate to address our fear, I climbed off my prophetic soapbox and listened like the rest of the people to the readings and my and our asking over the next several weeks preaching, “What do we have to fear?”

Extended preaching time with the question of how we live beyond our fear and how we lay our fears to rest, highlighted something startlingly new in our lectionary’s long Advent-themed Autumn –
- Godly hope, the promise of God-with-us,
- God’s desire that we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God,
- and all the prophets’ promises and comfort were spoken to people whose lives had been devastated by war after war, by poverty, by famine, by the oppressive greed of a few, by their own lack of compassion and lack of love and forgiveness. Reading after reading looked on massive threat, chaos and sorrow without blinking. And where can we go from there? To St. Paul telling us (over and over) to give thanks in all things, and to the writer of I John telling us, ‘perfect love casts out fear.’

This ancient theme of fearlessness and hope in trouble resounds in the Black Church. Our sisters and brothers who have known steady and terrible suffering touch this holy fearlessness in music like ‘The Storm is passing over,’

Encourage my soul and let us journey on - For the night is dark and I am far from home Thanks be to God the morning light appears, The storm is passing over, The storm is passing over, The storm is passing over halleu Hal-le- (all) lu-jah, Ha-le-lu-jah, Ha-le-lu-jah, ah, ah, ah The storm is passing over, the storm is passing over, the storm is passing over halleu!
Preaching that fall with the simple prophetic charge my parishioner had given me, I felt how eagerly people listened for encouragement (renewing and blessing their courage), and how joyfully they welcomed the reminder that ‘faith’ grounds all our trust in God. I felt their sigh of relief and recognition to hear that ‘perfect love casts out fear,’ and just as importantly their relief as well that we wouldn’t pretend to offer them safety, no trouble, or easy security.

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

The Word became flesh, right here

By Martin L. Smith

I've just recycled my Christmas cards and a last glance brought smiles of gratitude for old friendships. One card always makes me laugh, even though it's not intentionally humorous. It's just that a card from the rector whose curate I was almost 40 years ago reminds me of the pleasure we had working together, how hardly a day went by without laughter. Tension is often the order of the day between rectors and young assistants, but we enjoyed our friendship, respected each other's gifts, teased each other about our shortcomings and found endless merriment in our parish life. Humor was such a bond we even liked to preach together sometimes; I at the lectern and Robin in the pulpit, presenting the sermon as a dialogue. Occasionally we would improvise two-man plays which we would present in place of a sermon.

One thing that deepened our pleasure in preaching arose from a distinctive feature of the parish tradition. For a generation the parish had organized a pilgrimage to the Holy Land every three years. No one had much money, but the pilgrimage was cherished as a once-in-a-lifetime experience worth saving for. These pilgrimages had woven an extraordinary degree of intimacy with the stories of scripture in the congregation. At any service, more than half the worshippers had personal memories of the places mentioned and every reading triggered a ripple of response. All sorts of expressions would play across their faces, elbows would nudge to signal unspoken reminiscence, little sighs or murmurs could be heard.

"There was a wedding at Cana in Galilee…"; Even before we started our sermon, you could tell people were there, remembering how really nasty the local wine is, since we had tasted it (think rusty nails!) Or, typically English, we couldn't help looking down and noticing that the Orthodox priest showing us what purported to be one of the actual jars was wearing pajamas under his cassock. Mention the Sea of Galilee, and people were back on a beach there on the northern shore, or on a little hill watching the stars fade and the sun rise as the fishing boats set out from Capernaum. Memories wove a shared language: "Do you remember when we went to pray in the chapel on the site of Calvary, and the lady came in with her shopping basket full of cabbages and set it down by the altar so she could crawl on her hands and knees to the place where you could put your hand down a hole in the marble and touch the rock? How we gave that look to each other that said without words, "Well, if she can do it, so can we!" So that when we preached on Good Friday we knew that eyes were shining in the congregation from the felt memory of touching that bedrock of this strange faith of ours.

I've never been convinced by people who claim to be indifferent about visiting the places of where Jesus lived and walked. Surely, even if it were to mean scrimping and saving for a few years—or am I being hopelessly old-fashioned?—this is an experience worth having once in a lifetime, something that will change the way we experience the scriptures and worship and prayer. But of course fear – of what that vivid personal contact might entail – might be the real reason concealed behind the arguments used in dismissing the idea as ‘not for me.'

In a diocese like ours where we are aware of the struggles of the Palestinian people and we know what terrible contradictions roil under the old pious title ‘the Holy Land,' there are extra motives for making the pilgrimage, with opportunities for expressing solidarity with the wronged and for gaining first hand knowledge as a basis for political action and witness. But the core reason that has always moved people of faith to go on pilgrimage remains the same as it has been for millennia. The Word was made flesh, and the life of faith is an embodied experience. The spiritual journey is one we sometimes make with actual footsteps, the climbing that makes us out of breath, the immersion that gets us soaking wet.

I have a hunch that as more people restrict themselves to virtual experiences online, regaling themselves with the infinite array of images a key-stroke can summon to their screens, a counter-cultural revolt will not be long in coming. Communal flesh and blood encounters, incarnational practices, all that is face to face and physical and tangible will begin to be revalued. The Word was made flesh, and Christianity won't stand for that sacred flesh being volatilized into the virtual and evanescent. Real pilgrimages will be a part of that counter-cultural reclaiming of the embodied, sacramental flesh and blood experience in real time.

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

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