The vow of poverty: Reflecting on the witness of Francis

By Richard E. Helmer

One early story of Francis, long before he openly renounced all worldly possessions and founded the friars minor in the early thirteenth century, is that he was approached by a beggar while selling cloth in the Assisi marketplace. The son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Francis would have recognized the affluence of our context. Growing up, he had every imaginable worldly comfort – and that most enticing and precious of all commodities of affluence: choice. He tried his hand as a businessman, as a soldier, as a man of decadent leisure. But here, with a beggar asking for a mere few coins, Francis was confronted with the greatest choice of all: how to best help the lost and forgotten among us.

One of the latest debates in my parish’s largely affluent community is whether or not panhandlers should be permitted to beg at one of our busiest intersections. It made the front page of the the local paper the other day, with a respectable citizen, born into a respectable family in town, asserting concerns for traffic safety over and against the need for a bit of money to buy food or water for those passing from one shelter to the next. It’s a smaller version of the perennial debate in nearby San Francisco over what to do about panhandling. The real issue, it seems to me, is not traffic or public safety as much as the unsettling reminder the begging poor bring to the midst of our affluence – a reminder of the injustices of our economy, and more profoundly a reflection of our own vulnerability that we can often deny, however falsely, with our material wealth.

It was Francis who re-discovered, in a radical move that echoed Jesus’ teachings in the Gospel, how to undermine the whole argument. The young Francis, the story goes, ran after the beggar in the marketplace in Assisi, and when he caught up with him, he emptied the entire contents of his pockets into the beggar’s hands. It would be like handing a panhandler your entire wallet or purse – an invitation to a complete stranger to run through your whole credit line, empty your bank account of cash, or give away the power of your identity. Francis was scorned by his friends and severely chastised by his father for such an act of radical generosity. But how a move like that would radically change the climate of the debate over whether or not the indigent poor can stand at an intersection begging for a few quarters, a bottle of water, or a snack from a passing car!

Francis, when he at last embraced abject poverty as not just a way of life, but the Way he would follow after Christ, found himself re-anchored in the earth. Taking Jesus’ instructions literally, he walked unshod and barely clothed, begging his way for food and carrying not even a bag or a walking stick with him. He touches us in our context as perhaps the first Christian hippie, the first Christian environmentalist. He probably smelled. Rumor has it he even talked of befriending the lice on his scalp – enough to give our contemporary school officials fits of apoplexy! He called the scorching sun his brother and the cold moon of chilly nights his sister. From helping lepers to the legend of his making peace with a ravenous wolf, Francis became intimate with the very things from which our worldly affluence and comforts were meant to protect us: cold and hunger, death and disease, danger and vulnerability. In this way, Francis embraced the Christian humility of accepting our true reality. And it is no small irony that Franciscans remain one of the largest religious orders in Christianity, and the largest in The Episcopal Church and wider Anglicanism, now eight centuries later. They offer an alternative to the narrow and often stifling confines of our socio-economic climbing and covetousness.

Would Francis recognize a world of highways, cars, airplanes, and the complexities of Western free market capitalism? Would he understand the power-brokering of our politicians and the tug-of-war between wealthy corporations? I would venture to guess he would see at work in our lives the very same dynamics he decided to set aside in the early thirteenth century. Would he understand our desire to have our pets blessed this time of year, of our friendships with the creatures of the earth, whether they swim, walk, slink, or fly? I’m sure he would, though he might point out as a dog trainer I know muses, that it is not so much our pets as we ourselves who require tough training in the realities of these relationships!

When I recently attended the life profession of a Franciscan brother in San Francisco, the preacher at the service made note of a critical aspect of Franciscan spirituality, rooted as it is so deeply in the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “Poverty,” he said, “is not the absence of riches.” For Francis discovered a different kind of riches when he set aside the affluent lifestyle of his family and renounced his material inheritance. He discovered a charisma that built a movement capturing the attention of popes and prelates, politicians and peoples, and the imagination of a Christianity yearning to free itself of corruption. He discovered a wealth of inspiration that brought about the rebuilding of churches throughout Assisi and beyond, and radically challenged the indolence of overly wealthy monastic communities and the machinations of ecclesiastical officials.

“Poverty is not the absence of riches, but the absence of power.”

Francis gave up control over his own destiny, and made no pretense to take the helm of the movement his witness unleashed. While he was called upon to engage in high-level conversations with the rich and the powerful, he eschewed authority for simplicity and lived quietly and generously in a society of friars and sisters for many years. It was entirely the work of the Spirit moving among the people that re-formed Western Christianity subversively and from within at the height of the Middle Ages. When Francis embraced poverty, he gave up his personal power to control what God was doing in his midst and through him. And in an irony worthy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Francis became more powerful than he could have imagined, perhaps in the way our prayers in the Daily Office offer as a closing benediction: “Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”

Poverty in the fullest sense of the Franciscan vow and the witness of Christ and his first followers is about setting aside the personal power: the panoply of choices we all covet, the craven grasping to control our own destiny – so that God’s power, the unleashed an unpredictable wind of the Spirit, the insatiable life of the Divine, may go to work in and through our lives. It is an irony worthy of the Gospel that our worldly understanding of power and control diminishes us to the point of utter deprivation, of soul, of spirit, of community. Our material goods serve too often to more isolate us than comfort us, to dominate us with anxiety rather than to serve us with peace. Our pursuit of wealth as our culture not only poisons the earth, but poisons us into a false sense of security and control. Francis’ way of radical renunciation of material goods and choice actually unleashed more influence and power flowing from the Spirit of God than a hundred popes, corporate moguls, or presidents could muster – with all of their economic, political, and military might – for the Ages.

Francis discovered this in the marketplace as a youth when he emptied his pockets for a beggar. He was a laughingstock, yes, but isn’t it an interesting thing that we remember Francis’ generosity today, eight hundred years later as saintliness, his generosity as a reflection of God’s grace – and we cannot name even one of his friends who derided him as they clung so easily to their personal power and prestige!

To live into one of the greatest of all spiritual lessons, to give away power, to embrace poverty – it all begins with generosity: a generosity that Francis knew flows directly from the heart of our most generous God. . . from our God in Christ who embraces not just the beggar and the forgotten, but every leaf, every slinking creature, every speck of the Cosmos, every one of us. . . who gives away divine life even on the cross for us. . .and as Francis reminds us, wraps us up all together in a love of infinite abundance that transcends even death itself.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, church politics, music, and the misadventures of young parenthood at Caught by the Light.

A sacred space lost at VTS

By Kathleen Staudt

On October 22, a fire destroyed most of the chapel at Virginia Theological Seminary, where I teach. Built in 1881, the chapel has been a sacred space to many generations of seminarians and clergy in the Episcopal Church. Despite heroic efforts by the firefighters who were on the scene immediately, the chapel burned in about 40 minutes, as the community watched in awed disbelief. No one was hurt; no other buildings were burned. But it was a deeply traumatic loss. And in the week since then we have been very aware of what sacred space has come to mean in our lives.

Exactly a week before the chapel fire, I was traveling in Wales and reflecting deeply on this theme of place and sacred space. I spent that Friday at a beautiful, remote place called Capel y ffin (the chapel at the end of the road – aptly named) which was once home to a community of Catholic artists and craftsmen, led by the English sculptor Eric Gill. Capel y ffin was a formative place for the artist and poet David Jones, whose work has been important to me for many years. Jones wrote of the “strong hill-rhythms” of the countryside here, which was formative for his artistic and poetic vision. His paintings capture well the rounded hills and pastures (the “landscape plotted and pieced, fold, fallow and plow” – as the Welsh poet Hopkins wrote) and the curious “aliveness” of the landscape that one experiences in this place.

In this region of Wales – near the black hills – I was also impressed by the ancient stone churches – some of them a millennium old – at sites with strange place names like “Partrishow” and “Clydwch”. The sites would include, typically, a tiny grey-stone church, with old wood interior, silent yet filled with echoes of centuries of prayer. Beside the church, there is typically an ancient (and sometimes still active) cemetery, together with a stream and a holy well, whose sacredness dates back to pre-Christian times and is often incorporated somehow into the story of the saint of the place – for each one of these places has a story attached to it. There is a sense that these churches and tombstones and celtic crosses mark a holiness beyond what can be contained. Inevitably, here, I thought of lines from one of Jones' poems where he celebrates:

     The adaptations, the fusions,
     the transmogrifications
                                        but always
      the inward continuities
                                         of the site
                                        of place
(The Anathemata, p. 90)

Having been so recently immersed in this awareness of sacred place, I was available to the depth of grieving the VTS community was experiencing at the loss of the of course much newer “historic” chapel. In particular, I have been watching and listening during this past week as students and alumni (a few of them in purple shirts) visited the campus and simply stood, gazing, in sad homage, at the charred beams where the chapel ceiling once was, open to the sky below the cross that still stands on the front of the chapel. Soon, the conversations around the seminary will turn to what was not destroyed and what can be restored and carried forward. We know that “the Church is not a building. . . .the church is a people” – but this grieving-time has invited more reflection, for me, on what places mean to us, in a sacramental tradition.

We remember sacred places, often, because of what happened here. Every one of the Welsh churches I saw was sacred to a saint who had a story. And as I have spoken with grieving members of the community, I have heard stories. People the events that happened in the chapel: a classmate buried, an ordination, a profoundly memorable liturgy or sermon, the daily round of prayer that is part of community life and forms us.

Liturgy itself is an important part of what sanctifies places for us. At my own church on the Sunday after the fire, I found myself experiencing those “flashbacks” that we get when we are grieving, where one thing recalls another. We sang the hymn “Great is thy Faithfulness” on Sunday, and I recalled, with quick tears, that that was the last hymn that I sang in the seminary chapel, at Morning Prayer the day before the fire. Receiving the chalice from our seminarian, who is a VTS student, I recalled receiving the chalice from his hand a few weeks before, at a noon Eucharist in the chapel, with its scent of old wood, faint mustiness and beeswax, and midday light filtered through the “great commission” stained glass window, now gone. Receiving the presence of Christ in one place, I was remembering another place where I have met Christ, and been shaped and formed by that experience. It reminded me of the paradox that the presence of Christ is not confined to any particular place, and yet meets us where we are, in the world: and that involves place.

The first community Eucharist, the Monday after the fire, was held in the light-filled Georgian sanctuary at Immanuel Church on the Hill, across Seminary Road. The space recalled for me the New England Presbyterian church where I grew up. It could not have been more different from the Victorian feel of the old chapel. What was most consoling in that service, for many, was what we did together there. Dean Ian Markham named in his sermon what I was feeling from the opening sentences. The words of the Eucharistic liturgy, the familiar faces of the community, the celebration – our actions together – actions and prayers we had offered in other places – were what sanctified this gathering place for us, despite undeniable loss. This is true for any space where we gather in for worship – especially for Eucharist. And yet we are people of flesh and blood, and our lives are shaped by what we can sense, touch, feel, smell, and by our receptiveness to beauty. The places that shape us are not themselves sacred, and yet, they form us, open us, make us ready and able to receive the gift of God – body and blood, as people of flesh and blood, standing where we are.

And this took me back to David Jones, whose long poem The Anathemata revolves around the celebration of a mass in a London chapel, during the blitz. The celebration is the pivotal point of a long meditation on what holds us together, as Christians, when much that is recognizable in the surrounding civilization is crumbling away. Jones’ poem connects this particular Eucharistic celebration to the place and the time of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, which happened at a particular time and place, and to gatherings of Christians at the altar down through history. In the poet’s vision, the priest at the altar, blends into Christ presiding over the Last Supper and fulfilling the story in the mystery of the Cross.

Contemplating the priest at mass, “Here in this place//At a time’s turn,” the poet concludes:

     He does what is done in many places
     what he does other,
                                        he does after the mode
     of what has always been done.
     What did he do other,
                                        recumbent at the garnished supper
     What did he do yet other
                                        riding the Axile Tree?
(The Anathemata, p. 242)

Bullying is a species of torture

By Marilyn McCord Adams

Bullying is a species of torture. It shares with the practices of medieval dungeons, Japanese prisoner of war camps, Guantanamo Bay and Abu Graib, the goal of shattering the victim’s sense of self, of shredding any confidence in self worth, of dismantling the personhood of another human being.

Every day, we do and say things that hurt other people. Bad as these can be, bullying differs from the occasional snide remark in being consciously or instinctively relentless and systematic. There is no let up to words and deeds that send the message: not just what you do, but who you are is sub-standard, non-normative, so ridiculous and defective, so caricatured and twisted, so vile and disgusting that you are irremediably bad, unfixable, unfit for polite society. You deserve to be lonely and left out, despised and rejected, cast into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth!

Bullies gang up on individuals to create the impression of consensus. How could you be right in thinking you have any good points, when everybody else sees plainly that you don’t? Bullies prey on insecurities, bear down with jeers and accusations to make sure the victim finds and nurtures an intense hatred of self. Once this is achieved, the victim becomes the bullies’ best ally and his/her own worst enemy. Self-hatred works overtime to torment. Self-hatred is easily persuaded: the worst is too good for you; the world would have been better if you had never existed in the first place; really, the least you could do is not exist any more!

We wore purple on Wednesday to mourn teen suicides. But the bullies’ victory does not require that the victim literally separate body and soul. Bullying aims to give the victim a fate worse than death, once again, by destroying who s/he is as a person, by making sure that s/he goes to smash in so many pieces that even the best psychotherapists won’t know how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

This deliberate wreckage of human personhood is evil, the very worst sort of evil, because it aligns us with the powers of darkness--however we may prefer to think of them--that labor to unravel the Creator’s most precious work. Bullying is not just cruel and unusual punishment. Bullying is blasphemy because it tramples the sacred. Every human person is a temple of indwelling Holy Spirit. Bullying is an abomination to God!

Deep down, of course, this is what makes bullying so attractive. Deep down, we are scared that there is not enough to us to be worth loving, to justify our taking up space, commanding others’ attention, consuming scarce resources. Deep down, we are terrified that others will target us, expose our secrets, call attention to our failings and weaknesses, use their power to get us ousted. Well, everybody knows, the best defense is a good offense! Rising up to attack, we push down our fears with a surge of power. We take all of that self-hatred that eats away at our inner core, and turn it outward to join others in scape-goating, in playing god with someone else’s life.

When I was in grade school, we knew whom to pick on. First, the physically and mentally challenged: Bobby the hydrocephalic, Jimmy with the terrible lisp, Mary whose buck teeth would have paid for the orthodontist’s Cadillac. Then there were the kids who couldn’t read or did badly in math or were clutzes in sports or whose hand-me-down clothes didn’t fit and were grossly out of style. City bullying counted people out on grounds of race or national origin. Many of the recent tragic suicides have been sex-and-gender queered. Every society favors the survival of the fittest. Every society sends signals as to which groups you can get by with abusing, which citizens it will not bother to protect.

Bullying is torture, and bullying is blasphemy. Why, then, do we keep treating it as a peccadillo? Why do we dismiss grade-school and teen bullying as a normal part of growing up, a natural developmental stage? In several of the recent suicides, the young people and/or their parents had lodged complaints with school authorities, who found them easy to ignore.

One answer is that it is normal and natural because we inherit Darwinian fight-or-flight animal motivation. The instinct for bullying is not something we just out-grow, because we also are scared, feel better when we have someone to belittle. Like the Pharisee in the story, thanking God that we are not like other people, is a way of assuring ourselves that it is alright for society to keep privileging us while degrading others... perfectly fine to congratulate myself that I am okay, even unusually deserving, because those others really are not!

The truth is that “normal” and “natural” is not alright. Bullying is torture, bullying is blasphemy, and that means--in pre-Vatican II language--not only bullying but complacency about it, is a mortal, a very serious sin! Teen suicides are ghastly warning symptoms of deep social sickness. What are we to do?

The tax collector in the story shows us how to begin: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Like John the Baptist, Jesus came preaching repentance. But the old prayer book was wise. It is not enough to say the general confession. Being “heartily sorry” drives us to “works meet for repentance.” What might some of these be?

First, we must take bullying seriously, and we must teach our children to take bullying seriously. This means not treating it as a peccadillo but as a mortal sin when we or they commit it. It also means teaching kids how to recognize and protect themselves against bullies. It means insisting that our schools bring bullying out of the closet as a safety issue and institutionalize effective procedures for turning our schools into bully-free zones.

Second, moving from symptom to cause, we must be alert to identify the groups for which our society still shirks responsibility. In the eighties, our government washed its hands of the mentally challenged, the homeless, and asylum-seeking (legal and illegal) immigrants. Conditions in most prisons are still cruel and unusual. St. Philip’s has worked with others in Durham to take up the slack. But we are now half way through the first term of another president who promised. And hate campaigns are still running, teens are committing suicide, while state governments are still flip-flopping over LGBT marriage, and the fed’s are still hemming and hawing over LGBT don’t ask/don’t tell! In the face of this, we need--by who we are and what we do--to send the message: it is not alright for society to write off or abuse anyone, because it is not alright with God!

Third, reaching down to the foundations, we need to learn to love our children, friends, and partners, just as they are, for better for worse. Much as it is our role to help, even prod them to stretch up to be all they can be, we must not send the message that they count with us only if they excel in our favorite subject, that we are disappointed that they cannot pitch or run, that they exist to fulfil our goals and make us look good. We need to turn our homes and intimate relationships into safety zones where weakness and limitations can be faced as easily as triumphs and successes.

Bullying will stop, the instinct to bully will finally be quenched, when everybody feels safe and when everybody feels loved. God is the only one who can underwrite this conviction. We come to church to learn, and help one another learn, how to enter into the reality that God hates nothing that God has made, that God has no unwanted children, that God is for us through thick and thin, that God is with us no matter what, that God is willing and able to make good on the worst that we can suffer, be or do. Our calling is to become living advertizements of these realities. Time to get down on our knees, rise up, and go to!

The Reverend Marilyn McCord Adams is Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Heterosexism: A wound in Christ’s body

By W. Christopher Evans

The late F. D. Maurice one wrote that “the Incarnation may be set aside in acts as well as words.” The Incarnation, in other words, is not just about systematic or doxological proclamation. The Incarnation has something to do with how we are with one another, with our relatedness and our social worlds, here and now. The Word of God does not shrink from politics, but moves to the heart of human concerns and works continually to redeem them. That means that sometimes we will disagree publicly with one another, that we will fight with one another, and that we can be assured that God is working out our salvation in us and among us in our midst not despite our struggles, but precisely through, with, and in them.

Any spirituality that claims a peace and quiet of escape from “all that” is something other and something less than Christian spirituality. I start hearing jeremiads of “peace, peace.” Any Christian authority who claims neutrality for ecclesiastical social teaching or public stance or words is failing to take responsibility for effects on real flesh and blood lives. Christian spirituality refuses to shrink from the realities of human lives. Refuses to deny responsibility for our words and actions upon others’ lives. Indeed, Christian spirituality calls us to dive into the mess, including engaging in politics.

After all, politics is at heart about social relatedness, about people interacting with one another and with our surroundings and place in creation. Politics is precisely about how it is we are with one another in our social worlds together. And the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is very much concerned with the ways of flesh with flesh. After all, Christian spirituality too is at heart about relatedness, of ourselves to God through Christ in the Spirit, and in turn, of ourselves to self, one another, all creatures and the whole of creation. Wherever spirituality and politics are divorced, or the former is claimed to be somehow neutral in relation to the latter, beware. Such is in some sense, a denial of the Incarnation. As the late William Stringfellow reminds us in The Politics of Spirituality:

Whatever else may be affirmed about a spirituality which has biblical precedent and style, spiritual maturity or spiritual fulfillment necessarily involves the whole person—body, mind, soul, place, relationships—in connection with the whole of creation throughout the era of time. Biblical spirituality encompasses the whole person in the totality of existence in this world, not some fragment or scrap or incident of a person….Politics, hence, refers comprehensively to the total configuration of relationships among humans and institutions and other principalities and the rest of created life in this world. Politics describes the work of the Word of God in this world for redemption and the impact of that effort of the Word of God upon the fallen existence of this world, including the fallen life of human beings and that of the powers that be. Politics points to the militance of the Word of God incarnate, which pioneers the politics of the Kingdom which is to come. Politics heralds the activity of the Word of God in judgment over all persons and all regimes and all things whatsoever in common history. (22, 25-26).

Recently, the Archbishop of Canterbury gave yet another interview in which he claims neutrality while continuing to justify present Anglican Communion words and behaviors toward lgbt persons without consideration that it may be the Communion and its Churches that are in need of conversion of manner of life in relationship to lgbt persons, in need of conversion of heterosexist “habits, behaviours, ideas, and emotions.” Williams’ words are not neutral. His exercise of spiritual authority is not apolitical. To call us a “wound in the whole ministry” is flesh-denying. To commend to, if not demand, celibacy of us without observation of our faithful relationships for the same fruits of the Spirit automatically imputed to his own marriage by reason of heterosexuality alone is to bear false witness.

Under such circumstances, I prefer to remain outside the inner ring of Williams’ version of Anglicanism where so much harm is justified toward us in Jesus’ Name without taking responsibility for the hurt. As C.S. Lewis once observed: “The quest of the Inner Ring will break you heart unless you break it'.” Christ’s circle surely does just that, break the inner circle of Anglicanism by infinite embrace. Anglicanism will not leave without torn joint in this struggle, a struggle lgbt Christians increasingly engage by not fleeing but by pushing back in Jesus’ Name.

For contra Williams, his spirituality does real harm to flesh and blood persons, God’s lgbt people both inside and outside the institutions of the Churches. On the one hand, his words reinforce covert and overt forms of hostility in our everyday social worlds. On the other hand, they lend themselves to self-hatred on the part of lgbt persons. But worst of all, they admit no consideration that repentance and conversion might be incumbent on the part of the Church toward others of Christ’s members.

The ecclesiastical focus has been almost exclusively on the manner of life of lgbt persons, particularly, lgbt Christians. It is time to turn the spotlight on the manner of life of Archbishop Williams and the rest of the Body in relationship to us.

The sinful fruits of the rest of the Body as expressed in the Churches’ present stance in relation to us are wicked and many, easily named and readily available for empirical examination. I name just a few of them again: False witness; self-righteousness and justification of self according to sexuality rather than to Jesus Christ; verbal abuse; physical abuse; emotional abuse; spiritual abuse; space in teaching to justify parents and families throwing us out of the house and worse; bullying; loss of jobs and housing; support of government-sponsored torture as so-called conversion therapies that include the United States, the United Kingdom, and South Africa; reparative rape; imprisonment; and murder. Apparently these standards are no bar to clerical service, much less full participation in the life of Christ’s Church.

Archbishop Williams’ words subtly allow for the endorsement of all these more vicious aspects of the Anglican Communion in its relationship with God’s lgbt people, and they continue in none-to-subtle terms to suggest we are garbage—that we should just go away. And it is time to stop pretending that his is not a deformed version of Christian spirituality in its claimed neutrality toward us, a claimed neutrality that has real life effects in our relationships together as human beings and does God’s lgbt persons harm—harm and effects that from an lgbt point-of-view are a denial of the Incarnation in words and acts. His neutrality and its effects on us are anything but Christian virtues or demonstrations of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, the true measure and standard of Christian living, lay or clerical.

Indeed, neither the Churches of the Anglican Communion, nor the societies in which they find themselves and participate, are neutral ethically, culturally, or politically. Many are actively as well as passively homophobic and heterosexist. Just in the United States alone this last week, I saw the report of several young men kill themselves for being bullied because of perception of or for being gay: Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, Billy Lucas, and Tyler Clementi.

The stances of the Churches of the Anglican Communion are not neutral, and for Archbishop Williams to continue to claim neutrality spiritual and political must be challenged in the name of Christ Jesus, indeed, by refutation of the Archbishop with his own words:

Our responsibility for a just commonwealth is the same responsibility laid upon us to be partakers of this holy Communion. If we are to respond to the invitation of God, we must in will and deed be answerable for our common life. That it is God who invites, the holy and sovereign God, must reinforce our sense of the danger to which we are exposed by our collusion in the rapacity and fragmentariness of an unjust commonwealth—“the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions”, to quote from the prayer whose original context is political, not ecclesiastical in the limited sense….the company at the Lord’s Table represents a social order, the possibility of sitting together as God's guests is inextricably bound up with the way power and wealth are being used outside the liturgical assembly…. the specific Anglican contribution to the theology of liturgical construction and reconstruction has to do with the making of liturgy that connects the catholic pattern of life in the Body of Christ with the patterns of community that prevail in this place and time; it is to grasp that part of the task of liturgy is to provide a resource for “imagining the Kingdom” against the specific social and political background, so that the judgment passed by the structures of Christ’s Body on the failed and sinful patterns of an unredeemed or rebellious world may have some chance of being concrete and local. Above all, it assumes that the worshipping congregation is responsible to God for the social patterns in which its members are involved.[1]

[1] Rowan Williams, “Imagining the Kingdom,” in The Identity of Anglican Worship, ed. Kenneth Stevenson and Bryan Spinks (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1991), 5-6.

Dr. Christopher Evans recently completed a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies and Church History at the Graduate Theological Union. He offers occasional musings on the Rule of St. Benedict, liturgical questions, and life as a Benedictine oblate at Contemplative Vernacular

Stumbling Credo

By Kathleen Staudt

Verna Dozier is known for saying that every Christian should be able to tell the story of the faith in 10 minutes or less. Sometimes people call that out of us. Recently more than one friend has asked me some version of the question “What does the Crucifixion mean? The question was asked in an email (I can’t actually remember from whom, now – and I never answered it.) Stumbling in prose, but haunted by the question, thought I’d lean imaginatively into the question, see what would come out in verse – with line-breaks providing space to ponder. I’m not really sure about the quality of what follows as “great poetry,” but it does offer a crack at the that question, one which perhaps other Café readers have been asked at one time or another. Here’s my try at a response.

Stumbling Credo
(lines written in response to a friend who asked me, as if she thought I would know, “What does the Crucifixion mean, anyway?”)

The world is broken: there’s no doubt
About that part. People are cruel and violent
And the ones who are in power
Religious or imperial – they know
Their power rests on privilege, and fear

And yet there is, beneath it all, a love that is for all
That calls us home to ancient faithfulness
And gives the dispossessed a voice, a place, a grounded life.
It seems such love cannot prevail, when those in power
Who profit from the broken world, create a reign of fear.

But when that love, which has a human face
Cannot endure to see how people harm each other
He comes to be among us, shares the fate
Of those the most oppressed and says –
You are all God’s people: rich and poor, in and out
You are all so greatly beloved.

So stop this now. Repent, he says to all
Change your way of life. Love one another, and resist
The rule of those who lord it over others. Refuse to fear.

Such love, it seems, cannot survive
In this broken world
Where love incarnate comes to live among us
So his own leaders work together with
The rulers of the age. Call him a traitor
Kill and torture him,
And crucify: the punishment of traitors.

They can crucify the man, but they cannot kill
The love he bears and is, nor can anything
Blot out this love,
The Love that has has suffered
The worst that power and rage could then inflict.
The suffering is real. The love persists, And so
He rises from the dead, to say
Look: you canot kill it.

He comes back to his closest friends, and says again
I am the way – follow me, and I will set you free
In this world, love is bound to suffer
But bear it, and love will teach you to live
Together, be my people – my friends, and I
Will do great things for you.

Do not be afraid: Sin will not stand. The victory
Has already been won.
It is possible to live another way: follow me.
Do not be afraid
The work I brought is already begun
There is a way, it is still real
The promise that this broken world can be made whole
Available to love.
There is still a Way.

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.

Father of the bride

By Todd Donatelli


“Is this the little girl I carried? Is this the little boy at play? I don't remember growing older; When did they?” Sunrise, Sunset; Fiddler on the Roof

“Signs of endings all around us; Come O Christ and dwell among us; give us hope and faith and gladness. Show us what there yet can be.” Hymn 721, Wonder, Love and Praise.

The picture sits on a shelf in my office. It is of my oldest daughter Gina and I when she was two years old. She and I are standing on our freshly constructed backyard play set. Her eyes are ablaze with excitement. Her dad is looking pretty excited as well. The play set has traveled from Atlanta to Jackson, Mississippi to Asheville where it still resides in our yard. A few weeks ago Gina became engaged to be married. We love her fiancé Tom and have enjoyed getting to know his family. I am deeply moved when I see the ocean depths of excitement in their eyes. I am also deeply moved when I look in the backyard and see the play set. Our endings are our beginnings.

When talking with one of my wisdom friends recently (wisdom friend means someone with more grey hair than me) they talked about how we often don’t make room in our lives for times of transition; we don’t consciously acknowledge and attend to the emotional space of life changes, be they hopeful changes such as a new job or new opportunity or tough changes such as the loss of someone or the physical or cognitive changes in ourselves or those we love. Too often, they said, we tend to expect the same of ourselves in these moments as we do in other periods of our life. Too often we don’t find ways to mark and face openly that which our guts are registering quite clearly.

I have presided at weddings for over two decades watching fathers escort their daughters down the aisle. I confess I have watched the fathers more than the brides trying to comprehend how they do it. I know in the deepest parts of my soul this is “meet and right so to do”. I know this is what will bring her life and me as well. Yet when it comes to endings that lead to life, I can be quite a chicken.

Added to this is my mother wanting to talk about end of life plans, directives and how she wants to live in the time from here to there. I will not tell you mom’s age. I will tell you she lived through the Depression and my father fought in WWII. She still lives an independent life and she is naming to me that it is fall and we must consider the coming winter. I want to run.
As Episcopalians, we are big on death. That may seem a blunt, even crass statement. Yet at every Eucharistic liturgy we speak of Jesus dying, we hold high bread broken and speak of body offered for us. We devote a whole season to loss and brokenness and a whole week to the death of Jesus. With great regularity we proclaim in death our life is found. Even in the wedding liturgy we proclaim the way of the cross is the way of life. Yet while we name regularly these "signs all around us” there is still the urge to quickly pass by our endings.

One of the things I love about living in Asheville is the changing seasons each with a vibrancy all its own. We are entering the period of deep red Maple leaves, the reds of Dogwoods, the yellow-oranges of Poplars and the whole communion of hardwoods offering their amazing palate of color (yes, please come see the mountain leaves and support our local economy).
In time the leaves will fall and the mountains will have their stark, barren appearance. Yet even this barrenness affords views and understandings of the mountains unseen when leaves are present. The lines are a bit more harsh but no less compelling. Soon I will sit on the front porch looking at the garden that has gone underground for another season. The spent flowers, leaves and stalks will decompose offering their substance for the generation yet to emerge.

While seeing the barrenness I will remind myself of the gift of fallow time, the time when we must pause and be still with that which is changing before us. There is a quiet to the barrenness that invites a wisdom all its own. In time spring will return. The bulbs will push their shoots through the dirt still chilled by winter’s temperature. Birds will return and the warmth of the season will allow for the shedding of coverings.

Yet that is a ways away. For now it is time to watch the leaves change. For now it is time to be present to what this season wishes to say. In our endings are our beginnings.

Gina and I will soon go out for a dinner where we will talk about things like the play set, t-ball games, ice skating trips, her parts in school plays, trips we took to the Mississippi coast after Katrina and a host of other rich memories. We will talk excitedly about this new chapter of life. I will also tell her that between now and next summer’s wedding her dad may appear a bit crazy at times. I will indeed let go of her, already am, and, this will be a transition.

The Hebrews erected piles of stones they called tabernacles in places where they had encountered the Holy One. These served as reminders of engagement with the Sacred, places where they tasted that ineffable presence of life. The tabernacles were not some destination, they were points along the sojourn. Pictures of my girls are among my tabernacles. They are not moments to clutch. They are moments to remember for what they offered in that time. They are moments that have delivered us to this moment, this new chapter of life.

“Swiftly flow the days; Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers, blossoming even as we gaze.” Sunrise, Sunset. In our endings are our beginnings.

The Very Rev. Todd Donatelli is dean of the Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville, N. C.

On immigration: Are we heeding Moses and the prophets?

Not long ago, we asked people how they preached on the difficult gospel passage below. The Rev. Bill Carroll responded.

By Bill Carroll

Jesus said, "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' But Abraham said, `Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.' He said, `Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house-- for I have five brothers-- that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' He said, `No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, `If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"
(Luke 16:19-31)

I wrote this sermon for one of the women who cleaned my parents' house when I was growing up. Her name is Gilda, and she took over the job from her mother Lupe, whom my mother hired not long after we moved to San Diego when I was ten. Gilda spoke very little English. She was a Mexican citizen with documentation to work in this country. Twice a week she worked at our house, and I assume she had other jobs during the week. She came by public transit from Tijuana, Mexico, some twenty-five miles away.

I remember my mother's efforts to be fair. She paid Gilda more than the going rate. She made or bought lunch for her every day, and she tried to give her a ride to and from the bus stop, which was about a mile from our house. At the same time, however, even as a child, I was aware that Gilda was living on the edge. She must have been bone tired, emotionally and physically weary. Nearly every day, she was harassed and shaken down for bribes by officials on both sides of the border. Despite the fact that she needed the job and seemed to appreciate kindnesses that her other employers did not extend, nothing can really change the brute, social facts surrounding our relationship.

I was thinking about Gilda when the House of Bishops met in Arizona recently. There was some controversy about whether they should meet there at all, in light of recent events in that state. One of the positive things to come out of that decision was a delegation of thirty bishops, who spent two days on both sides of the border, meeting with everyone from immigrants to ranchers to border patrol agents to clergy ministering along the border. The bishops also adopted a pastoral letter, drafted by a committee chaired by our own bishop (Bishop Tom Breidenthal of Southern Ohio), on comprehensive immigration reform.

The letter is available here. It is addressed to "the People of God." As is true of any letter written by committee for a diverse audience, the letter strives for balance. The legitimate concerns of ranchers, law enforcement, and border security advocates are acknowledged. Nevertheless, our bishops do manage to say something clear and substantive. More importantly, they put front and center the needs of poor people crossing the border for work, whether documented or not. Here is the meat of what the bishops had to say:

(1) Ours is a migratory world in which many people move across borders to escape poverty, hunger, injustice and violence. We categorically reject efforts to criminalize undocumented migrants and immigrants, and deplore the separation of families and the unnecessary incarceration of undocumented workers. Since, as we are convinced, it is natural to seek gainful employment to sustain oneself and one’s family, we cannot agree that the efforts of undocumented workers to feed and shelter their households through honest labor are criminal.

(2) We profess that inhumane policies directed against undocumented persons (raids, separation of families, denial of health services) are intolerable on religious and humanitarian grounds, as is attested by the consensus of a wide range of religious bodies on this matter.

(3) We call on the government of the United States and all governments to create fair and
humane immigration policies...


In taking this stand, which will not be popular in every corner of the Church, our bishops have done what they promised at their ordination. Among the vows that bishops take is a particular promise to "be merciful to all, show compassion to the poor and strangers, and defend those who have no helper."

But the bishops, seeking to encourage us all, appeal not primarily to this promise of theirs but instead to the baptismal covenant they share with all of us, wherein we promise to "strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being."

In their role as teachers of the Word of God, the bishops also cite the Scriptures. In particular, they mention the law given to Moses on Sinai, as recorded in the fifteenth chapter of Numbers: There shall be for you and the resident alien a single statute, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; you and the alien shall be alike before the Lord. And they refer to a glorious passage from Ephesians, chapter two, which speaks of how in Christ, we are no longer "strangers and aliens" but "citizens with the saints and...members of the household of God."

The bishops might just have well referred to the story of Lazarus and the rich man, appointed for Sunday right after their letter came out. This Gospel is one of several passages in the New Testament, the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew also comes to mind, where it is made clear to us that our decisions about how to respond to brothers and sisters in need, particularly when they are poor and vulnerable, are decisions for or against God and God's Kingdom.

In this life, the rich man ignored the cries of poor Lazarus, who lay wounded and hungry at his gate. Perhaps he could scarcely see him for who he was. Even if he did see him, he averted his gaze, ignored him, and tried to pretend he wasn't there. He certainly didn't respond to his needs, get to know him, or find out what gifts he had to offer.

I believe that for Christians living in the United States, which despite our recent difficulties is still the richest country on earth, this parable provides a challenge and a warning. Do we see the poor of the world? Do we see the poor who are already among us, both immigrant and "native-born"? Do we see the growing underclass among us, as poverty and extreme poverty rates continue to climb?

How do we respond when we notice these children of God lying at our gates? Do we cover our eyes? Do we call the cops? Or do we invite them in, offer them a seat at the table, and find ways for them to contribute and belong? We dare not turn a blind eye to the fundamental realities already on the ground. Immigrants are already contributing mightily to the economy, to the communities they live in, and to the society as a whole. There are law enforcement challenges to be sure and no one has all the answers, but the existing laws are out of touch with reality. And the climate of fear and scapegoating is dangerous. It runs contrary to both our best instincts as a nation and the Gospel mandate to tear down every wall that divides human beings.

This commandment from God is rooted in Israel's history as a nation of migrant workers, who came to Egypt to avoid famine and were mistreated by Pharaoh, until GOD came and set them free. This is why, again and again, the prophets remind us of our obligation to create justice for the poor and vulnerable among us: remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

In the story from Luke 16, when the rich man asks father Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers, Abraham tells him that they already have Moses and the prophets and should listen to them. Truly, brothers and sisters, if WE will not heed Moses and the prophets, and respond to our brothers and sisters in need, there is perhaps no hope for us. No, not even if someone rises from the dead.

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.

Feeding the uncredentialed poor

By Sara Miles

Thursday’s New York Times story on the conflict over funding food pantries in the San Francisco Bay Area is mercifully light on the clichés that usually accompany reporting about good works by churches. Instead, reporter Scott James tries to examine the issues of power, money, and turf that come into play when different faith-based models for feeding the hungry collide.

The Food Pantry which I founded at St Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco ten years ago, is one of the pantries in the “neighborhood grocery network” James writes about. This grassroots network was started by the San Francisco Food Bank in an effort to get fresh food to hungry people who weren’t being served by shelter meal programs or soup kitchens that focused largely on homeless men. The idea was to get groceries to single women and their kids (the largest group of hungry people in the Bay Area); very low-wage workers and their families, seniors and immigrants. The Food Bank enlisted churches, synagogues and community centers around the city to open their doors as distribution points for free food. People who were unlikely to take their children to soup kitchens could, instead, get groceries in a church and prepare meals at home for their families.

The response was amazing, and demand for groceries has only grown as the economy has worsened. Our pantry at St. Gregory’s began by serving 35 families and now gives groceries to over 1200, without requiring proof of income or citizenship, and without asking people to prove they deserve food. The food, mostly fresh produce, is piled up farmers-market style right around St. Gregory’s altar, which is etched with the words of Isaac of Ninevah: “Did not our Lord dine with publicans and harlots? Therefore make no distinction between worthy and unworthy; all must be equal in your eyes to love and to serve.”

Over the years, the network of neighborhood pantries with a similar ethos has grown to nearly 200 sites. We’ve built strong relationships among ourselves, and with church and non-profit agencies of all sizes, sharing inspiration, work and friendship.

But, as James reports in his Times story, in a shrinking economy there are fewer resources and more competition for funds to feed the hungry. One contested source is federal FEMA money for emergency food and shelter, administered locally by the United Way, which names a board made up of representatives from organizations like the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, and Meals on Wheels to survey the landscape and allocate funds to different groups.

In San Francisco, most of the large, established non-profits who feed the hungry have big budgets, lots of staff, lots of overhead, many government contracts and grants, and a professionalized, social-service approach. They largely serve very poor people who are already in the system. They require clients to prove that they are “truly needy” based on intake interviews and thorough documentation of their income, and their programs have strict eligibility requirements.

The neighborhood food pantries, on the other hand, are run very cheaply, almost entirely by volunteers, many of them poor; they don’t employ development directors or staff to do screening and intake. These pantries tend to serve poor people outside the system who can’t produce official proof of income: those who work for very low wages off the books in the informal economy or service sector; undocumented immigrants; the long-term unemployed. And they tend to assume that anyone hungry enough to stand in line for three hours to get groceries should get them.

In a different climate, these different groups would be partners, working to complement each other and serve as many hungry people as possible. But in a time of turf fights over funding, the faith-based, DIY, low-cost grassroots model makes some in the social-services industry uncomfortable. Last week, San Francisco’s local United Way FEMA board announced that neighborhood pantries allow people to cheat and get food they don’t deserve. They’ve imposed new rules, under which church and neighborhood pantries will no longer get FEMA money unless, like traditional agencies, they start requiring people to verify their incomes before receiving food. Neighborhood pantries responded with outrage to the accusations of fraud. Most said they would not apply for FEMA money as long as it meant complying with the new rules.

Last week I attended a heated meeting with representatives from the United Way’s FEMA Board and dozens of neighborhood food pantries. I talked with a Methodist pastor from a Latino neighborhood who told me his pantry would close without FEMA funding, but that he wasn’t willing to demand income verification from people he knew were poor and mostly undocumented. “Of course we probably feed some people who don’t deserve it,” he said, sounding frustrated. “But wait, that’s what we’re supposed to do––we’re Christians.”


Sara Miles is the founder and director of The Food Pantry, and Director of Ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church.

Nullification revisited

By James R. Mathes

The Rt. Rev. Mark Lawrence wrote the essay, “A Conservationist among Lumberjacks,” in The Living Church, published online on October 1, 2010, which attempts to paint the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina as a protector of the Constitution of the Episcopal Church.

It is true that there are no new plots.

What Bishop Lawrence postulates is simply a twenty-first century reprisal of the 1828 nullification crisis in which the state of South Carolina attempted to nullify federal tariffs.

Bishop Lawrence feigns great sorrow at the changing landscape of the Episcopal Church. He writes, “I have grown sad from walking among the stumps of what was once a noble old-growth Episcopalian grove in the forest of Catholic Christianity.” Donning the mantle of ecclesial conservationist, Bishop Lawrence even quotes environmentalist, Aldo Leopold, “a conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke [of the ax] he is writing his signature on the face of his land.” The bishop adds, “far too many leaders in our church have never learned this lesson.” Indeed.

All of this is prelude to his main premise that the presiding bishop is threatening the polity of the Episcopal Church. He wants you to believe that the threat is manifested in three ways: because her chancellor has retained a South Carolina attorney to represent the wider Episcopal Church’s interests should they diverge from the Diocese of South Carolina’s interests; through the Title IV revisions from the 2009 General Convention; and by the manner in which the House of Bishops has dealt with bishops who have left the Episcopal Church.

If Bishop Lawrence were simply presenting these thoughts to spur debate about his concern regarding the polity of the Episcopal Church and his perceptions of threats to the same, I could imagine he and I having a lively conversation, perhaps when we next meet at House of Bishops. He might even convince me to support changes in the canons to preserve our polity. However I suspect that that is not what Bishop Lawrence is after. His essay is rather an attempt to justify resolutions being considered this weekend at the Convention of the Diocese of South Carolina, which among other things, claims “sovereignty” of diocese. He tips his hand in his essay when he claims that “the presiding bishop and her unelected chancellor [are] intruding into diocesan independence.”

An Episcopal diocese is no more independent of the Episcopal Church than a state is independent of the federal government. This is nothing short of an attempt to craft ecclesiastical nullification. And of late, we have had too much practice in that with four other dioceses claiming nullification on the road to secession.

Bishop Lawrence’s thinking is problematic.

First, there is no real threat from the presiding bishop unless you attempt secession, in which case she will simply do her job of preserving the diocese from those who choose to abandon it.

The Title IV revisions, while not perfect, are an effort to shift from a disciplinary model to a pastoral model of dealing with clergy conduct issues. There is no external threat to a diocese from the presiding bishop. In fact, due process is enhanced. I would invite Bishop Lawrence and the Diocese of South Carolina to join the wider Episcopal Church in living with these canonical changes and to offer changes at future General Conventions. This is the right way to deal with perceived imperfections.

And it is rather silly to raise procedural objections to Bob Duncan’s deposition. While I believe we followed our canonical procedures properly, Duncan’s previously prepared departure to the Southern Cone immediately acted upon and announced moments after his deposition made it clear that the House made the appropriate decision.

Indeed, what’s the complaint? Bob Duncan and the House of Bishops were in perfect agreement: he was no longer a bishop in the Episcopal Church. The issue for Duncan was that his deposition gravely weakened his flimsy legal position relative to his compliance with an out of court settlement relating to Episcopal Church property. As Bishop Lawrence and the Diocese of South Carolina prepare to move forward with their own canonical changes, I fear they may be playing a similar game.

Bishop Lawrence: be at peace. Your colleagues in our House of Bishops support you in leading the Diocese of South Carolina consonant with its particular theological perspective. We grieve with you those who have left the Episcopal Church. But know this -- no one cut them out. They were not the victims of lumberjacks; they uprooted themselves. We pray that you will not do the same. It would be a regrettable repeat of history. In the end, we will wait for your next move. Please don’t fire on Fort Sumter.

The Rt. Rev. James R. Mathes is Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego.

The Church and the state of gay rights in Kenya

By Peter Anaminyi

In a recent address last month to a national symposium on HIV/Aids targeting homosexuals, lesbians and sex workers in Kenya, Hon Esther Murugi, a Minister in the Office of the President in Kenya, told the participants that “We need to learn to live with men who have sex with other men… we are in the 21st century and things have changed.”

She went on to say that homosexuals and sex workers were an independent constituency and should not be stigmatised and called for statistics to enable the government to develop a policy to cut prevalence rates among the group.

The reaction of religious leaders was predictable, virulent, violent and swift.

The Organising Secretary of the Council of Imams and Preachers described her utterances as “satanic and contrary to African culture” and added that “God in his holy books (Quran and Bible) cursed homosexuality and directed us to fight it.’ He went on to urge the President and the Prime Minister to take stern action against the minister. His comments were supported by the Chairman of the Kenya National Muslim Advisory Council.

Not to be left behind more than 74 churches under the aegis of the Federation of Evangelical Indigenous Christian Churches of Kenya petitioned the President to sack the minister over her remarks and threatened to hold public demonstrations if this was not done. They warned that the Ministers statement would invite God’s wrath.

However a week or so after the minister’s statement, the Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs added what must have come as a shocker to some members of the religious community: the Government was not going to discriminate against gays in the provision of services. It’s against the new constitution. What people do in their bedrooms should be a private matter.

Homophobia however is not unique to Africa, as the recent suicide ofTyler Clementi, the 18 year old Rutgers University freshman who felt he would rather commit suicide than have people know that he is gay, has shown.

Kenya Government statistics show that over 30 percent of all new HIV infections are generated by commercial sex workers, homosexuals and drug users. All these groups are engaged in sexual and other behaviors that are currently criminalised. An HIV prevention policy therefore that assumes that 30 percent of the problem to be solved does not or should not exist would be one that is based on wishful thinking.

Almost 30 years after the first incidence of HV was reported, 35 out of 52 African countries or almost 70 percent of them were unable to report any information about gay populations to the United Nations General Assembly Session of HIV/AIDS (UNGASS) this year.

Again whereas the Centre for Disease Control has found that the unadjusted probability per coital act of transmitting HIV is 80 times higher for receptive anal intercourse than for vaginal intercourse, and that the rate of new HIV diagnoses among men who have sex with
men (MSM) is more than 44 times that of other men and more than 40 times that of women, the risk of homosexual behaviour in relation to HIV in Sub Saharan Africa has been measured in only 14 out of 118 studies reported between 1984-2007.

No responsible government can allow this state of wilful ignorancev and inaction to prevail. The Kenya government is therefore pursuing an evidence based policy in addressing the issue of HIV and sexual minorities through it’s National Aids Strategic Plan. This plan is a product of the Kenya National Aids Council whose corporate members include all the main Christian religious denominations in Kenya who are represented on its board by the National Council of Churches in Kenya, as well as the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims, and the national associations representing all employers, NGO’s and women organisations. It is not possible to constitute a membership that is wider, stronger or more reflective of the state, civil society and religious interests.

The Plan fully embraces the gay community and organisations that have expertise in this area and commits the government to addressing the delicate and controversial issues of decriminalization and access to services. Significantly the plan states that Cutting across all
strategies will be a central focus on MARPs (Most at Risk Populations: gays, sex workers and injecting drug users) and vulnerable groups.

In compliance with its international human rights treaty obligations, the Kenya Government presented its second periodic report on compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2005, to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and cited the differences and conflicts within the Anglican Church and communion and the strong homophobic stance of the African Anglican Bishops as one of the factors it was considering in framing its policy towards same sex relations.

In response to a question as to whether it considered the criminalisation of homosexuality to be inconsistent with the Covenant’s non-discrimination clauses, Kenya’s Attorney General said that ‘The movement appeared to be towards tolerance, but the Government would watch the issue closely, particularly as the Anglican Church was currently struggling with the matter.’

However in response to calls this year for decriminalization of homosexuality by the US, France, Netherlands and 97 national international development organisations in Kenya, the UN reported that the Kenya government said it was ‘Committed to decriminalize them and combat discrimination, but facing serious social intolerance towards homosexuals’. And in its report to the United Nations General Assembly Session of HIV/AIDS this year, the Government recommended the revision and harmonization of health and criminal laws ‘so that all the issues of HIV and AIDS that are affecting the MARPs (Most at risk populations)… are addressed.’

The Anglican Church of Kenya is represented on the Kenya National Aids Council by the ational Council of Churches in Kenya. In fact the Anglican Church is the largest denominational member of this Council.

The violent attacks on Kenya’s minister are an indication of the fears African governments have about adopting evidence based approaches in dealing with HIV and AIDS due to culture and religion. They are also an indication of the inability of some churches to distinguish between moral values that should guide their members and public policy that guides all. But how will Africa’s cultural values and religion exist if its people are dead from the consequences of taking the same values and beliefs uncritically? Kenya is prepared to work with any individual or organisation, local or international to address to the human rights and health issues of its gay communities and other sexual minorities.

Peter Anaminyi is the National Director/CEO Feba Radio Kenya and formerly a Manager
with the National Bank of Kenya and Assistant Inspector of State Corporations, Office of the
President, Kenya. He holds an MA in Management from the University of Leeds, in England
an M.Sc in International Banking and Financial Studies from Herriot Watt University in
Scotland and an MA in human rights law and diplomacy from the University of
Witwatersrand in South Africa. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the views
of Feba Radio, Kenya.

Pointing the finger

By Richard E. Helmer

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.

Isaiah 58:9b-11

In a tense time like ours, the "pointing of the finger" seems to be one of the primal ways the world around us relates. This could not be truer in this season of contentious elections where partisanship is running rampant. Some point at Washington to place blame for all that faces us, others to extremists of every stripe, others to big business, others to various social policies and those who promote them. The threat of a single fundamentalist pastor to burn Islam’s holy book in a tiny never-heard-from-before church in Florida made international headlines recently. This incident broke open the raw areas in our collective consciousness where freedom of speech, religious conscience, and common decency meet. But it also reflected back to us our deep tendency to blame others for our ills. . . to point the finger, to shout past one another, to paint one another up in caricature until we lose sight of our common humanity.

Anyone who hangs around the Church very long knows that we are all too often no better. In a recent exchange of emails characterized as a Christian “Tea Party” moment, I watched the painting up of ecclesiastical tensions simply as a conflict of congregations vs. the diocese. The odd thing about that, of course, is that we are all the diocese, and moreover, we are all the Church together: congregations, dioceses, ministries, members, clergy, laity, staff. But the “us” vs. “them” mode is so much easier. It gives us someone to hold responsible for all our troubles.

It gives us a direction to point the finger.

One way of viewing Christianity is that the pointing of the finger leads ultimately to the cross. The crucifixion is our tradition’s ultimate expression of blame, heaped upon our God in Christ on the cross, who willingly bears that blame into death. Whether it’s the crowds stirred up by religious authorities and Roman imperialism in the first century; or it’s the clamoring for attention by blaming the other – from immigrants to Muslims – in our age, pointing the finger is an almost innate characteristic of our broken humanity, the summation of our hostility and our divisions as a people in search of a way out of our brokenness. And it is this brokenness that sacrifices Christ. And it is out of that sacrifice that God opens for us a new Way.

Our message as Christians is this: For the ancient prophet Isaiah and for us in community around Christ today, the life-giving alternative to pointing the finger is generosity.

Many of us in congregational ministries are moving into our pledge campaign season at this time of year. In the midst of a fractious world where people cling tightly to their resources out of fear, we are calling one another out to be generous in the midst of community. We continue with our ministries to feed those who are hungry. We continue in our endeavors for justice: to seek out and satisfy the needs of the afflicted. By living into a community of generosity, we help shoulder one another’s burdens, easing the pressure of the yoke. We learn to listen to one another with generous hearts, bringing healing and light in the midst of a shouting darkness. The generosity that is crucified rises again into new life, and we become like a watered garden – where the blessings of our baptism overflow into abundant grace.

If the world is calling us to the pointing of the finger this season, the Church is calling us towards generosity. For our hands were made by our Creator not to point in blame or cling out of fear, but to share. And it is in that sharing that we find God’s abundance for everyone. And that is good news: Gospel for a world that needs it now more than ever.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, church politics, music, and the misadventures of young parenthood at Caught by the Light.

All can be saved

This is the third of a three-part article.

By Donald Schell

girl.at.the.font_7.jpgStuart Schwarz’s book, All Can Be Saved: Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World, digs deep into the archival records of the Spanish Inquisition to offer a what I can only read as the Holy Spirit’s relentless subversion of church efforts to guard power and insider status (whether by making state sanctioned baptism a ticket to belonging as in England or by shunning those who converted as in Spain).

As a secular historian Schwartz is tracking how Western society came to regard tolerance as a moral value (and the path he follows begins quoting church leaders declaring tolerance a serious sin). All through the records of Inquisitors’ questions and the transcribed witness of the accused on both sides of the Atlantic (major colonial centers in the Spanish colonies had their own local Inquisition), Schwarz finds the voices of ordinary faithful people who, in the name of God, of Christ, and of their understanding of Christian theology continued to protest scapegoating, condemnation, and marginalization of family members, neighbors, and friends, and strangers.

In the massive court records of the Spanish, Portuguese, and New World Inquisitions, Schwartz finds theologians, parish clergy, monks, nuns and ordinary lay people who, on trial and under oath, sometimes facing execution for heresy persisted in declaring
that God could save whom God pleased,
that Jews and Muslims could be saved according to the law they had received,
and that Christ wanted none killed in his name
(propositions most contemporary Episcopalians would readily accept).


Schwartz emphasizes that he found this witness of compassionate protest (and skeptical resistance) not just in the trial records of devout, theological trained teachers and clergy, but in literate but otherwise untrained laypeople and even in illiterate tradesmen whose experience of other people moved them to question official church teaching.

For believing scholars, new vision (and renewal of a more ancient vision) came from study of Bible and theology.

Sometimes the most ordinary Spaniard who had lived among Moors (or sailed with Anglicans or lived in the English West Indies) found God at work in the kindness and goodwill and prayers of Muslims or Protestants.

Scripture, tradition, and human experience gave people back to one another, made all sorts and conditions ask where God dwelt or simply saw fallible human grace and glory in all people. Some pioneers of open-heartedness were also agnostics or atheists who espoused tolerance from a human belief that we needed each other and from deep skepticism that a world where so many suffered could have anything to do with God. Their unstoppable, courageous witness for compassion finally closed the Inquisition.

But what does this four hundred year old argument teach us about baptism?

Everywhere we turn we find a bind -
Most Episcopal clergy that I know and most of our theologically reflective laypeople disavow the necessity of baptism to deliver people from God’s wrath or hell.
Most Episcopalians positively recoil at the idea that un-baptized babies go to hell.
But we want to claim that baptism bestows an otherwise unattainable spiritual good whether it’s “salvation” (though with classic good-mannered Anglican reserve we won’t say salvation from what) or whether it’s “initiation into the Body of Christ,” or whether it’s “becoming a child of God,” or “becoming one with the People of God,” or simply getting or doing whatever it is we “need in order to receive communion.” All these formulations leave us asking what we’re saying about the rest of humanity.

The simplicity and single-mindedness of Lynn’s joyful photo, like the daring early voices for grace that broke all bounds, prompts me to ask whether trusting desire might wash away our investment in the compulsions, necessities, and scrutinies of purity that divides us. Whether or not the girl at the font is thinking about baptism - none of the compulsions or consequences we’ve been considering haunts her moment at the waters. In this moment the font, the water, and baptism mean exactly what she sees and feels, what she has seen and felt. Seeing and feeling unleash desire. Testing waters we know are sacred, she tries out her embrace of a wider world.

As a church founder in mission to an increasingly un-baptized American population, I quit wondering who must be baptized and to what end. My experience was that when our congregation sustained a deep welcome, accepted who people as they came and listened for the Spirit’s nudging them to grow and be more, that baptism beckoned strongly to all and that most, sooner or later, would answer the question, “Do you desire to be baptized” with a simple, emphatic “yes!” And thirty years’ experience of making an unreserved invitation of all to communion, says that letting God satisfy people’s simple, immediate desire for communion will move them to desire baptism.

The baptismal rock in the photo is outdoors, wholly outside the walls of the church. That font doesn’t stand guarding the church door. Altar Table greets each visitor with its invitation to taste communion in Christ. And beyond the Table, the font waits, promising the fullness of life in Christ.

It makes Gospel sense that the font is out doors. Walls keep the weather out and make a safe place for worship. Each baptism at this rock “outside the walls” draws us out from worship to the open sky, unsheltered and in the world. And even more than Jesus’ wilderness baptism in the Jordan, baptism here outside the church recalls the baptism that Jesus’ words in Matthew, Mark and Luke keep warning and promising his disciples lies ahead for him and for them, baptism on the cross. Outside the walls of the holy city, beyond the bounds of self-consciously sanctified community, in solidarity with all humanity, even the worst of us, Jesus death embraces God’s fullest work of reconciliation, Christ living and dying in communion with even the worst of us.

Jesus’ baptism leaves the safety of the city behind to burst the gates of hell. 17th Century England and Spain give us hair-raising cautionary tales about the dangers (to people and to baptism itself) any time baptism is the gate back to insider status. Golgotha strips from us our hopes of being an insider and hanging on to power. When Jesus died outside the city walls, the sinless one made sin, dying literally cast out and ‘accursed’ for hanging on a tree, he invited the dying thief to feast with him in paradise – where in group is left behind forever. Dying between condemned criminals Jesus invites us into the fullest human communion that must include even those we’re tempted to say have ‘no place,’ those whose absence from the Table diminishes us and the Body of Christ.

As Charles Wesley wrote,
Love like death hath all destroyed,
Rendered all distinctions void.

Jesus’ example makes it clear that desire for solidarity with all humankind may cost very dearly. Some of Jesus’ followers have learned to flinch at the name ‘Christian,’ because that name, in our culture, has come to mean the exact opposite of the communion in which Jesus died. “Christian” names an in-group with membership requirements in belief and practice as strict as any other ordinary group. “Christian” voices in public routinely condemn outsiders and judge, shun and cast out members. I have gladly baptized people who were reluctant to call themselves, “Christian,” but who knew they wanted to follow Jesus learning to live “on behalf of all and for all.” If we’re to continue to call ourselves “Christian” we’ve got to live without designating ourselves insiders.

Paradoxically recalling the exclusion, exile, stigmatization, and scapegoating that Jesus embraced in his baptism on the cross, seems wholly consonant with World War II Jewish philosopher and classical scholar Simone Weil’s decision to follow Christ but NOT be baptized lest she seem to be choosing Christian insider status for herself that cost her solidarity with the rest of humankind. Weil’s rejection of baptism tells us as much about what baptism must be as it warns us of what it can no longer be.

I am grateful to have presided at many joyful baptisms of adults, children, and babies. And for myself and all those I’ve baptized, and for all my sisters and brothers in Christ, my hope and prayer is that the waters of baptism (and the life in Christ we live, falteringly from our baptisms but somehow still persevering) wash from us the presumption of ANYTHING that separates us or ‘sets us apart’ from the Love of Christ for all humanity.

In the fourth century Gregory of Nyssa argued that all humankind together bore the blessing of being made in the ‘Image of God,’ and that nothing less than the whole of humanity could be the Body of Christ. Baptism in Christ, baptism into the scorned sinner’s death he suffered outside the walls, baptism into the communion he embraced with the worst outcasts gives us what Jesus’ lived and died to establish, lives that belong to all, selves we find in communion with the Other.

Jesus asks us, “Do you desire to be baptized – with me?”

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

Is blood thicker than water?

This is the second of a three-part article.

By Donald Schell

girl.at.the.font_6.jpgIn Merchant of Venice, Shylock, Shakespeare’s imagined Jew, faces forced baptism on the terms of those in power. The outsider Shylock’s dilemma mirrors the plight and bitter choices of Roman Catholics in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Spain in the same period was also reinventing baptism, posting a different question of desire, a question something like this, “Just who do you think you are to imagine you could desire baptism and that it would make any difference to your blood line?” It had taken Spain about a century to come to that question (which would never have been spoken quite like that – after all, the questioners were Christians).

In Cervantes Spain around 1605, most Spanish communities included at least some first and second-generation descendants of forcibly converted Jews (conversos) and Muslims (Moriscos). In 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella had given Jews and Moors the forced choice of baptism or exile. Many left Spain, but many also chose baptism to stay, trying to assimilate as good Catholic Spaniards. Cervantes’ Don Quixote, his poignantly appealing, mostly harmless deluded knight and Sancho Panza, the reluctant peasant squire wander through a society obsessed with the question of whether conversos (descendants of converted Jews) or Moriscos (descendants of converted Muslims) deserved society’s acceptance and could be trusted with responsibilities alongside “Old Christians” (people like Quixote himself who could claim his family had been Christian, “since time immemorial”).

Ferdinand and Isabella had founded the Spanish Inquisition as part of their 1492 plan for nation making. The expulsion wasn’t enough - they wanted to be certain that conversions of Jews who remained had been sincere. Quickly enough their Inquisition extended its concern to the descendants of Jewish converts, and then to families of Muslim descent, and finally to its broadest task of investigating the reliability of conversos, Moriscos, and heretics of Old Christian stock and their descendants.

Have you ever wondered why Spanish cuisine includes bits of Jamon or why seafood Paella includes pork sausage? Spanish cuisine is deliberately not Kosher or Halaal. Serving ham and eating ham declared (to vigilant neighbors) a nonchalant Catholic freedom from Islamic and Jewish dietary restrictions.

Still neighbors, servants and rivals found it easy to question some ritual hint they thought they might have seen or heard or they could wonder what an offhand remark about salvation or heresy or independent thinking might have meant. If a servant or passerby saw a housewife lighting candles on Friday night – was it just for light? And did that servant (who had perhaps suffered an unwelcome reprimand earlier in the day) think her mistress’ sigh sounded like Hebrew? Was she muttering a Sabbath prayer? The Inquisition welcomed such questions, creating a massive (and meticulous) investigative process and manuals for questioning suspects of possible Jewish or Islamic practice, or scrutinizing even off-hand remarks that might imply someone asking wrong-headed questions, reading forbidden books, or teaching troubling doctrine.

After investigation and judgment the Inquisition held regular Autos de Fe, publicly staged rituals of ‘reconciliation’ for those lapsed or heretics who confessed and were penitent. For severe offenders, those the Inquisition judged inadequately penitent or guilty of heresies that made them dangerous to themselves and others (even after recanting), the ceremony ended with turning them over to the Crown for legal penalties from loss of property and forced labor to imprisonment and execution.

Alongside the Inquisition another investigative profession emerged, genealogical and social researchers who would interview all possible witnesses in one’s home village or town, and research and make certified copies of ancestors’ baptismal records generations back to certify NO Jewish or Muslim ancestors and NO convicted or suspect heretic ancestors. The New World colonies and wealth made 17th Century Spain a real land of opportunity, but political office, military rank, ordination in the church, university admission or appointment, or any work in the New World was only open “Old Christians” of impeccable lineage and demonstrably Catholic theology.

Your baptism and whatever you thought desiring it might bring were not enough. Only “pure” or “clean” blood proved your reliability. Whatever we might imagine the proverbial phrase “blood is thicker than water” means now, we inherited it from the widespread, popular opinion that blood inheritance trumped the waters of baptism so baptismal community was only as reliable as the purity of the members’ blood (ancestry). Versions of this English saying show up in many parts of Europe in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.

And for the Inquisition blood shaped every conversation. After all, wouldn’t the child or grandchild of a Jew retain some essential Jewish “stain"? Shouldn’t we expect that sooner or later the grandchild or great-grandchild of Moor would “revert” to Islam? Once a heretic? Always a heretic. “It’s in the blood.” We’re talking biology. The same thinking had the Inquisition scrutinizing the lineage and orthodoxy of wet nurses. The milk of a wet nurse descended from Jew, Moor, or heretic, like inherited blood, was considered irremediably determinative of Jewish, Moorish, or heretical character.

Maria-Elena Martinez’s Genealogical Fictions: Limpieza de Sangre, Religion, and Gender in Colonial Mexico, and Stuart Schwarz’s All Can Be Saved, Religious Tolerance and Salvation in the Iberian Atlantic World (like Antonia Fraser’s English history of the gunpowder plot) raise deeply troubling questions about how power and privilege reshaped baptismal practice and theology, discarding desire and grace in favor of inheritance and ancestry. And ironically the choices the Inquisition and society couldn’t trust were the same choices the same authorities had compelled a few generations before.

Remembering our history and these contradictions of church practice challenges us today to clarify what we mean by ‘baptismal ecclesiology.’ Though the church has always claimed the baptismal candidate’s desire was essential for baptism (with the intriguing, nuanced exception of infant baptism where the desire belongs to parents, godparents, and community), through much of Christian history, the Church has, in various ways has kept the prerogative to define, compel and extort ‘desire’ for the sake of the candidates’ good, or for the sake of good order or political and social unity.

Our own Church of England history made baptism by state-authorized ministers the decisive watershed for insider identity. In Spain and the Spanish New World baptism was deliberately diluted to withhold insider as the church judged kinship, origin, blood and mother’s milk a more reliable measure of Christian identity than good faith baptism. Both Spain and England manipulated baptism to protect entrenched power and established order.

In the Dark Ages, centuries before the time of Shakespeare and Cervantes, some early missionaries bringing Christianity to heathen Goths and Visigoths, Celts, Saxons, and other tribes in the remote parts of Europe took an expedient short-cut to evangelization – encouraging or allowing a converted local chieftain to compel all his subjects to be baptized. More recently and closer to home, some slave ship captains baptized “their cargo” of enslaved Africans bound for the Spanish, Portuguese and English colonies probably congratulating themselves on the Christian charity that saw to what these unwilling baptismal candidates “really wanted.”

The church has found that enforcing baptism and withholding baptism can work equally well to enforce insider privilege. In the English colonies, sometimes slavery was enforced by withholding baptism, thus protecting slaveholders from laws that would have given rights to the baptized.

In living memory both the U.S. and Canadian native schools systems deprived native children of language, customs, and religion and often forced or ‘encouraged’ baptism as part a process of cultural assimilation.

What do these baptisms warped by power teach us new about baptism?

First, the history prompts us to ask hard questions about ourselves. For all of us, deep-seated fear of the stranger or outsider, and fear of losing our own power, in fact any fear that clenches God’s baptismal grace in our own hands and control will make us mistrust baptism. Unless our trust in Christ’s embrace of all is stronger than our fear of ‘the other,’ the stranger, and the outsider, our practice will proclaim that blood is thicker than water. Then our anxiety about the mixed character of our own faith and morals will recoil from those ‘others’ and strangers on whom we project our own faithlessness, impurity, and inherited, irrepressible immorality.

This history also makes me wonder how to free baptism into Christ from the church’s alliance with power. All this religious rationalization of oppression in Christ’s name has found some theological justification, most commonly a disingenuous asking, “Who wouldn’t want to be enrolled as a child of God and grafted on to the Body of Christ?” But honestly asking, “Do you desire to be baptized?” gives decisive power to the candidate. When the question is truthful and open, the baptizing church and minister make themselves servants not just of Christ but also servants of the candidate. Might this reversal of power be essential to ‘putting on Christ?’

This history of Christian betrayal of baptism leads directly into the American tragedy, the institutionalization of racism in the land of freedom.

In Limpieza de Sangre Maria-Elena Martinez argues that Catholic Spain’s obsession with bloodlines and pure descent gave us Europe’s first political attempts to define distinct races, a way of defining people that Protestant English colonies would turn into civil law.

In Virginia, 1675 Nathaniel Bacon and a few wealthy landowners mobilized widespread discontent among black and white indentured servants to defy the royal governor, leading genocidal raids against local Indians. Before the rebellion collapsed, Bacon’s men had turned on the capital itself and burned Jamestown to the ground. In 1676 the new laws of a restored Virginia Commonwealth cannily divided the indentured servant class whose angry alliance had wreaked such havoc. Making America’s first legal definition of race and racially based slavery of African Americans gave white indentured servants a small level of privilege and rank to defend. Virginia Commonwealth’s divide and conquer strategy pitted poor white against poor black and the laws held for almost three hundred years.

The Inquisition in New Spain had shaped the racial definitions that Virginia wrote into law. The practice of defining ‘pure blood’ unstained by Jewish, Moorish, or heretic ancestry was elaborated in the New World as Spain baptized Indios (Native Peoples) and Negros (Africans). Separate baptismal registries divided by what we now call race ranked baptized Indios over baptized Negros, while distinguishing both from conversos and Moriscos. Of course lust, love, and sex crossed the boundaries and to preserve the separate registries and complex baptismal consequences of these unions, New Spain was the first to define different “blood” for different races, and to gives names to degrees of “mixed blood” and designate where to record the illegal mixed offspring’s’ baptisms.

Through this long, Transatlantic political and theological struggle that privileged social place and race (blood) over leveling community in baptism (water), a few brave clergy, religious, and laity defended baptized Conversos’ and Moriscos,’ as well Indios, Negros, and Mestizos legitimate place in church and society. These more compassionate voices argued that when anyone had a genuine conversion of heart, baptism truly did define who they were.

In fact, even in its blunted form the Gospel narrative and sacraments continued to open hearts. The work of God is stronger than our betrayal of it. Some of us can only guess how faith began to matter to the descendants of our distant ancestors who’d been forcibly baptized. But in recorded American history, in the Black Church, Black preaching, Gospel music, and our homegrown synthesis of Self-Help Religion and Liberation Theology witness to the power of Gospel story and practice.

Spain has its own powerful evidence that even forced baptisms could change and open people’s minds and hearts to simple, faithful following of Christ. St. John of the Cross was probably a Morisco and his mystical poems synthesize Jewish Song of Songs Mysticism and traditional Moorish-Arabic love ballads. John’s friend and mentor Teresa of Avila, the only woman the Roman Church has designated a ‘Doctor of the Church,’ was the daughter of a converso.

Fortunately for the church, Teresa and the Spanish Inquisition were both long gone, with Teresa duly sainted with her books in print and widely read when 20th century historians determined that as a young boy Teresa’s father had been marched through the streets of Toledo on Good Friday, spat on and pelted with garbage with his parents wearing the yellow robe Jews were forced to wear for this annual ceremony of derision and scorn. Immediately after that Good Friday, he had his family ‘convert,’ bought a title and royal papers to certify their “Old Christian descent,” and moved them to Avila where their neighbors would not know their history as conversos.

The grandfather’s ruse had been so successful that no one is certain whether Teresa herself know her heritage. But she lived her trust in the sacramental power of baptism and the Spirit’s presence in people’s hearts, courageously welcoming conversos and Moriscos into her religious order. The Inquisition didn’t use the word “inclusive” but they suspected Teresa didn’t ask hard enough questions of her novices’ background, though they never managed to get the evidence against her that they sought. A generation later in Cervantes’ time even their suspicion would likely have cost Teresa everything.

It matters to us to understand that all this is our history. With killing consistency, the church, our historic leaders and most ordinary Christians have refused to stand by their own baptized sisters and brothers in Christ. The seed of the church’s long failure to accept Christ’s power and purpose of making us one, of Christ drawing “all people” to himself flowered and bore fruit in 19th and 20th century theories of master races and inferior peoples. Evolutionary scientists followed the lead of a church-formed society, crafting theories that distinct races weren’t made so by God… but evolved separately on different continents. Progress? Was this scientific self-deception or the big lie? Either way the fruit was genocide, extermination of Native Peoples, the Nazi holocaust, Hutu and Tutsi slaughtering one another, and more.

What theological antidote can we find to the damage we’ve done ourselves with believing that blood is thicker than water? How does the Spirit of Truth break through our oppressive constructs to change ordinary people’s hearts and minds? What if we go back to the wellsprings, to Paul and the Gospels?

How can baptism nudge us toward hope that God is saving and uniting humankind? Tomorrow – All Can Be Saved.

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

Do you desire to be baptized?

This is the first of a three-part article.

By Donald Schell

girl.at.the.font_5.jpgMy friend Lynn Park shoots all her photographs from chair level, so here she takes us to this girl’s perspective to give full attention to living water as it flows into the rock basin and spills down the face of the rock.

How can a moment feel so complete, but still charged with expectancy? The girl stands in warm springtime shadow. Sunny radiance plays on the water and hillside behind her. The girl’s steady eye draws us beyond any ‘figuring things out,’ or ‘thinking about.’ Water on stone reflects the sky above.

Lynn’s photo brings us so close that we feel the girl’s wanting to touch, to feel, and to know, and seeing her gaze and touch stirs our curiosity and piques our desire.

The rock is the outdoor baptismal font at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco. I know this rock well - I commissioned the sculptor who carved it, and I’ve baptized adults, children, and babies at this font with two hundred people crowding close around it.
But I’m not St. Gregory’s pastor any more, this is a different moment from a baptism, and I don’t know this girl. Has she seen baptisms at this rock or was she baptized here herself? Is she seeing the rock for the first time? I don’t know. But I hear her quiet and feel how she’s taking in the rhythm and melody of the water’s even splash at the base of the rock’s face.
What’s stirring her? Is it scientific curiosity about water flow and surface tension? Will she stand on tiptoes to look into the basin? My own history with this rock moves me to wonder whether she hears Someone beckoning or feels here the mystery of Something that could change everything. So the longer I look at the photo, the more persistently I hear the Prayer Book’s wonderful question –
‘Do you desire to be baptized?’

When we ask someone that fascinating question, what do we imagine they desire or hope for? And what do we hope, by God’s grace and in God’s name to offer them? Are they looking to be enrolled in a new society? Might it be something even bigger than that? The flow and fall of water in the photo speak to me of a great river, something flowing from this spring that could carry us to the wide sea we were made for.

And so I recall Archbishop William Temple’s saying, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members,” and I wonder just how we exist for the benefit of those who are not members. (I’ve tried to track down the context of the saying with no success, so I’d welcome a reader telling us where it came from.)

Some in our church would equate commitment to those outside our membership with a ‘Great Commission’ (the oft quoted early editorial addition to Matthew’s Gospel of a post-resurrection saying of Jesus, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age”). Was that what Temple meant? Is our commitment to those outside our membership to bring them inside our membership even if for their sake? That kind of commitment to those outside is typical of any self-perpetuating society or organization. Is Temple calling us to something riskier than making sure church visitors get nametags?

The freestanding quotation challenges us to look beyond our expectations to see who God is including in “the blessed company of all faithful people.” Could God be calling us to understand the holiness of all people’s deepest desires and bless them wherever we found them? Where would the Spirit take us if church formed us to ask each person we encountered what new thing she or he could each us about desire?

What does the girl in the photograph (or anyone we meet) most want, desire and hope for?
Do you desire to be baptized?

I’m thinking differently about baptism after watching three performances (two different productions) of Equivocation, Jesuit playwright Bill Cain’s new mind-bending, heartbreaking play about Shakespeare and his company of players, James I, the Gunpowder Plot and the English Jesuit martyr Henry Garnett. Cain’s Fr. Garnett makes very good sense as a priest. Watching Equivocation I knew I had to learn more about the Gunpowder Plot and Guy Fawkes Day.

So remembering the girl at the rock, let’s think back to 1605 and the time of the Gunpowder Plot.

James I succeeded Elizabeth as England’s Monarch in 1603. Shakespeare’s company had been performing his plays since 1598. They performed for James as they had for Elizabeth. The King James Bible would come out in 1611. Shakespeare’s last new work was performed in 1613. 1605 was barely a hundred years past the Spain’s 1492 discovery of the New World - lands, peoples, treasures, and civilizations no European had known before - what Shakespeare called the “brave new world.”

We celebrate the renaissance for its rediscovery of forgotten classical literature and brand-new appreciation of the beauty and poetic power of vernacular speech. Advanced naval and military technology also made it a time of enormous colonial expansion of Europe’s Atlantic naval powers – Spain, Portugal and England. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation disputes over how to use new knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, new appreciation of common speech, and the new technology of the printing press for Christian formation erupted in violence and literal war. Ferdinand and Isabella and Elizabeth I in their different ways had created nation-states.

In 1605 Shakespeare was an established playwright with great work completed and more to come, and Cervantes published his masterpiece Don Quixote. In their two countries, everything was possible and everything was at stake, and the question of who to trust at home and abroad seemed on everyone’s mind, including the minds of newly powerful rulers and emerging parliaments, councils, fraternities, universities associations that saw in print, literacy and widespread new learning the opportunity for propaganda and the constant danger of insurrection. And in this global ferment of ideas, encounters with new peoples, in this time of intrigue and warfare, creativity, compassion, love, terror, and oppression, Christian Europe (we’ll be thinking here about England and Spain) was re-making baptismal practice for the sake of political and social unity.

Unity was the urgent concern in religion and in politics. Spain and England in their different ways counted on vigilant censorship to enforce good order (which included religious conformity). English censors scrutinized any play Shakespeare’s company produced and Spanish censors read any book Cervantes wrote to make sure what they regarded as popular entertainments would usefully distract the population from politics and support Good Order. Catholic Spain and Protestant England knew literature could equally well incite rebellion. And it wasn’t just literature the establishment scrutinized. The royal establishment counted on fear to keep neighbors suspicious enough of one another that many eyes and ears could help keep stable order, peace, and security.

Do you desire to be baptized? Antonia Fraser’s Faith and Treason, the Gunpowder Plot offers a painful, enlightening perspective on Elizabethan society’s everyday experience of baptismal compulsion. What does it cost faith to make baptismal conformity (rules about who does the baptizing and where) the ticket to full membership in society?

In England neighbors were supposed to look for hints of Catholic sympathy and so wonder whether a stranger passing through the village or visiting the manor house might be a Catholic priest in disguise.

In Spain, neighbors and trade associates might reap substantial reward (or wreak vengeance in a feud) by sniffing out hints of apostasy among recently converted Jews and Moors or hints of ‘Lutheranism’ or Erasmian tolerance and freethinking among “Old Christians.”

Do you desire to be baptized? Careful how you answer that one! Whether on Catholic or Protestant soil, what someone might desire had become a matter of life and death.
In Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare’s mind-bending play about “the quality of mercy,” Portia, having invoked mercy in one of the most theologically nuanced arguments for compassion and forgiveness in English literature, reverts to the punitive voice of Law and Judgment, offering Shylock, the Jewish banker, a bitter forced choice.

Shylock’s offense was attempting to claim his due in the vengeful ‘pound of flesh’ loan pact (the penalty Antonio had willingly agreed to forfeit in lieu of interest should he fail to pay the substantial sum he had borrowed from Shylock). Portia appears in court as Antonio’s attorney for the defense, but after saving Antonio’s life, she deftly moves to become Shylock’s prosecutor, refusing to allow him to accept simple re-payment of the loan and stripping him of all his property, before presenting him with this choice:
- convert and be baptized or
- suffer execution for the capital offense of making attempt on the life of a Venetian citizen.

To our modern ears the whole play is dangerously, appallingly anti-Semitic. To Elizabethan ears the play was safely anti-Semitic. Shakespeare’s ready defenders can rush to tell us that the character of Shylock is an empty stereotype because three hundred years after England had expelled all Jews (sent them to places like Spain), Shakespeare’s audience would not have known a Jew, so the play couldn’t have caused direct harm to anyone, incited a riot, or launched a pogrom. And, I add, a play about ambiguous justice in Catholic Venice wouldn’t trouble the crown’s Master of the Revels.

Jesuit Bill Cain’s Equivocation and Fraser’s Faith and Treason set me to wondering why Shakespeare created this Jewish villain-victim no one could have known, and what else Shakespeare could have had in mind writing about Christian mercy, the rigors of the law, and forcing outsiders to conform for Good Order?

Is Merchant of Venice a Protestant window on a distant Catholic country’s prejudices and dilemmas? Did censors see the window and not notice how it mirrored the audience making them see themselves and wonder how they treated outsiders and people judged dangerous, deceptive and unworthy of mercy? And who were the outsiders in Elizabeth’s and James’s England?

Did Shakespeare create this Jewish (not Catholic) Shylock and set his play in Catholic Venice (not Protestant London) to challenge his own church and country’s oppressive shadow? The anti-Semitic prejudice that frightens and angers modern audiences made the play so safe and harmless in Elizabethan England, that Shakespeare could slip a politically dangerous meditation on Christian mercy, justice and desire past the censor who would gladly have closed the Globe theater and done Shakespeare himself far worse.

In the peace of the Elizabeth settlement, Parliament and crown demanded that everyone be baptized in “their” local Church of England parish church by “their” parish priest. What could English Roman Catholics who persisted in “The Old Faith” do? They baptized their children. But how? Some called on Roman Catholic clergy, living In England under assumed identity to risk their lives to baptize their children (as they risked their lives every time they presided at a Eucharist). If they chose NOT to have the child baptized in the local Church of England parish, the child was reckoned not baptized and the parents faced a stiff fine. A boy child secretly baptized by a Roman Catholic priest was reckoned “unbaptized” when he was old enough for university and so barred from Oxford or Cambridge. Parents who could afford the fine could also afford to send their sons to the continent for an education.

Some Roman Catholics chose a different solution. They’d call on their Roman Catholic pastor (again, at risk of his life) to baptize their children, and then, acting like ordinary Church of England parishioners would take their child to “their” parish church for a legal and politically expedient second baptism. Those who chose this route would attend the same church to meet their legal annual requirement for attendance at Church of England Eucharist (think ‘communicant status’), and would also double sacraments there (and with their Catholic pastor) for a family wedding.

Again remember that a Roman Catholic priest presiding at a baptism (or Eucharist or Marriage) did so at risk of his life. If a servant or neighbor betrayed the (disguised, secret) priest and he was captured, he would be tortured and executed. English law that made it a capital offense to be a Roman Catholic priest on English soil.

Do you desire to be baptized? Why does desire matter to what the church says baptism IS? When we ask people about their desire, do we want to hear their answer? Can we pre-determine or compel desire? Can we frame it as forced choice, without closing our eyes and forgetting the girl’s bright attention and hope in the photograph?

Tomorrow’s piece looks to the other side of the coin, how these questions shaped baptismal theology in Catholic Spain, and our question will be “Is blood thicker than water?”

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

The lessons of a cluttered life

By Ellen Painter Dollar

In my 20s, I attended a church that embraced material simplicity and detachment from stuff long before it became trendy. We engaged regularly in soul-searching conversations about our attachment to possessions. One friend’s long-ago purchase of a $900 wing chair continued to haunt him as a symbol of material excess. He talked about that chair so often that it’s the only vivid detail I can recall of him. Another friend worried that his arrival at a school reunion driving a used Camry would shock his former roommates, who might recall how he had spoken out against the purchase of even mundane items like house paint in a call for solidarity with the poor. Now here he was, driving a car that practically defines suburban material comfort. And Christmas…oy, such an occasion of angst Christmas was, with all those excessive, unnecessary gifts in the name of a baby born into poverty.

Now that I am a mother of three who drives a Honda Odyssey minivan (the supersized symbol of suburban material comfort), the Christian simplicity ethic has gotten mixed up in my mind with the clutter-free living extolled in the pages of shelter magazines and on home-improvement shows, in which everything, from mail and sports equipment to craft supplies and kitchen staples, is sorted into color-coordinated storage systems, and anything that goes unused for a few months is thrown away, recycled, or repurposed. I am also naturally inclined to dislike clutter; I possess a writerly desire for a “clean well-lighted room” in which to work.

The simplicity ethic on top of cultural values extolling clutter-free living and my own predisposition has led to my quasi-spiritual certainty that God just doesn’t like stuff. When I spend the morning cleaning, toting several paper bags around with me in which to sort objects I come across (things to throw away, things to put back into their designated storage container, and things to recycle or give away), I sometimes have the sense that this work of de-cluttering is almost holy work. Jesus warned us against money and possessions, so God obviously hates the plastic junk taking over my kids’ rooms, gratuitous gifts of scented candles, stacks of old magazines, and knick-knacks gathering dust just as much as I do, right? How nice when my religious values and the values espoused by HGTV, Better Homes and Gardens and Oprah all line up so nicely!

My mother-in-law Ruby will be 87 years old in a few weeks. Her home—the home she lived in for most of her adult life and raised five children in—has been a source of much eye-rolling and heavy sighing on my part over the years. She kept everything, and my husband and I have teased her for it—gently in person, sometimes more harshly in private. Her telephone sits on a 40-year-old television that no longer works, but that she kept because it was housed in a heavy wooden cabinet and therefore qualified as a good piece of furniture. Pick up a magazine in one of the guest bedrooms or the den, and it’s likely to be decades old. On one recent visit, my bedtime reading was a 1970s People magazine with the Bee Gees on the cover. Whenever we visit, my husband randomly opens dresser drawers to find clothes that have sat unworn for years—his brother Jimmy’s shirts, still pressed and in their paper wrappers from the cleaners, his own shirts from Boy Scout events from his teens, his brother David’s athletic socks. Every surface in Ruby’s house, both horizontal (tables, bookshelves) and vertical (mirrors), is covered—with mementoes, photos, candlesticks, prayer cards, signed letters from past presidents. On the refrigerator are postcards and notes from her grandchildren, some of them written more than a decade ago.

Whenever we visit Ruby’s house, my hands practically itch with the desire to start cleaning up and cleaning out. I get annoyed that there’s no place to set down a glass of water because every surface is covered. I get annoyed when my kids go down into the basement to unearth old toys—a plastic Starship Enterprise, a stuffed panda that leaks plastic pellets (probably toxic, I’m thinking) from its split seams—and come back up with their hands and feet black with dirt, carrying treasures they insist on hauling back home. I get annoyed that we can barely move around in the guest bedroom, much less unpack some clothes into the closet or the drawers, because every square inch is occupied by stuff Ruby doesn’t need, doesn’t use, and should have trashed years ago.

My mother-in-law is a Christian woman. Does she not understand that God doesn’t like stuff?

Ruby is in a nursing home now, her body weakened by diabetes, kidney failure, and heart failure, and her mind sometimes overtaken by confusion. Her house stands empty of human life but full still of the evidence of her life, and the lives of those she nurtured. Some day soon my husband, his brother, and his sister will rent a dumpster and start cleaning it out, divvying up the furniture, storing away a few treasures that are particularly evocative, and dumping the rest. Ruby’s house will finally be clutter-free, but it will also be lifeless, empty in a way that is not merely physical.

I am realizing now that I failed to see something important about all of Ruby’s clutter. Yes, she held onto too much stuff for too long. But Ruby buried her husband and two of her children; her surviving children are busy with their jobs, their own kids and grandkids. Sometimes stuff is not just stuff. Sometimes stuff really is the stuff of life—the physical objects that bind us to each other, to our past, to the times and people we have lost and still mourn. Jimmy’s cleaned and pressed shirts and David’s socks take up space in the dresser drawers because Jimmy and David never returned to claim them before they died. How is a mother supposed to move on from that harsh fact? So she didn’t move on; she left her boys’ things just as they were. The Phillips 66 jackets and polyester shirts succumbing to mildew in the closets are reminders of the service station business that paid for this little brick house on Scott Street, the plastic toys strewn about the living room on long-gone Christmas mornings, the college educations that carried Ruby’s children away from her, and the laughing, flawed man who wore those jackets and shirts to work day after day for his family, before dying of colon cancer much too soon.

All of our stuff can distract and overwhelm us, but it can also provide context. Our clutter can remind us that matter matters, that the bodies we inhabit and tend, the food we make and eat, the clothes and toys and mementoes made or given or used with love can bind us to each other, and to those who came before and come after. Our clutter and all that it evokes in us can even, perhaps, help us guard against that old heresy of Gnosticism, which insists on the separation of the spiritual and the material, and the elevation of the former over the latter. Matter matters.

As I write this, I can look up and see photos of my children as babies, but nothing brings back their infancies more vividly than coming across a tiny newborn-sized diaper in the back of my son’s sock drawer, its smell and texture bringing me back to days marked by an endless cycle of feeding and changing, and the unmatched pleasure of falling asleep with a sated infant curled on my chest. As I gather books for the church rummage sale, I stop to read our tattered copy of “Goodnight Moon." That book, and a few others, I can't bear to give away. They provide too strong a connection to those earliest bedtime routines, when my babies couldn’t understand a word of the stories I read but understood my voice, and the cradling arms and full breasts that accompanied it, as indispensable.

Jesus warned us not to care too much about our possessions. Jesus wanted us to share. Our modern obsession with what we want, buy, and have poses a danger to our spiritual life, but so can our modern obsession with de-cluttered showplaces, as we sever connections to things in the name of cleanliness, efficiency, and order. As a mother, I will continue to push back against our modern tendency to ply our children with stuff—goody bags and obscene piles of gifts and material rewards for every desired behavior. As a Christian, I will continue to confess that my desire for a comfortable home, nice clothes, and convenient take-out meals limits the money we have left over to share with those who have so little.

But I will no longer see de-cluttering as a spiritual act. I will no longer be quite so certain that God doesn’t like stuff. And when it comes time for my husband and his siblings to go through their mother’s house, I won’t sigh and roll my eyes at the dusty, unwieldy, useless objects my husband plucks out of the clutter and carries home.

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.

Playing with fire: Black freedom struggle and the Great Cloud of Witnesses

By Bill Carroll

"By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets-- who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented-- of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God." (Hebrews 11:29-12:2)

"Jesus said, 'I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.' He also said to the crowds, 'When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, It is going to rain; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, There will be scorching heat; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?'" (Luke 12:49-56)

On the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (August 15), we heard a harsh Gospel at the Eucharist. So harsh, I nearly punted and went running to Hebrews for cover. But, after talking to our Thursday Bible study, I decided to give it a go. I started with something our deacon suggested in a conversation at the Bible study, and began with the image of fire. Before Jesus talks about his role in creating division--about setting family members against each other--he says he came to "bring fire to the earth."

Preaching on the difficult sayings of Jesus is like playing with fire. True, fire is quite useful. It warms us, cooks our food, and, for good or ill, liberates much of the energy that powers our civilization. Fire also cleanses, purifies, and refines. But fire is incredibly dangerous and destructive. If you play with fire, so the saying goes, you're gonna get burned.

But Jesus isn't speaking of just any fire. "I came to bring fire to the earth," he says, "and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!" This calls to mind John the Baptist, screaming at the crowds on the banks of Jordan: "I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I is coming. I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."

Throughout the Scriptures, fire is a symbol for God. In particular, it points us to God's purity, power, and freedom. On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit falls on the disciples in tongues of fire. A pillar of fire leads God's ancient People out of the house of bondage. Among the prophets, Isaiah's lips are cleansed with a coal of fire, while Jeremiah burns with a hidden fire, buried deep in the marrow of his bones. God appears to Moses in the burning bush. Fire falls from heaven to consume Elijah's offering. Fire and smoke cover the heights of Sinai as God gives the Law. As the letter to the Hebrews insists, "our God is a consuming fire."

In the mystical tradition, St. John of the Cross speaks of the "living flame of love." In the liturgy for ordinations, we pray "Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire, and lighten with celestial fire." But it all comes down to baptism, where we are washed outwardly with water but inwardly with the Holy Spirit, as Jesus plunges us into his death and resurrection and fills us with the fire of his love.

Like fire, LOVE is dangerous. Here too, experience teaches, we may well get burned. Following Jesus is not safe, for his love carries us out of ourselves. God calls us to risk ourselves--to put ourselves on the line for love. It is indeed a "fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." For the fire of God's love burns wild and out of control. If we give ourselves over to God, we do not know where God will lead us. The fire of the Spirit burns away much that we have come to depend on, including those sinful patterns that have become second nature to us--those "disordered loves" that have come to define our lives. Love can plunge us into deep darkness, where all the familiar landmarks are gone.

God's love is powerful. Powerful enough to tear families apart. But God's love is for our good. God is strong to SAVE. And God will save us, if need be, through fire. But we need to trust Jesus and let him show us the way. For he is the "pioneer and perfecter of our faith." He is the one who traces out the path we are to walk in. And he stands at the summit of that great cloud of witnesses, who faced death and the sword, who wandered the earth "destitute, persecuted, and tormented," for the sake of their witness to the God of righteous love. For this, Jesus endured even "the cross, disregarding its shame."

Over the past few weeks, I've found myself drawn to other stories of suffering. Back on August 6, which was Hiroshima Day and the Feast of the Transfiguration, National Public Radio ran a story about a horrific event that took place eighty years ago.

On August 7, 1930, two African American men were lynched in the middle of town in Marion, Indiana, with a white crowd looking on and pointing. They were photographed hanging dead from a tree in what has become one of the most enduring emblems of racist violence in our country.

You've probably seen the photo, which inspired the song "Strange Fruit," sung most famously by Billie Holliday. Perhaps you've heard her sing poignantly about "black bodies swinging in the breeze." The song concludes as follows: "Here is fruit for the crows to pluck, for the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, for the sun to rot, for the trees to drop. Here is a strange and bitter crop."

This crop was sown in hate, and it will choke anyone who tries to swallow it. Even today, we find the same perverse violence alive and kicking in our nation. We see its hideous, Satanic smirk in the use of President Obama's likeness in a carnival shooting game. We see it in recent death threats against black students at our local community college. And we see it, tragically, in a sign at a rally, quoting Leviticus, displaying two nooses, and announcing "God's solution to gay marriage."

As I meditated on these expressions of hatred in the shadow of Hiroshima and the Cross, I came across the following observation on Cornel West's Twitter feed, "The black freedom struggle is the key that unlocks the door to America's democratic future." I would add (and I think West would agree) that this struggle is also a test for the credibility of the Gospel, for it is here that we find the preeminent North American martyrs--members of the great cloud of witnesses who shed their own blood in service to God and humanity. The election of President Obama, hailed by politicians of both parties as a sign of how far we've come, does not mean the freedom struggle is over, any more than the important victories of the 1960's did. In recent months, West has been quite critical of Obama, asking how his administration measures up against the movement politics of Dr. King. Fair enough, since Obama has invoked the memory of Dr. King time and time again.

And so, at the risk of dividing the household, we dare to ask the kinds of questions Dr. King might ask us today. We might even dare to imagine the president standing, as we all must, before the great judgment seat of Christ. Why, Jesus is asking him (and us), did the first military tribunal convened by your administration rule that a confession obtained under the threat of rape was admissible as evidence? Why did you seek to silence whistleblowers who expose some of the costs of your policy in Afghanistan? Have you done enough to create justice, especially for poor people, immigrants, and people of color? We can imagine Jesus asking more pointed questions than these.

Without necessarily having the answers, we must keep such dangerous questions alive. This is part of our own witness as followers of Jesus. For, in this way, we tend the fire that smolders within us. In this way, we keep hope for justice and human dignity alive. As I scan the horizon and try to read the signs of the times, I sense a great welling up of rage, looking for a target to land on. I see this all around, from one end of the political spectrum to the other. Many believe that the fix is in, and the dream has died. We only differ about who's to blame.

As Christians, we know that hatred can only destroy; it takes LOVE to build.

And so, we turn to Jesus for mercy, and we bid him light his fire. For he is eager that this fire be kindled. It brings with it love, justice, and freedom. It is the same fire that consumed the prophets--the very same fire that burns within his own Sacred Heart.

Come, Lord Jesus, and light your fire.

May it cleanse us from all violence, greed, and fear.

Come, Lord Jesus, and light your fire.

Let it burn. Let it burn. Let it burn.

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.

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