Making room for the piano

By Heidi Shott

When your kids are in third grade and you’re in the midst of a construction project and you discover that the foundation of your mudroom needs to be replaced and that while you’re at it adding a second floor room wouldn’t cost too much more – when all that happens, building an upstairs playroom sounds like a good idea.

At least it sounded like a good idea to my husband Scott and me in the summer of 2003.

A playroom would build a breakwater to keep the relentless surge of kid junk from spilling into the other rooms. We could get a bumper pool table. Scott could finally have a place for the 1980s pinball machine he’d been hankering to buy from Mike Knudsen. We could set up our old dartboard. At last we’d have a place to hang the entertaining campaign posters we stole from lawns across the Micronesian island of Saipan when we were teachers there in our youth.

And it was a good idea. Vast Lego and Playmobil cities spread out and could be left for days at a time without ever puncturing the tender parental foot at midnight. Pinball machines came and went. Posters and memorabilia from vacations were added to the walls. But slowly – especially in recent years as our twin sons have entered high school and are more apt to request iTunes gift cards instead of Nerf guns – it has become a place to dump stuff no one knows what to do with: old computer monitors and obsolete gadgets, clothes meant for the rummage sale that never quite made it, a castoff electronic putting green from Granddad that nobody really wanted but couldn’t not accept.

All four of us are guilty of covert dumping, especially Colin, who is responsible for the layer of cream cheese adhered to the surface of the bumper pool table from a bagel he laid down one afternoon in the late 20-oughts. While we’ve been living with growing playroom chaos for several years, today something happened that caused me to take the matter in hand: Scott finally consented to procuring for Colin a real piano.

It’s a problem when your child starts playing the piano at the late age of 15 and it becomes apparent after the first two months that he really knows what he’s about. Recriminations of “Why didn’t you start me with lessons when I was small?” have often cut deep to the maternal heart this last year. Colin’s dissatisfaction with our ancient digital Yamaha Clavinova became apparent about six months ago. “The action,” he said, “it sucks. I can’t play Debussy with that thing. I need a real piano!”

“Well, I can’t play Debussy, either,” I replied. “And your dad doesn’t believe in real pianos in Maine. He’s certain they don’t stay in tune in this climate, so don’t hold your breath, kid,” I warned.

Perhaps it was when Granddad, over for dinner recently, gave Scott a certain look that said, “I supported your interests when you were young,” that made him relent. All I know is that last Friday I returned from a work trip to Miami and suddenly there, on the kitchen table, was a copy of Maine’s quirky classified ad magazine, “Uncle Henry’s” with an entry circled: “Chickering baby grand. $500. Call after 5. Kennebunkport.”

In many ways 2003 feels like last week. Our boys were a perfectly sweet nine years old, and I was writing pieces about the election of Gene Robinson. Now they’re almost 17 and thinking about colleges and +Gene just announced his retirement. How do these things happen?

I don’t feel a day older. But here’s the thing: Scott and I work at the same places. We live in the same house. We eat the same food and read the same magazines and wear (sad to say) many of the same clothes. Lots of things have happened around us since 2003 but a remarkable number have stayed the same. Except boys: they grew an alarming number of inches and shoe sizes and turned from funny, smart, adorable little boys into funnier, smarter, handsome young men.

So amidst the work of clearing out all of the plastic bins and bookshelves and tubs of junk in the playroom, I had trouble accepting that no one wanted the mongo T-Rex that had been such a prized possession. Everyone but I was indifferent to the Mr. Potatohead that had served as a space capsule for intrepid Playmobil pirates on so many adventures to the planet of Zumbar.

I started a pile on top of the pool table for things I couldn’t throw away: one of the little black super-soft stuffed puppies I bought for the boys the day after my father died. We’d been out buying chocolate to take back to the nursing staff at the hospital and, when the children pleaded, I couldn’t say no.

“Hey, Martin,” I hollered. “C’mere.” After a moment my wise wrestler-poet leaned on the doorway to the playroom. “What do I do with some of this? I can’t chuck it.”

“Aw,” he said, fingering first a beanie baby hedgehog that his Kindergarten teacher had given him and then a much beloved Star Wars X-Wing Starfighter. “Make a nostalgia pile and we’ll go through it later,” he said, leaving me sitting on the floor surrounded by the vestigial tokens of our precious family life. But, well-adjusted person that he is, Martin left with nary a trace of nostalgia in his deep voice. He’s ready for the next thing.

In the Diocese of Maine – and in many places across the Episcopal Church and indeed, we’ve heard in recent months, in other denominations – we are embarking on a strange journey and asking ourselves many questions about how to transform the Church to meet the needs of a changing world. Our diocese is one year into a study process that is compelling us to look at both our mission strategies and our mission priorities. The coming year will reveal an emerging set of both. And, I gotta say, I’m curious about what they’ll look like and how they’ll be received.

It all started in October 2009 when Bishop Steve Lane offered a convention address that stunned members of our diocese with its combination of forthright truth-telling and the firm reassurance that together, with God, we will walk through whatever comes next.

Click here to hear the address.

In his sermon last month at our 2010 diocesan convention, Bishop Lane had this to say:

“The process of adaptive change is many things: a journey from one paradigm to another, a journey through a new and risky landscape, a journey often without a clear destination - but most of all it is a spiritual journey, a journey from habitual ways of being and doing to a closer, more trusting and self-conscious relationship with God. The journey we're on will require a change of heart and a new spirit in every congregation. It will require all of us to be flexible and to take risks…

“The ways we serve God, the shape of our communities, the nature of our buildings, the relationship between clergy and people - all these may change. But our call to announce the good news of God's merciful presence with us never changes and never ends.”

Our church is a lot like my family’s playroom. It’s hard to believe that time has passed and the same practices that have given us such pleasure and comfort over time are no longer relevant or in demand by the people around us: the people we’re called by Jesus to serve. Our nostalgia pile heaps to overflowing. And, yet, as my boss maintains – ever confident in the love of God that holds us altogether and all together - we don’t quite yet know what will take the place of all the things that we must give up.

Seven years ago, if you had told Scott and me that we would be buying a piano for the playroom so Colin could play Chopin and Mompou with such dazzling skill and passion, we would have said you were crazy. “This kid has fine motor skills below the 5th percentile,” we would have sighed. “Piano lessons would be a frustrating, futile effort for us all.”

But it turns out all the people who took a gander at him were right. “This kid has many strengths. He will compensate. He will turn out great!”

We couldn’t have imagined a piano in our playroom, but Colin had other plans.

Perhaps if we, as a people of God, let go of some of the things we can’t imagine our corporate life without, then possibilities we can’t imagine will emerge is the space left behind. The hard truth is that there’s not enough room for everything.

Right now, as I listen to the lovely sound of Beethoven coming from the grossly inadequate Yamaha in the living room, I can just hear the sweet strains of what might be possible.

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

Frank Turner: a major historian of Anglican life

By Frederick Quinn

Frank Turner was a major historian of modern Britain and a significant commentator on the struggle of the Anglican Communion to find its identity. His unexpected death at age 66, a few months after he had been appointed to a five-year term as librarian of Yale University, is a deep loss to the wider church and to his wife, the Rev. Ellen Louise Tillotson, rector of a vibrant, diverse parish, Trinity Episcopal Church in Torrington, Conn.

Turner served for seven years as director of the Beinicke Rare Book and Manuscript library, and as university provost from 1988 to 1992 during a tumultuous time in Yale’s history. At heart he was a teacher, which the university recognized in awarding him its Undergraduate Teaching Award in 1971. He held the John Hay Whitney Professor of History chair, taught European and English history, was the author of several path-breaking books and a steady stream of major articles and conference presentations. John Henry Newman, the Challenge to Evangelical Religion (2002) is a riveting page-turner on Newman and British intellectual and social history of the nineteenth century, and the cornerstone biography of Newman in our time..

From 2007 until last month Frank and I exchanged sometimes-lengthy email observations about the Anglican Communion, principally about lumpy emergence of the Anglican Covenant and the rhetorical glitter around the ascendency of John Henry Newman toward Roman Catholic sainthood. Turner’s writing was characterized by personal modesty, steady focus, and an amazingly approachable prose style marked by clarity and anchoring his subjects in their broader place in English or European history. All this was laced with a riotous sense of humor, sometimes in one-line comments, sometimes in passing on a howler quote from the good and the great that had come his way. He had a vivid collection of stories about encounters along the researcher’s way, such as when, after an intense day in the archives, its respectful custodians offered to lead Frank in to the vast, carefully-preserved office of Edward B. Pusey at sunset, where a deeply polished wooden box was opened to disclose the death mask of that Oxford Movement figure.

In both his commentaries on the Covenant and in his books on Newman, Frank carefully chronicled the distortions of those who systematically rewrote religious history to fit polemical purposes. Newman outlived most of his opponents and wrote and rewrote his Apologia to favor his current views, and his historical probings into early heresies and their impact on later Christianity were mostly lucidly contrived fantasy pieces. Frank combed the archives in patient detail and established the document trail of Newman’s special pleadings. “Frank, you would have made a great detective if the dice had rolled that way,” I once observed over lunch in what Frank called a “Connecticut Italian” restaurant. As might be expected, his work on Newman took heavy hits from a gaggle of loyalist writers who tried to keep an unmovable protective veil over their vision of Newman. But Frank remained firm; he was generous in his sympathy for his subject, but clear in documenting his skilled manipulations.

Frank also saw the proposed Anglican Covenant representing careful distortions of Anglican history purposefully crafted to support ideological stances. His essay on “The Imagined Community of the Anglican Communion,” first published in Episcopal Café on September 9, 2009, attracted one of the largest numbers of thoughtful respondents of any such Internet publication. Three quotations suggest the clarity of his vision and breath of historical perspective:

“At its worst, it has come to represent an imagined community several of whose Episcopal spokespeople now seek to persecute and degrade or relegate into a second track churches who have opened themselves, their process of ordination, and their episcopate to gay and lesbian people. In this respect, this ecclesiastical imagined community replicates in its drive to exclude the persecution that ethnic minorities have experienced at the hands of dominant nationalist groups from the early nineteenth century to the present day.”
"What most notably demonstrates that the so-called Anglican Communion is merely a still-emerging imagined community is the fact that only in the past few years (really in the past few months) have some of its leaders decided that they must construct a covenant determining what beliefs and practices actually constitute its theological and ideological basis. This is to say, the Anglican Communion presumably having existed for its present proponents since the first Lambeth Conference in 1867 must now figure out what holds it together theologically and ecclesiastically. What the effort to establish a covenant demonstrates is that the so-called Anglican Communion does not really exist but must be forcibly drawn into existence. Radical innovation rather than tradition hence drives the process.”
“The Episcopal Church through its long established institutions of ecclesiastical governance combating lay and clerical voices in equal measure, has chosen to tread the path of Christian liberty. Over the past decades the Episcopal Church has concluded that the perpetuation of unity with an imagined Anglican Communion being increasingly drawn into a reality for the purpose of persecuting and repressing gay and lesbian people is not acceptable and is not Christian. The Episcopal Church has decided to reassert not only that Jesus Christ has redeemed us, but that he has made us free. In accord with St. Paul’s injunction to the Galatians the Episcopal Church has chosen to stand fast ‘in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free’ and not to be “entangles again with the yoke of bondage.”
Rest Eternal Grant Unto Him
Grief is both communal and personal. The wide community of university administrators, library staff, historians, students, and friends mourn the passing of a well-respected colleague and friend; for his wife, Ellen, the loss is inconsolable. When I saw the headline bearing news of his death, at first I thought it was a mistake. A day earlier I had mentally composed a paragraph I hoped to send to Frank that weekend. Instead, I sat in silence in the late autumnal light, reading and rereading prayers from the Burial Office, seeking hope amidst the awful reality of death. For me, the process of grief is inextricably linked with music and on that night and the next, I found solace in listening to Alfred Brendel playing Schubert’s B Flat Major Piano Sonata, and dedicated the experience to Frank. Brendel chose the late Schubert work to end his farewell recital in 2008. Its elegiac flow combines hope, depth, and gentleness and resonates with the memory of Frank Turner.

Frederick Quinn is an Episcopal priest and author of books and articles on history, law, and religion. He is former chaplain to the Anglican diplomatic communities in Prague and Warsaw.

Christ, the king

By Bill Carroll

“May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-- all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:11-20)

"They say Aslan is on the move—perhaps has already landed."

Words from a talking beaver in a children's story. The author of the story, Clive Staples Lewis, taught at Oxford and Cambridge and was a devout layman in the Church of England. He was perhaps the twentieth century's most popular Christian apologist. This year, the Church observed his feast day on the day after Christ the King Sunday.

The beaver, we are about to discover at this point in the story, is speaking of the coming King. In a climate of intimidation and fear, he dares to confess out loud the name of Aslan the lion, the true King and the Son of the Emperor beyond the sea. The magical world of Narnia has come under the spell of the white witch, who styles herself its queen and keeps it in bondage, so that it is always winter but never Christmas.

In the depth of this winter, the repeated refrain "Aslan is on the move" grows in power as a conspiratorial whisper of hope. Lewis goes on to describe the stirring effect these words have on the four children, who have travelled to Narnia through the wardrobe. One of them, Edmund, has already fallen under the witch's spell:

“And now a very curious thing happened.. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don't understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning—either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again.

“It was like that now. At the name Aslan, each one of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.”

Summer indeed! As the King and Savior draws nigh, the snow begins to melt. The long shadow over Narnia and its inhabitants, embodied in the figure of the white witch, begins to lose its fearsome power.

True, she still will have her hour. In her, all the hatred of the world will come to focus on Aslan, as he is sacrificed on the stone table. Later in the book, Aslan is bound and muzzled when hands himself over to be killed in Edmund's place. But then, gloriously rising from the dead, he dispels the darkness once and for all.

Now, it should be obvious enough that this is no mere children's story. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a clear allegory for the Gospel, with deep roots in the real world. The novel was written in 1949, and it begins with four English schoolchildren fleeing London during the Blitz. And it is not hard to see echoes of the Nazi occupation of much of Europe in the way in which the white queen's winter spreads like a cancer through the land. In the middle of the darkest night of human history, Lewis suggests, Christ remains the Lord of history, the one ruler of all. All things are created through him and for him. And, on the cross, he has triumphed over evil.

What would it mean, this coming Advent season, if we made today's collect our own, whispering it like the refrain from the story: "Aslan is on the move"? What if, in the depths of our hearts, we began to discern the distant rumblings of the coming King of Kings, the mighty Lion of the House of Judah? What if we believed with fervent hope that, even here and now, it is God's will to restore all things in Christ? What if we asked that he would mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, were set free and brought together under his most gracious rule?

We stand, brothers and sisters, on the threshold of the Church's season of preparation. Advent is a time to cleanse our hearts and realign them with God’s loving purpose. It's a time to confess the deep darkness that divides and enslaves us. But unlike Lent, that other penitential season, the accent here is on the hope that God has set before us and the mighty movement of God's sovereign mercy. For, just beyond the horizon, Christ has landed. And we have heard the rumor of an imminent liberation from all that corrupts and destroys the creatures of God.

We see this at work whenever we baptize people into Christ’s Body the Church. In the liturgy of Holy Baptism, we witness the threefold renunciation of evil and the grace-filled turning to Jesus as Savior and Lord. We also renew the promises of our own baptism. What would it mean for these promises and this grace to take root in us today?

First, it would mean that, in a world ruled by violence, we become instruments of the peace of Christ. For since he prays for his enemies--and indeed dies for them— in Christ, we've already been set free from the hostility that reigns within us. Already, we’ve been set free from the long, sad legacy of Cain. Though it may be hard to see in a world still at war, Jesus has broken the cycle of violence.

Second, it would mean that in a world ruled by greed, where everything seems to have its price, we become agents of a boundless generosity measured by God's abundance and Christ's self-giving for the life of the world. Though it may be hard to see as we are at once battered by an economy beyond our control and seduced by its glittering, contrived fantasies, all sovereignty belongs to the poor and naked Savior, who hangs suffering between two thieves. Jesus has overcome the deadly power of Mammon.

And lastly, it would mean that in a world ruled by fear, we become vessels of his burning love. Love that believes all things, hopes all things, and dares all things for Christ the King. For, even here and now, the risen Lord is with us. And he has poured the Spirit of love into our hearts, casting out all fear. Jesus and his love have in fact won the final victory over death.

As we await his coming, may this love consume us.

For, yes indeed, Christ is on the move.

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.

Happy Thanksgiving from Episcopal Cafe

I wrote this column ten years ago for

By Jim Naughton

A few years ago, while I was on an academic fellowship, my family and I spent Thanksgiving with other fellows and their families. In religious terms, we were a mixed bunch: Christians, Unitarians, Jews, agnostics, and atheists.

A multi-religious dinner table always presents a bit of a problem when it is time to say the grace before meals. But Thanksgiving presents a particularly sticky situation, because it is the one occasion on which even the irreligious feel that some sort of invocation should be made. But who, or what, should we invoke?

After several minutes of communal hemming and hawing, one of the braver of our number delivered a prayer to the earth, thanking it for its bounty and seeking its forgiveness for our environmental sins. In all, it sounded more Green Party than pagan. Having crossed that hastily improvised bridge, we tucked into our feast.

But the moment stayed with me, for it illustrated what a peculiar, not to mention sneaky, holiday we were celebrating.

Thanksgiving is not a purely civic holiday like Memorial Day or Independence Day, although we are, in part, celebrating the fortitude of our Pilgrim forebears. Nor, like Christmas or Passover, does it come freighted with the content of a particular faith. Rather, Thanksgiving straddles these two categories; it is civic and religious. To paraphrase Jesus, Thanksgiving gives both to Caesar and to God.

In doing so, it discomfits believer and unbeliever equally. For giving thanks assumes the existence of one (One?) who deserves our gratitude--anathema to atheists. But giving thanks as a nation assumes that we stand before God as citizens of a country, as well as members of a faith. And that should offend anyone who believes that salvation flows from the church and not from the state.

Thanksgiving, in other words, assumes the existence of something that doesn't exist: an American faith.

On these grounds, I suppose one could argue that this holiday violates the establishment clause of the Constitution. I leave that task for some particularly dogmatic member of Americans for the Separation of Church and State. What interests me is the ubiquity of gratitude, the understanding, even among witnessing atheists, that it is important to be grateful for our good fortune.

For me, the desire to give thanks is evidence, at a minimum, that human beings are innately religious. The theologian Karl Rahner wrote that there is a "God-shaped hole" in every one of us. With Rahner, I believe that it is God who put it there.

You can take that argument or leave it. But if you leave it, help me to understand why we experience this particular species of gratitude. I'm not talking about the kind of gratitude we feel toward someone who has done us a favor. I mean the sort of global gratitude inspired by gifts we could not have known enough to ask for, or the kind we feel when matters beyond our control end well for us.

Who do you thank for your sweetheart's brown eyes; for growing up where it snows (or doesn't); for being alive at the same time as Bruce Springsteen; or for seeing your children born into a country that is prosperous and at peace?

You might argue that there is no one to be thanked. Maybe all our purported blessings are a matter of random chance. Perhaps the desire to extend gratitude beyond the human is an evolutionary glitch--a useful social trait that got too big for its britches.


Or perhaps we awaken one day and realize that we are not now, and have never been, masters of our own destinies; that our successes were not entirely of our own making; that our souls magnify the Lord, whether we like it or not.

Again, you can take this argument or leave it. It is easier to believe in chance than in grace. Chance requires nothing from us. In fact, if life is a succession of random events, than any response to good fortune is superfluous.

Grace is different. In receiving grace, we are challenged to become channels of grace. This is more than a matter of a few good deeds (although those help); it is an invitation to place one's self in God's hands, and devote one's self toward what we perceive as God's ends.

Thanksgiving, then, is a call to action: a gentle poke to awaken our collective conscience from its postprandial slumber. To whom much is given, etc. etc.

In a county as religiously diverse as ours, we may never be able to express our gratitude in words that are acceptable to everyone. Fortunately, deeds work even better.

Jim Naughton is the editor of Episcopal Café.

Is the church captive to its buildings?

By George Clifford

During the course of a recent weekend in the English town of Ludlow, I visited six Church of England (CofE) parish church buildings, each hundreds of years old and two more than a thousand years old. All six benefices now belong to “team ministries,” a group of churches served by a clergy team. Unlike most U.S. churches, all six facilities consist of only a worship building; none include a parish hall, offices, or education spaces; any children’s programming occurs in a corner, side aisle, or former chapel.

I attended the Sunday Family Communion service at St. Laurence in Ludlow, where I found a thriving, welcoming congregation with good music and respectable preaching. This parish, prominently located in the town center, is the principal parish for a team ministry comprised of fourteen parishes served by three full-time and numerous retired clergy. St. Laurence also has two musicians; the clergy team benefits from a full-time administrator and part-time secretary.

Another parish church, St. Mary Magdalene in Eardisley, which I visited on Sunday afternoon was exceptionally clean, tastefully decorated for their harvest festival held that morning, and appeared to host as numerous and active congregation as one might expect in a small village. Even empty, the church felt welcoming and like a place of prayer.

My other four church visits were uniformly depressing. All four buildings are still used. Two are located some distance from the nearest village, each adjacent to a large country house; two are in small villages. Although I did not attend worship in any of these four churches, none gave any sign of especial love or care. Books and pamphlets were dusty, dirty, or even moldy. Several altar hangings were decrepit. Notice boards listed the worship schedule, usually one or two Sunday services per month in each place. In two, I could find no indication of children being regularly present. Each church had distinctive architectural features; a grant from the English lottery was funding a partial renovation of one. To avoid unhelpfully shaming any of these four churches and their small, probably elderly, and definitely struggling congregations, I will not name them.

Reflecting on my six visits, I found the plight of the CofE – at least in that corner of the Diocese of Hereford, though visits to numerous other rural and urban CofE churches and two years of service as a CofE priest suggest that the these six parishes are not atypical – thought provoking. First, the CofE’s resource base does not align well with England’s current population. The CofE has too many churches located where few people live and too little money with which to fund ministry adequately in more densely populated areas.

The Episcopal Church (TEC) faces a similar problem. Shifting demographics have left TEC with too many small congregations in geographic areas in which the population is at best stable and often declining. Conversely, TEC has often failed to plant new churches, or to plant them effectively, in growing suburban and urban areas. Worship attendance, not the number of worship facilities is the objective measure of vitality in any Church.

Second, neither the CofE nor TEC exists to promote cultural or local history. God calls the Church to promote the good news of God’s love manifest in Jesus and to incarnate that love by loving others. Consequently, both the CofE and TEC should act aggressively to close small congregations. (Of course, the devil is in the details. What is “small”?) Organizations and people committed to preserving cultural or local heritage should maintain any closed church building deemed important. When a putative disciple sought leave to bury a deceased family member, Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury their dead.”

Obviously, not all members of every small congregation are spiritually dead. At least a few among the relative handful of people in each small CofE and TEC congregation quite likely lament the demanding congregational focus on building maintenance rather than a mission focused on incarnating God’s love in a broken world. (Small parishes are not alone in worshiping stone idols in lieu of the living God, but that’s another problem.)

Closing underutilized buildings emphasizes that buildings are a means to an end, not the raison d’être for the body of Christ. Those committed to Christ’s cause may feel saddened, even aggrieved, by closing a building that has many significant spiritual memories for them. But committed Christians will not abandon the Church. In England, they will travel a few miles to another parish. In the U.S., they may travel to another parish or perhaps move to a different branch of the Church. Remember, we Anglicans have never claimed to be the only branch of the vine that is Christ. In both countries, a number of new house churches may emerge, permitting healthier small congregations freed from underutilized, financially draining buildings.

Third, neither the CofE nor TEC acts as if they fully recognize the costs of operating so many small congregations. These costs, monetary and other, include:

1. Attempting, often unsuccessfully in England and struggling mightily in much of the U.S., to repair and operate aging buildings, expending funds and costly staff time on tattered vestiges of once important fabric rather than investing in people;
2. Unintentionally signaling, thereby, to the larger society that the Church values maintaining its legacy of underutilized buildings more than it values life-giving missions to hurting, dying people in underserved urban and suburban areas;
3. Dilution of focus (e.g., “small church ministry” is generally a euphemism for serving a dying congregation) rather than clarity of vision and singleness of purpose (e.g., “small church ministry” connoting planting new congregations in under-churched areas).
4. Providing members of small congregations “third-rate” worship and spiritual opportunities because these congregations generally lack the numerical and fiscal strengths to ensure high quality choral and instrumental music, excellent and diverse youth, religious education, and parish life programming, and first-rate pastoral and priestly ministry. If they had such resources, most of these small congregations would no longer be small!

I like old church buildings, both in the States and abroad. I enjoy seeing what was important for different spiritual expressions and traditions; as an amateur ecclesial architect formerly responsible for several church/chapel construction projects, art and architecture interest me. If I did not appreciate old churches, I would not visit so many of them. But as a Christian, I know that I must distinguish between pleasurable avocations and the Church’s real business of incarnating God’s love for the world.

George Clifford, a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years and is now a visiting professor of ethics and public policy at the Naval Postgraduate School, blogging at Ethical Musings (

Stuck grief or mourning's flowing tears

By Donald Schell

‘And death itself shall die’

As I write it’s two days before the second anniversary of my father’s death. Dad lived a good life. He was a generous and loving father and grandfather, and, as I heard at his funeral, he was also a very good physician to many people. He and I talked well. We didn’t have “unfinished business.” He died peacefully in his sleep, almost eighty-seven years old. All that sounds like the makings of good, clean, grief. Finding my way to that would be a grace suitable to such a man and such a life. I’m finding my way.

I was in my mid-thirties when my wife’s parents died. For the thirty years since I’ve been making slow discoveries about grief. My first startling discovery was noticing that the loving home I’d grown up in was drenched in grief. I was a prized firstborn, a first wave boomer baby. My dad was in medical school and our lives felt full of hope. When I was old enough to hear it, I felt proud to be named Donald for my uncle who had died in the war. Looking back, I see that to my child’s mind, ‘before I was born’ was a forever, long ago, unreachable place I didn’t even try to imagine.

My parents told fascinating stories about my uncle. He was imaginative, talented, an actor in high school, a college honors student. His life had been full of promise. Family speculated about what he’d have done had he come home. He felt like a presence with us. The stories I loved of Donald felt to me like the stories I loved to hear of my grandfather, George, mother’s father who had also died. I treasured the stories. The stories meant I was inheriting something of their gifts and their promise.

My grandfather died January 1, 1945. My uncle died June 15, 1945. I was born April 11, 1947. That chronology before I was born meant nothing to me as a child. I didn’t notice the assumptions that came with not understanding the chronology. Cherished stories of my grandfather and my uncle gave me comfortable ways of thinking about Donald and George that nothing but adult experience could break. ‘Before I was born’ hid from me that my mother’s two griefs were quite raw. And I didn’t notice that in my world, it was a given, simple, neutral fact that death could come at any time.

Eventually I learned of the other grief that shaped my parents. When I was judged ‘old enough to understand,’ I learned that my other grandmother, dad’s mother, was actually his stepmother, and I heard the story of his mother Goldie’s death. Stories of dying were familiar and this one was a very long time before I was born. So the plain given-ness of another death hid my Dad’s grief from me, his loss at never having known his mother, an old tear in the soul that time can’t quite heal.

Next summer Jonathan Moscone’s new play Ghosts Light will premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I like Moscone’s work as a director and am looking forward to seeing his work as a playwright. His play unfolds with a young theater director named ‘Jon’ working on a production of Hamlet.

Jonathan Moscone was fourteen in 1978 when Dan White, the enraged city supervisor who also killed Supervisor Harvey Milk, gunned down Jonathan’s father, San Francisco mayor George Moscone. Jonathan Moscone calls Ghosts Light “a dream play.” As in a dream his character Jon, while directing a production of Hamlet, finds his work haunted not just by the elder Hamlet’s ghost, but also the ghosts of George Moscone and Harvey Milk.

I found odd comfort reading Jonathan Moscone in an interview say, “…there’s grieving, which is a form of stasis, and there’s mourning, which is an active form of moving through to another place.” Those simple, graceful words (and my wonder that mourning could move a fourteen year old boy beyond the static frozen grief at losing a dad to assassination) helped me think about old, stuck, grief.

I was sixty-one when my father died. I felt grateful that he died peacefully in his sleep and that we’d had so many good years together. I miss him terribly sometimes. But I’ve only shed a very few tears. Something resigned and fatalistic in me had thought for a long, long time – ‘It’s coming. They all die.’ Moscone’s distinction between “grieving” and “mourning” has me wondering about that resignation, wondering whether I really know how to mourn, to move through to another place. And as I wonder, Jesus’ beatitude, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted,” hints at the possibility of feelings fully felt and of moving from grief through mourning to comfort.

The reason I’m remembering and re-thinking is that I suspect some of my stasis with grief belongs to some old, old stories.

The oldest part of the story goes back to 1921 when Dad was delivered by C-section. His mother, Goldie, had already lost her sight to the brain tumor that would kill her. Holding her premature baby after he was delivered, she asked, ‘is he beautiful?’ and my grandfather, the father who had been present for this C-section before doctors attempted hopeless brain surgery told his dying wife, yes, their son was beautiful. Two weeks later Goldie Schell died. She was twenty-six years old.

Now in 2010 – nearly ninety years after her death, three of my children have outlived their great grandmother’s short twenty-six years. When the first of our children passed that marker, something shifted, I felt a new frustration and not really knowing who my missing grandmother had been, what she’d been like, who she might have become, and what it could have meant to me to know her. And that began the quiet ache of wondering how dad had lived his whole life knowing he’d lost her before he’d known her at all.

We only have a couple pictures of Goldie. My favorite is a 1920 photo where she seems to be play-acting ‘farm girl,’ the sun catches golden hair – a dazzling silvery white in the photo - She’s got both hands jammed in the pockets of her overalls, a straw hat knocked back on her head, and something in her radiant, crazy-playful smile makes me want to laugh. She was nurse, like my wife Ellen, so I suppose some one took a solemn photo of her at her capping ceremony. But it was this playful photo of the mother he never knew that my dad kept in his drawer, a hidden witness to his unspoken thoughts.

After I was grown, Dad told me he’d learned not talk or ask about his mother. My grandfather had remarried when Dad was still a toddler, and Dad’s new, easily angered stepmother was as unlike that sunny picture of Goldie as a person could be. Dad was relieved when he learned the sullen, sharp-tongued woman who did her best to care for him wasn’t his mother. As a teenager he’d started to build some relationship with Goldie’s brothers. His dad quietly made those occasions for him. Was grandpa stuck in his grief too?

In May of 1944, my parents left college. Dad had dropped out to join the Army Air Corps, and after basic flight school, they married, Mother took her leave from college to follow dad to Army bases around the country while he completed his flight training. When he earned his wings and shipped out to fly a B-17 in daylight bombing raids on German munitions factories, mother moved home, waiting and praying daily for Dad’s return. “It was what people were doing,” mother said. “I knew he might not come back.”

My grandfather George was a banker, and both my parents enjoyed telling stories repeating funny things he’d said or done; I loved hearing what a wry, rebellious church member he’d been, a lay leader in the church where he’d met and courted my grandmother, the church I grew up in. A few stories hinted at a workaholic whose very high standard of performance weighed heavily on himself.

They told stories of his wit, wisdom and foolishness with pride and affection. And the stories of his workaholism? Sometimes I wasn’t sure whether those were exemplary stories or cautionary tales. One story certainly was cautionary. George’s doctor told my grandmother as he lay in a coma from a heart attack that a few weeks before George had gone to the doctor with chest pains, and the doctor told him to slow down and rest. In December of 1944 his staff was closing the year-end books, George wouldn’t slow down when his staff was working hard. So he died on New Year’s Day, 1945.

My Dad never told me how he had gotten word of his father-in-law’s death. Dad was seeing a lot of death, watching for the German fighters after they crossed the channel, flying through anti-aircraft fire and shrapnel, relieved every time they got their plane back to England, wondering when the war would end, and hoping for the time he’d go home to comfort his bride. Dad was 24 when George died, and mother was 20. George himself he was only 55. Now that I’ve lived through all those ages, 24, 20, and 55 seem bitterly young.

Mother tells me that even now, sixty-five years after her father’s death, hardly a day goes by without her wishing she could tell him or ask him about something. I’m glad to hear that.

Feeling her love in that loss nudges stuck grief toward mourning.

I heard and memorized the stories of these absent people, but I didn’t know how to ask for the stories of mourning their loss. I did ask Dad about the war. “It’s why I became a physician,” was his preferred answer. If I pushed, the stories Dad was most willing to tell were of the people with whom he’d flown and of missing my mother and writing her, and sitting on an English park bench evenings after returning from a bombing run and wondering how it would all end.

The few air war stories dad would tell weren’t stories of heroism, but simply stories of seeing death.

He said precision bombing was difficult, the daylight made the bombers easier target for German anti-aircraft guns. When they arrived at a target, he had to take the plane low for bombing accuracy, into the range of the anti-aircraft guns, and fly a slow, steady course toward the target while the bombardier studied the winds. At that altitude shrapnel peppered the plane, sometimes sounding like a hailstorm, sometimes louder, metal banging against metal like the factories they were sent to destroy. Once the bombs were loosed, he’d put full power into a climb, not even pausing to close the bomb bays in the plane’s belly. He said he was continually amazed and grateful to learn how much wing or tail the B-17 could lose and still fly home.

One run he retold had targeted a ball-bearing factory adjacent to a German primary school. He said by observation their bombs had hit accurately, demolishing the factory. Even then he wondered if their bombs had blasted out the windows in the school. And were the children there? What had happened to the children?

And he told me that sometimes when he closed his eyes he’d see the moment a burning German fighter plane plummeted right through the next B-17 in formation to his, and how in that instant he’d seen the face of the German pilot and the face of his own friend. And harder, he said, than that was the next moment, when the plane had fallen out of sight, of knowing his friend was crashing with his crew to earth.

I don’t know what of the war Dad was able to write home to mother. I’ll ask her.

After VE-Day in 1945, Dad had flown his bomber back to the U.S. to be scrapped. He took the train home to California, to live in his widowed mother-in-law’s house and wait for a new assignment in the continuing war in the Pacific where Donald, my mother’s brother, was flying a B-24.

Dad had only be back home for a week or two In mid-June of 1945 when he answered the doorbell to a uniformed army officer wished to speak to Donald Campbell’s next of kin. Donald’s plane and crew were reported missing in action, just five and a half months after my grandfather’s death. It would take another eighteen more months of waiting (and hoping) before the Army would report finding the wreckage and remains of Donald and his crew.

More months passed, before the Army announced that the remains were being flown to St. Louis and buried in Jefferson Barracks, National Cemetery.

If grief is stasis, blocked, stuck, what Jonathan Moscone calls mourning is the deep feeling of loss that goes somewhere. Standing at my uncle’s gravesite a year or so ago, my first visit, I stared at the granite slab marker for that whole crew and tried to imagine my grandmother standing there almost two years after her son’s death and wondered where she found room to mourn.

Recently visiting Malawi with my wife’s AIDS work, one of Ellen’s Malawian colleague’s lost her husband, a diabetic about my grandfather George’s age. We attended the village funeral, the last eight or nine hours of the twenty-four hour funeral. When we arrived the wailing and singing had been going on from the previous day and all through the night. There were three hundred mourners. I’d been directed to sit with the clergy in the ritual place of greeting, half a dozen of us seated in chairs in the shade of a house where every newly arrived mourner would greet us one by one with a word and a handshake before proceeding to the mourning house across the stream where the body was laid out. Ellen was in that house with the widow, her colleague. When the woman’s sons arrived, home from university and from good work in South Africa, Ellen later described seeing what I heard from across the stream. When the sons appeared, the mourners began to wail with special intensity, putting a new sharp edge on their hours-long rhythm of silence, song. The high-pitched keening was sharp as a siren. Did it chill the heart, or simply touch it? The young men looked on their father’s body impassively for one moment, for two moments, and then the wailing broke their grief loose from paralysis and their mourning tears began to flow and their sobbing quickly followed. The clergy didn’t rejoin the crowd to begin the formal funeral liturgy until the sons’ tears were flowing freely.

I found some passages where St. Paul seems to acknowledge a distinction like Moscone makes between grieving and mourning:

For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. - 2 Corinthians 7.10

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters,* about those who have died,* so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.
- 1 Thessalonians 4.13

I remember preachers I heard as a kid saying Christians didn’t grieve because our hope wouldn’t let us. But I’m hearing something quite different in the Thessalonians passage they always quoted. We DO grieve, but our way of grieving (or mourning) isn’t like the grief of those who have no hope. Ah, what is it to grieve without hope? And how does it feel to let loose the feelings and grieve and move on to mourning in hope and finally mourn through to comfort?
I’m hearing William Billings’ raucous, life-affirming setting of these verses by Isaac Watts:

How long, dear Savior, O how long
Shall this bright hour delay?
Fly swift around, ye wheels of time,
And bring the promised day.
Lo, what a glorious sight appears
To our believing eyes!

His own soft hand shall wipe the tears
From every weeping eye;
And pains and groans and griefs and fears
And death itself shall die. .

I suspect many of us carry fragments of grief we don’t know how to finish. Isaac Watts’ promise of salvation, of deliverance, of freedom offers, with St. Paul and Jesus, a blessed comfort for those who mourn. The radiance and hope Watts’ scene of Jesus’ hand drying our tears (and recognizing the grace of those tears) even hints that we can hope for deliverance from the rest of it – “pains and groans . . .and fears” that, like grief, they will die with death itself.

In this living moment, before the wheels of time bring any promised day, I welcome this tender promise and hope that His hand will comfort, mysterious as that image may be, and give us freedom to engage the grief, shed the tears, feel the sorrow, and mourn, and that as we find the freedom to weep, we’ll each one let Him wipe the tears from our weeping eyes.

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

The path beyond pluralism

This is the final part of a three part series on the evolving issue of Christian interaction with believers of other religions, what the Bible says about other religions, and how Christians can welcome the contributions of other faith traditions.

By Frederick Quinn

Increasingly, a task for western Christians is to sort out how to regard other world religions. The thesis of these articles is that there may be different paths to salvation, and that different religious traditions may represent salvations in and of themselves, different from the Christian way, but still welcomed by a loving God. This does not require Christians to give up anything of their basic beliefs, but to be more open to the love of God, expressed in the core New Testament concept of the Reign of God, offered by Jesus to a progression of outsiders, Romans, Samaritans, tax collectors, prostitutes, and frail outcasts at society’s gates. Nothing is easy or comfortable about such a process. The dots do not all connect, nor are all questions answered. “The religions of man may fit together, but they do not do so easily,” Houston Smith once observed. The theology of such encounters will be awkward, incomplete, and messy, for it is exploratory and breaking new ground, not offering final resolution of the topic of interfaith encounters.

The thoughts of a parish outreach group in such a setting will have as much merit as those of church leaders. Raimon Panikkar, a Roman Catholic priest and student of world religious spirituality, once wrote, “I ‘left’ as a Christian, ‘found’ myself as a Hindu, and ‘return’ a Buddhist, without ever having ceased to be a Christian.” At its core this provocative statement invites Western Christians to explore the spiritual depths of other religions. A “more of the same” frontal attack on the worth other faiths will not be productive. “We have marched around the alien Jerichos the requisite number of times. We have sounded the trumpets. And the walls have not collapsed,” Max Warren, General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society from 1942 to 1963,once wrote.

Convergent Spirituality, the Asian Example
A common structure of faith exists at the heart of many religious traditions, suggested by the image of a tree with various faith traditions having common roots but different branches. Keith Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University (retired), calls this "convergent spirituality" where members of one faith learn from the complementary revelations and beliefs of other traditions. Convergence does not mean the movement of all traditions to a single place, but the affirmation of a shared quest for unity and the hope that they may articulate a common set of core beliefs, and also a clearly definable set of differences, as participants move ahead in a shared life of dialogue, with the sorting out of common ground and differences that implies.

No new global religion will emerge from such contact, but it may open new possibilities for cooperation through worship and acts of mercy and justice presently unexplored at local and regional levels. Attempts to enforce authority from a central set of Western assumptions will understandably lose their force, as different religious groups explore new ways of witness to their faith in local settings, reinforced by the vision of God that the historic church has found in Jesus. In this sense, the energy currently being focused into fashioning the Anglican Communion into a top down administrative and juridical regulatory body is totally misspent.

It is from Asia that the most exciting theological possibilities have emerged in recent decades. Modern Asian Christians draw heavily on Asia’s ancient religious traditions that predate both Christianity and Islam in classical texts like the Bhagavad-Gita and Discourses of Buddha. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton, a longtime student of Asian religions, wrote in the 1960s, “I see no contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity. The future of Zen is in the West. The future of Zen is in the West. I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can.”

Kwok Pui-lan and the Comparability of Sacred Texts
Kwok Pui-lan, who teaches at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., writes of the need for biblical scholarship to move beyond traditional western exegetical models. She urges that the Bible be read from an interfaith perspective, drawing on Asian sacred texts as well. This includes comparing the content of the Bible with Asian sources and finding the depths of other religious traditions, moving beyond a perspective where, if two texts are considered, the Bible will be the normative document. Such differences can now “be used to amplify certain dimensions of the biblical text or bring to the surface divergences in the religious worldviews shaping the texts. The tensions between the two texts call for more in-depth dialogue and reexamination of Christian doctrines,” she wrote in Discovering the Bible in a Non-Biblical World. She urged Christians to move beyond western claims that the Bible is the sole revelation of God, claims that unwittingly reinforce Western ethnocentrism and cultural hegemony.

Interfaith Cooperation at Work: the United Religions Initiative
Although theological exploration of interfaith contact is relatively new in contemporary Anglican discourse, there are several long-established examples of such cooperation successfully at work, including the United Religions Initiative, founded a decade ago by William E. Swing, then Episcopal Bishop of California. The San Francisco based program engages thousands of participants in over 70 countries representing more than a hundred religions, spiritual expressions, and indigenous traditions. Its goals are distilled in a single sentence, “The purpose of the United Religions Initiative is to promote enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence, and to create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings.”

From its inception, URI was careful not to represent itself as another religion, religious hierarchy, or organization competing with other interfaith efforts. From its collaborative encounters, a charter emerged to guide the organization. URI would be a bridge-builder among religions, not a competing religion. “We respect the sacred wisdom of each religion, spiritual expression and indigenous tradition (and) the differences among religions, spiritual expressions, and indigenous traditions (and) encourage our members to deepen their roots in their own traditions.” Another goal was “healing and reconciliation to resolve conflict without resorting to violence (and) sound ecological practices to protect and preserve the Earth.” Finally, “Members of the URI shall not be coerced to participate in any ritual or be proselytized.”

Summary, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy”
Sometimes I am asked about my own viewpoint on the relationship between Christianity and other religions. Much of my belief is contained in the old hymn “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” especially the words, “For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind; and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind” and the welcoming sentiment it suggests. Personally, I have found my own Christian faith deepened and strengthened by probing contact with the faiths of others. My perspective is that of a spiritual journeyer whose grounding is as a mainstream Episcopalian who is content to leave the final ranking of world religions to God, and who respects each for their deeply spiritual and salvific content. There may be several paths to the same or different mountain peaks, different ways to different religious ends. Here the language of the mystics is more relevant than that of theologians and historians, and more reflective of the wider concept of the Reign of God articulated by Jesus. This is not some bland universalism or relativism. I make a distinction between the uniqueness of the message and person of Jesus and church claims to exclusivity. God can do something unique in Jesus that does not exclude other religions. For me, it is quite clear that Jesus is the Christ, but this does not mean that the truth I know is the end of the story, or the only truth. My search, like that of others, is at once a quest for clarification and awareness that any such search is also grounded in divine mystery. We experience the pull of the future as we pour over the issues and personalities of this ancient quest, aware that the flow is never a neat one.

The Anglican via media represents both a broad middle way in religious encounters and its historic grounding across several centuries of contact with other religions. At times, this contact represented an exploitive extension of colonialism, but at a deeper, more enduring level it reflects a sensitive and sympathetic response to other religious traditions and their teachings.

I have come to see an abiding contemporary relevance in several anchoring biblical passages, those about the Reign of God, and those affirming the welcoming presence of outsiders like the Good Samaritan, and those passage in the Prophet Isaiah and the Book of Revelation that describe the Holy City as a stable, welcoming, place, a haven for all people:

The nations will come to your light, And kings to your dawning brightness. Your gates will lie open continually, Shut neither by day nor by night. The sound of violence shall be heard no longer in your land, Or ruin and devastation within your borders. You will call your walls, Salvation, And your gates, Praise. No more will the sun give you daylight, Nor moonlight shine upon you. But the lord will be your everlasting light, Your God will be your splendor. For you shall be called the city of God, The dwelling of the Holy One of Israel.
(Isaiah 60. 1-3, 11a, 18, 19, 14b.)

Frederick Quinn, an Episcopal priest and former chaplain at Washington National Cathedral, is the author of The Sum of All Heresies, The Image of Islam in Western Culture, published by Oxford University Press in 2008. These three articles are excerpted from his forthcoming book, “And I Saw a New Heaven and a New Earth,” Religious Pluralism in a Global Age.

What does the Bible say about other religions

This is a second in a three part series on the evolving issue of Christian interaction with believers of other religions, what the Bible says about other religions, and how Christians can welcome the contributions of other faith traditions.

By Frederick Quinn

The first reference point for Christians in considering the place of other religions is the Bible. But here an immediate problem is that the Bible was written before Islam appeared in the Middle East and without an awareness of the content of the great Asian religions. Are its passages seemingly hostile to other religions aimed at the other great world religions? No, the biblical writers had something else in mind. Their focus was the hostile or incomplete belief systems surrounding the Hebrew people and early Christians at a time when they were carving out their own identity. Their affirmation of a newly discovered faith and the shortcomings they found in religions around them was in the strong language of passion and discovery. The biblical quest was toward finding the Messiah and Jesus, the Savior, not toward a balanced appraisal of world religions as they evolved historically.

As a way of considering the Bible’s relationship to other religions, it is possible to list several central passages into what appear to be “Closed” and “Open” categories, representing narrower roadblock and wider Reign of God or Kingdom of God interpretations. The more frequently cited passages erected as barriers supposedly excluding other religions are “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14.6) and “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved. ” (Acts 4.12), which biblical literalists usually cite as limiting divine salvation only to confessed Christians who have verbally accepted Jesus as savior during their lifetimes. This excludes much of humanity, then and now, since only a minority of the earth’s population will have heard of Jesus, and fewer still will have had a realistic chance of knowing much about Christianity as a religion. If this interpretation holds, only a handful of the world’s peoples gain salvation, while millions merit exclusion or damnation through no fault or effort of their own.

“The Bible should not be used as an ammunition belt.”
The Bible is much more than a series of isolated billboard slogans. If passages like the above are considered in the wider context of Acts and John’s Gospel, they are subsumed by the New Testament’s central theme, the cosmic, consistent love of God for all humanity and the created universe through Christ, proclaimed in the wider concept of the Reign of God. In the Johannine account this represents the “true light which enlightens everyone” (John 1.9) that “became flesh and lived among us” (John 1.14). God’s loving presence is manifest in all creation and all humanity, expressed as the true light and eternal Word that assumed mortal form in Jesus. “The Bible should not be used as an ammunition belt full of verse-size bullets to be fired off as they are needed,” Diana L. Eck has written. The director of the Harvard Pluralism Project describes the “I am the way…No one comes” (John 14.6) passage as the pastoral response of Jesus to a timorous disciple, Thomas, on the night before the death of Jesus. “It was a pastoral answer, not a polemical one,” she concludes, providing an expression of comfort, not condemnation, an expression of personal commitment to Christ, but not to the denigration or demonization of neighbors. Attempts to make this Johannine passage a narrow statement of God’s intent contrast with several other clearly more welcoming passages in that gospel, including “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16) and “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” (John 10:16). The contrasts are clear.

The second passage often quoted by those who would limit the place of other religions in relation to Christianity is, “There is salvation in no one else,” (Acts 4:12). But this passage in context represents a more limited statement by Peter, who is pressed by hostile interrogators, and who makes a bold personal witness to the power of Jesus in his life. The Acts of the Apostles are filled with examples of the remarkable energy of the young church, and its members were bold and unambiguous in their declarations of their newly discovered Christian identity.

Other writers have suggested that passages like the above should be understood as the “survival language” of the young church, action language whose intent was to rally people to the new faith. These passages are not actual photographs or newsreel footage, but more like artist’s sketches attempting to capture the essence of an encounter. These affirmations are like “love language,” the extravagant, poetic language a lover might use to address the beloved.

Thus, the Roadblock passages should not be seen as creedal or doctrinal formulae, but strong affirmations of personal and communal faith. They represent an invitation to follow and act like Jesus, to rally Christians to faithful representations of the teachings of Jesus, not set up doctrinal roadblocks to exclude others.

The Reign of God, the Unifying Message of New Testament

Affirmation trumps rejection, welcome is stronger than exclusion, and the New Testament message is clear about that through its core message about the the Reign of God. The phrase “Reign of God”, Basileia tou Theou in Greek, Malkuth in Hebrew, appears over 150 times in the New Testament. It has been translated as the “Kingdom of God,” though that is misleading, especially if it connotes a specific political or geographic kingdom. Another translation might be the “reigning of God,” suggesting not a static kingdom, but an active, engaging process. Spoken of often by Jesus, yet never clearly defined, the Reign of God was proclaimed in general outline in the Sermon on the Mount (Mat. 5-7) and the Beatitudes (Mat. 5: 1-11), and reinforced elsewhere in the teaching mission of Jesus. At the heart of this message is a call for justice, freedom, love, and equality among peoples. This declaration represented a radical affront to the religious and political authorities he encountered, and Jesus paid for it with his life.

The New Testament Reign of God welcomes non-Christians as common seekers after a truth fully revealed in Jesus Christ but experienced in different historical settings by other religions as well. The Kingdom was consistently made available to outsiders. Jesus said to a Roman centurion, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.” (Mat.: 8:10) To a Canaanite woman he declared in healing her daughter, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” (Mat. 15:21-28). Jesus conversed with a foreigner, a Samaritan woman, (Jn. 4:7-15) who sought “living water” and elsewhere cited the example of the “good Samaritan” who had pity on a wounded robbery victim (Lk. 10: 29-37). Pagans, outsiders, or foreigners were consistently welcomed by Jesus, and at the final Passover dinner he told his followers he would not eat the Passover again “until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” (Lk 22: 16).

This, in broad outline, is a reading of what the Reign of God means. Many world theologians of recent decades understand the kingdom to be freely offered to both believers and members of other religions. If their lives and beliefs reflect what Jesus preached, they too are witnesses to the Kingdom in global settings. This moves considerably beyond Rahner’s “anonymous Christians” and the classic confines of Exclusivists and Inclusivists, and affirms that God’s loving reach extends to other religions, most of which the earthly Jesus would not have encountered in the Middle East of his time.

Keith Ward, in his recent book What the Bible Really Teaches, sketches an imaginary picture of what constitutes salvation in such a setting:

It would perhaps be a picture of a trillion trillion suns, of uncountable forms of conscious and creative life, of virtually endless reaches of space and time, universe upon universe, all held together in the mind of Christ, raised from destruction and decay of the material realm to participate in the deathless and trans-temporal nature of divine Wisdom. On one small planet at the edge of a small galaxy, one young man was taken to share in the divine nature, to disclose its final purpose and mediate its illimitable power to the inhabitants of that small world. And what they see is the ultimate transfiguration of time itself into eternity, the final reconciliation of the whole universe in Christ….What the Bible really teaches us about salvation is no less than that.

Frederick Quinn, an Episcopal priest and former chaplain at Washington National Cathedral, is the author of The Sum of All Heresies, The Image of Islam in Western Culture, published by Oxford University Press in 2008. These three articles are excerpted from his forthcoming book, “And I Saw a New Heaven and a New Earth,” Religious Pluralism in a Global Age.

How should Episcopalians regard other religions?

This is the first of three articles on the evolving issue of Christian interaction with believers of other religions, what the Bible says about other religions, and how Christians can welcome the contributions of other faith traditions.

By Frederick Quinn

During the first decade of the present century two key issues converged. First, globalization has resulted in the content of all major religions being far better known than at any previous point in world history. The Internet, greatly increased world travel, and the expanding influence of diaspora communities in every country has made that possible. Second, longstanding Western Christian dominance of the language of global Christian discourse has given way to numerous newer expressions of world Christianity, often-incorporating insights from other sacred traditions, especially those of Asia. “Jesus is an Asian,” nonwestern Christian colleagues remind us, causing a challenging reorientation of spiritual geography for most Westerners.

Yet as an outpouring of more information becomes available about other religions, greater cooperation and tolerance are not always a result. Tension and violence clothed in religious language remains prevalent features of international life. Some recent examples are of Christian churches being burned in Pakistan, mosques being destroyed in Nigeria, the continuing headscarf controversy in France, and the global impact of the New York Ground Zero mosque controversy, triggered by a Florida pastor’s threats to publicly burn copies of the Koran on 9/11. Such examples of religious-related violence change weekly, like headlines on an Internet newswire.

Most striking of all is the finding that globally Christians and nonChristians have little intentional contact with one another and coexist in largely separate worlds, despite being crowded together in megacities and rural villages. This important conclusion comes from the painstakingly detailed Atlas of Global Christianity complied by Todd M. Johnson and Kenneth R. Ross and published by Edinburgh University Press (2009). The world’s 2, 292,454,000 Christians divide into 41,000 denominations. Christian numbers grow gradually, as do those of their expanding global religious neighbors: Muslims presently at 1,549,444,000; Hindus, 948,507,000; Buddhists, 468,736,000 and Jews, 14, 641,000. Still, despite steady growth of numbers on all sides, purposeful contact is awkward and infrequent.

Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism
How should Christians look at other religions? In the 1970s Alan Race, a pioneering figure in the global interfaith dialogue, developed a much-employed typology of Exclusivism, Inclusivism and Pluralism that remains widely used, especially by Christians, to describe their attitudes toward other faiths. It first appeared in Race’s book Christians and Religious Pluralism (1983). Race never meant for the categories to be water tight, and many people would say they don’t fit any of them. Still others find themselves in a transitional place.

<1> Exclusivism, “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” (Outside the Church there is no salvation.)
Broadly cast, Exclusivism makes three claims: that the Christian Bible is the only source of religious revelation, that Jesus Christ is the sole agent of salvation, and that the church represents the only presence of God’s grace and salvation in history. Although Catholic and Protestant Exclusivists then split over which church, there was no question of either accepting the legitimacy of other, non-Christian religions. Exclusivist doctrine coalesced in Roman Catholicism with Cyprian (200-258), who introduced the longstanding concept of extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the Church there is no salvation). Although originally aimed at heretics and schismatics, the doctrine gradually expanded to include Jews and pagans, and by the Council of Florence (1442) its broader interdictions were firmly in place. A Protestant version of Exclusivism was voiced by Judson Smith of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1896:

There is no faith which Christianity is not worthy to replace, which it is not destined to replace. It is not to share the world with Islam, or with Buddhism, or with any other religious system. It is the true religion for man in the Orient and in the Occident, in the first century and in the twentieth century and as long as time shall last.

<2> Inclusivism and “Anonymous Christians”
Inclusivism accepts that truth is contained in other religions but finds it represents less than the salvation offered through Christ. Inclusivism vaulted into prominence when the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) issued far more gracious comments about other religions than in any previous Vatican documents, including that they “often reflect a ray of truth” (Nostra Aetate.). Vatican II stopped short of saying such religions represented ways of salvation, but made clear the Catholic Church “rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions (and) has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines” they represent.

The principal Inclusivist voice of modern times was the German Jesuit Karl Rahner, who popularized the phrase “anonymous Christians” in the Vatican II debates. Rahner had little personal interest in other religions and never sought to advance conditions for an interreligious dialogue. “Anonymous to whom?” later critics asked. As both the content and spirituality of other religions became increasingly well known, westerners found not sources of anonymity but wellsprings of deep riches not widely recognized in Rahner’s time.

<3> Pluralism and the “Complimentary Weaving of Textiles”
Pluralism represents a convergence of religious thought. It is not a doctrine but a process, not a destination but a launching point. While recognizing Christianity’s uniqueness, it does not elevate the Christian faith to a position of finality over other faith traditions, nor does it relegate others to lower, lesser places. Also, Pluralism requires an active dialogue among participants, not as a debate to be won or lost, but as a truth-seeking encounter that includes clear points of agreement and disagreement. On Pluralism, Race wrote, “There is no reason to doubt the validity of the religious apprehension of other religious traditions and every reason to accept their integrity….The spiritual fruits of the many faith traditions seem comparable: all have inspired saints and holy figures who have been active on either individual or sociopolitical levels.”

Christians engaged in such a journey should find their own deep faith affirmed. Pluralism implies an open-ended engagement where participants are not asked to abandon their deeply held positions, but to encounter numerous other fellow pilgrims on similar journeys. In such a setting, different world religions can represent different ways to salvation or fulfillment.

Many recent definitions of Pluralism draw on imagery considerably different from traditional black letter theological language. Employing several striking visual expressions, a Korean theologian has described Pluralism as a “complementary weaving of textiles.” Kim Kyoung-Jae of Han Shin Theological Seminary employs images of Turkish and Native American rugs, Chinese and Korean silk weavings, and Tibetan and Buddhist woven shoulder bags. Each represents a blend of colors, patterns, and materials that lead to a unique final product reflecting both unity and distinct differences. The contribution of East Asian Christian culture can be thus understood as a “complementary weaving process” integrating shared gifts from other world religions. But the idea of such complementary enfolding of different strains has deep Christian origins, the new dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, reminded the Church in her installation sermon on November 7, 2010. Jane Shaw, former Dean of Divinity at New College, Oxford University, spoke of the wider implications of God’s “knitting together your elect in one communion and fellowship,” from the All Saints’ Day collect in the Book of Common Prayer (1662).

“The lamps are different, but the Light is the same.”
Finally, Pluralism is not some sort of super way above all other ways. Much religious language is metaphorical, pointing to a transcendent or ultimate reality. Such poetic and imaginative imagery does not offer literal descriptions of the divine, but provides symbolic language that approaches such mysteries. Some such descriptions include a journey toward a mountain or mountains, movement from darkness to light, or obstacles to be overcome on a path toward the holy. This convergence of world religions is represented in the words of the thirteenth century Persian poet, Jalaluddin Rumi, “Out beyond our ideas of right and wrong there is a field, I’ll meet you there.” Rumi also said, “The lamps are different, but the Light is the same.” Frank Griswold, former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, used both quotes to illustrate the religious journey. Such approaches suggest the need for a climate of flexibility and willingness to engage in dialogue, a more open setting among Western Christians based on wider knowledge of and interaction with the members of other faith traditions.

One version of respectful Christian prayer for members of other religions is expressed in a fraction anthem, used at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, drawn from an English source: “We break this bread for those who journey with us: for those who travel the way of the Hindus, for those who follow the path of the Buddha. For our sisters and brothers of Islam. For the Jewish people from whom we come, and for all who walk the way of faith.”

Frederick Quinn, an Episcopal priest and former chaplain at Washington National Cathedral, is the author of The Sum of All Heresies, The Image of Islam in Western Culture, published by Oxford University Press in 2008. These three articles are excerpted from his forthcoming book, “And I Saw a New Heaven and a New Earth,” Religious Pluralism in a Global Age.

A post-election prayer

On 8 November 2010, the Downtown Atlanta Rotary Club featured Cynthia Tucker and Ralph Reed as a panel reviewing the previous week’s election results. To open the meeting, The Very Rev. Samuel G. Candler delivered this invocation:

O God, in the days following elections, some are exultant, others despondent. Some are wary, some are triumphant. Some will forge forward, or back, depending upon the issue. Some will gather, harvesting fruit whose seeds were planted long ago. Some will seek to sow new seeds, into soil now plowed, turned up and over, but also fertile and expectant.

The political life is a rough and tumble life. It is for those who inspire fresh vision, but who also know how to scrap and scrape. It attracts the wise and savvy, and also the naïve and boisterous. It lifts up the lowly, and it humbles the exalted.

And so we remember the words of the Preacher of old. “For everything there is a season. A time to be born, and a time to die. A time to plant, and a time to pluck up. A time to break down, and a time to build up. A time to weep, and a time to laugh. A time to mourn, and a time to dance. A time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together. A time to seek, and a time to lose. A time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). Or, as the Singer sang, “To everything there is a season. Turn, turn, turn.”

The United States of America, at our best, turns gracefully. We engage the dance of politics every two years, or every four years, or every six years, with some trepidation and some missed steps. Some of us stumble, or step on each others’ feet, or even knock down our partners. But some of us twirl splendidly, knowing exactly when to grasp and when to let go. Some of us leap to heights which we have never before ascended.

Then, after two, or four, or six, or sixteen, years, our dance ends. We tire, or watch a new troupe come forward, with new moves and routines – or maybe it is an old routine with some fresh twists. We turn, turn, turn.

Gracious God, we thank you for those who offer themselves for public service; we thank you for those who participated in last week’s elections. Teach all of us us to turn gracefully. Teach us to win gracefully. Teach us to lose gracefully. In grace, we realize that you, O God, have created us all. We are, together, citizens of a greater community than our fenced-off political pastures. And you, O God, have loved us all – winners and losers, the exalted and the humbled.

Wherever our political loyalties lie, O God, show us grace in our relationships and deliberations in the days to come. Show us love of God, and love of neighbor. AMEN.

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

Veterans' Day: Dad's silence

By Todd Donatelli

I recently found something that had been lost in the woods for over 60 years. It was part of my father. The woods were the Ardennes Forest which runs through Belgium and Germany. My father was a Forward Observer for the 590th Field Artillery Battalion, a unit of the 106th ‘Golden Lions’ which fought in the WWII Battle of the Bulge. In dad’s war journal, written after he returned, are the following entries: December 16, 1944: All hell breaks loose. The next entry is dated April 4, 1945: We are freed.

In the fall of 1944, American and Allied troops were advancing toward Germany more quickly than troop reinforcement and supplies could keep up. In early December, the 106th replaced the 2nd Division in the Ardennes. Having arrived in Europe shortly before this, they were unfamiliar with local terrain. As radio silence was being observed, they were not allowed to synchronize their radios and single cable copper communication line was hastily laid.

The area they inhabited was considered ‘quiet’. They covered a front about four to five times that of military recommendation. Captains of the 106th reported concern about local roads, mostly earthen farming roads, that deteriorated rapidly and were easily cut off. They voiced concern about two rivers immediately behind the troops which made them sitting ducks if retreat was needed. They expressed concern that despite average temperatures below freezing, troops had light weather gear. They were assured Hitler was in no position to attack. Despite Forward Observer’s and villager’s reports of enemy vehicle and troop movement, they were assured it was not what they thought.

At 5:30 am on December 16 the shelling began. some 250,000 Nazi troops descended upon the 16,000 troops of the 106th. On December 19, what was left of the 106th participated in one of the largest surrenders in American military history.

At the time of surrender numerous American troops were scattered in the woods either separated in battle, or as in dad’s case, roaming the woods seeking to observe the opposition. Later known as the ‘Lost 500’, these remnants began to gather in a wooded hillside. For two days they held out amid shelling from opposing troops. On December 21, my father and the others surrendered.

They were transported to Bad Orb, Germany, a camp holding Jews and soldiers. Four months of captivity reduced his body weight from 220 pounds to 110. They were freed on Good Friday of that year, April 4. Dad turned 21 on April 7. He was one of the lucky ones. He lived.

The cloud would descend upon our house about mid December and leave sometime after the New Year, sometimes not until spring. The cloud was dad’s withdrawal. It was in our adult years that my siblings and I began to talk about our paradoxical childhood Christmases: suburban, baby boom era Christmases with cousins and grandparents all about, and dad’s withdrawal. We recalled mom’s story of a nighttime thunderstorm on their honeymoon where dad awoke screaming out loud. It was in these conversations that our need to visit the Ardennes Forest became apparent. At dad’s graveside my oldest brother said, “It is in moments like this that we realize we don’t send young men and women off to war, we send whole families.”

Preparing for the trip involved reading battle journals. There was the journal of a 106th soldier’s POW experience, something dad never discussed. It was dark. I also interviewed Bulge veterans. At times I saw in their eyes that look I had come to know in dad’s, a look only veterans know.

Our guide in the Ardennes was a young Belgian who had become fascinated by this battle during a school field trip. He said that everyone in Belgium knows WWII history and battles like Bastogne. In the village of St. Vith he saw a monument to the 106th and wondered why he had never heard of them. He now runs a website devoted to their story.

For two days, Carl, members of his family and another Belgian family led us through the woods and fields of battle. Carl had drawn detailed map movements of the 106th and the 590th. We walked through bomb craters and destroyed bunkers. We found half buried remnants of copper communication wires and fragments of bomb casings. There were times of conversation and times where they allowed us to venture alone. We shared meals and family stories, including amazing lunches packed by our hosts consisting of meats, cheeses, Belgian pastries and Belgian beverages. They became extended family during this sojourn.

Toward the end of the second day, Carl led us to the wood of the Lost 500. Its area is about 150 yards long and about 70 yards wide. Foxholes are still present. As my siblings and I walked up the hill to the wood, the others, including my wife Becky and daughters, Gina and Leah, held back, letting us go first. When they joined us, Carl produced a written record of the two days these troops spent in the wood and asked if we would like him to read from it. We listened to the account and then began to walk about, sometimes together, sometimes alone.

It was quiet save for the howling wind of a powerful storm moving through the region. What did these men talk about while here? Were there periods of silence between shellings? I listened for dad’s spirit. I listened for the spirits of those with him. I listened to the silence.

In time we would have to leave with what we had learned and with what we had not learned. Some answers were found. Some may never be. I am still listening to messages from the sojourn. They seem to be revealing themselves over time. It is not something I can rush.

I can say something shifted in us as we stepped on that soil and walked through the woods where my twenty year old father walked and fought, through the woods where a certain innocence was certainly lost. I think I have a deeper appreciation for the paradoxical man whose children were everything he lived for and who struggled desperately at times to be present to them. I think I have a better understanding of that look in dad’s eyes.

“We don’t send young men and women off to war, we send whole families.” There was a part of dad lost in those woods. Some of that part was found by stepping into the woods. Some we may never find. All we can do is chose to stand where these men and women have stood and choose to listen to the horror. We can chose not to shield ourselves from the madness of it all. I believe that in some way, standing there tells them we have come to stand in that space where something was required of them, something that can never be returned, standing where no words can comprehend, communicate or compensate. Even if there were words, they would not want us to know them.

On days like this, I think it might be best to leave the loud marching bands and the firing guns at home. If I learned anything in the woods that summer, it is that we must choose to stand in their silence. We must learn to live with and honor that silence.

The Very Rev. Todd Donatelli is dean of the Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville, N. C. This article was originally published in the Asheville Citizen-Times and is republished with the author's permission.

The dark and light sides of social networking

By Ellen Painter Dollar

Do you Facebook?

The question comes up often in conversation these days, as a practical matter (“Can I keep in touch with you through Facebook?”) or a more significant marker of where people stand on the distinctly un-private world of social networking. Rutgers student Tyler Clementi posted his intention to jump off the GW Bridge on Facebook after a roommate filmed him in a romantic encounter with another man and publicized the video via Twitter. The role of social networking—its ability to erode privacy and magnify teenage prank-pulling and name-calling into something much more insidious—has been one of the hot news topics in the weeks following this tragedy. One of my fellow bloggers on Christianity Today’s women’s blog went so far as to hold Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg partly responsible for Clementi’s suicide.

Do I Facebook?

I do, but not without some trepidation. Many of us educated, busy working moms and dads seem slightly embarrassed by our immersion in the Facebook culture. We wonder if we’ve lost all sense of propriety, balance, and privacy. When I go a day or two without checking Facebook (a rare event), I feel oddly proud, like I do when I forego dessert or turn the TV off before the fourth episode in a Law and Order marathon. I feel like I’ve avoided something unhealthy, a bad habit that feeds my more unpleasant traits—narcissism, nosiness, self-righteousness.

But I go back anyway, for many small reasons (promoting my writing, keeping up with school and community news, mindless distraction when my head aches from an intense bout of writing) and one big reason. Facebook has been a rich and rewarding tool for staying connected (or becoming reconnected) with people whose presence in my life is a gift. Those who don’t understand the appeal of Facebook say, “If I wanted to keep in touch with people I knew 20 years ago, I would have.” But would they? Do they?

Before Facebook, I had superficial relationships with a number of people whose friendships had been central earlier in my life—college roommates and friends, coworkers from my early jobs, members of a young married couples’ group at the church I attended in my 20s. I generally knew what they were up to—where they were working, the names and ages of their kids—but that was it. By reconnecting with many of these friends via Facebook, I now know much more about them, and vice versa. Status updates describing daily events—good, bad, and run-of-the-mill—give us a real sense of what goes on day by day in each others’ homes, workplaces, and families. Facebook has transformed a handful of relationships from “annual Christmas card” level to a more significant level of regular give-and-take.

Because I post links to all my blog posts on Facebook, I have online conversations with old friends about the complex topics I write on—parenthood, disability, reproductive technology, genetics, chronic pain. When far-away friends are coping with illness, difficult parenting moments, or employment troubles, I know about it and can offer good wishes, advice, commiseration, and/or prayers. Facebook reconnected me with the friend, now an Episcopal priest, who introduced me to The Daily Episcopalian. When he posted on Facebook that his daughter broke her leg last year, I could send him all of the “toddler in a cast” advice I have from my family’s extensive experience with broken bones. Through Facebook, I have listened to one friend’s radio show in Atlanta, watched videos of commercials and movie trailers featuring my actress friend, and perused photos of teenagers whom I once held as newborns.

Facebook’s value for reigniting and stoking the flames of old friendships became especially clear last week. I was recently diagnosed with breast cancer—a non-invasive, treatable kind. Despite the good prognosis, getting a cancer diagnosis at age 42, when I still have a preschooler at home and an impending book deadline, has been overwhelming. I struggled with how to tell friends near and far. No, I didn’t post the news on Facebook; too many Facebook “friends” are acquaintances or professional contacts who don’t need a blow-by-blow of my family’s medical crises. I told local friends either in person or via personal e-mails, and sent one group e-mail to far-away friends.

I received several phone calls and return messages, including one from a college roommate. Because we were both camped at our computers that morning, we ended up having a real-time e-mail conversation, sending new messages immediately in response to the ones we received. Her words of support and sorrow were so pitch-perfect that I ended up in tears, and told her so. In a return message, she told me she had news too. She is divorcing the man she married at a Christmastime wedding as I stood by their side in my bridesmaid dress. As we exchanged more words of grief (“Getting old sucks!”) and hope (“I have a wonderful family and will get through this”) I was aware that this online conversation—this real, gritty, meaningful conversation—would not be happening if she and I hadn’t reconnected through Facebook.

Online contact doesn’t replace personal contact. Our twentieth college reunion was coming up that weekend and my roommate would be there, while I would not. Our exchange made me even more hungry for an in-person visit than I was before. Social networking can enhance relationships, but it can’t replace the pleasure of talking with an old friend over dinner.

Social networking is one of many modern phenomena for which we don’t have clear guidance from Scripture. But there are hints of how we might approach it. We can follow Paul’s advice to think on those things that are life-giving and substantial over those that are distracting and destructive (e.g., Phillipians 4:8). The temptation to post clever status updates as a way to draw attention to my intelligence, wit, and the obvious rightness of my political persuasion, or to poke fun at opposing viewpoints, is real; I have succumbed to it now and then. Facebook certainly leads people to overshare, posting details of their lives that are either overly intimate or overly mundane. (My personal pet peeve: Parents who give play-by-play descriptions of a stomach virus making its way through their family. I have three kids. Trust me; I know how that goes.) Allowing Facebook to be a tool for relationship-building instead of a distraction requires humility, self-discernment, and discretion—qualities that are fostered by spiritual disciplines, honest relationships, self-examination, and confession, not by spending hours in online conversations consisting solely of clever one-liners.

Jesus lived in a way that celebrated intimate relationships but maintained boundaries between public and private. His life was structured around time spent in community—eating, working, preaching, and talking with his closest friends and strangers he met along the way. While Jesus challenged people, he didn’t air their dirty laundry. He spoke to the woman at the well about her adulterous liaisons; he didn’t climb on the nearest mountaintop to joke or preach at her expense. When he needed to, he separated himself from the crowd to give attention to his own spiritual and physical health. Jesus lived a very public life, but always with a focus on transforming relationships, not on trumpeting slick slogans selling his world view or exploiting the intimate details of his own or other people’s lives. I’m convinced that social networking can be a tool for intimacy as well as a temptation to use others for our own purposes.

One response to Tyler Clementi’s and other suicides is the “It Gets Better” video project, through which high-profile gay and lesbian men and women are telling teenagers struggling with their sexual identity to have hope. In the words of New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson, “God wants you to live in the light of God’s love and that light will take away all of this darkness…God loves you beyond your wildest imagining.”

Where is that hopeful message being shared, over and over and over, where it will surely be heard and embraced by a few despairing young men and women? On Facebook.

As with most human inventions, Facebook can foster intimacy or alienation, compassion or cruelty, substance or stupidity. The challenge is to use it for the former and avoid the temptation to participate in the latter. Facebook is no more to blame for Tyler Clementi’s suicide than the GW Bridge is. But we still have a responsibility to foster online communities marked by respect and appropriate boundaries, to use Facebook and other online tools as instruments of the light and not the dark.

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.

Like sunlight through an open hand

By Martin L. Smith

I learned Abbey Lincoln had died as I was sitting down to write, and all other ideas for this column disappeared like smoke. I was plunged back into the experience of encountering this great African American artist. Encounter is the right word. A friend of mine who had been a jazz singer knew her and persuaded me to come to a concert in the early ’90s when she resumed her singing career in America. After an emotionally shattering, electrifying evening we joined the admirers amassed in the lobby of her hotel. As she paused at the elevator door she looked right at my friend and me and crooked a finger in summons; we were to come up to her room. Running a gantlet of incredulous and envious looks, we obeyed. We stayed very late and the conversation was a privilege never to be forgotten. From then on, no concert was to be missed: we were expected. I would take flowers from the garden to be put in her hotel rooms. Sometimes she dedicated a song to me during a concert. Now it all comes flooding back.

I don’t hesitate to call these encounters religious experiences but of course not overt or intentional ones. Religious experiences can be any encounter that throws our settled state into healthy disarray, tears down curtains drawn over inconvenient experiences, lights the fuse that leads to dreams we are refusing to act on, jolts us into awareness that there are yearnings and sufferings we are refusing to admit are part of the adventure of being fully human. We didn’t go to Abbey’s concerts to be amused or entertained, to be flattered or soothed. We risked being shocked, judged, even mocked. We would be moved, but not by decking ourselves momentarily with borrowed sentiments. All we knew is that things wouldn’t be quite the same with our selves after a concert. Things had moved around and moved on. There had to be changes.

Religious experiences are ones in which we have a direct experience of something authoritative, something greater than ourselves that has the right to claim our—there’s no other word for it—obedience. In religious experience we don’t feel in command, picking and choosing what suits our fancy. We are being spoken to. We must listen; and if we fail to respond, we risk failing and harming our hearts. I can’t help associating Abbey’s singing with the words that record the impact of Jesus on those who encountered him. “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:22) In Abbey’s case, she sang as one having authority, and not as the entertainers. She dared to enact—God knows what price she paid for this vulnerability—a range of emotions and experiences that were authoritatively real, and not necessarily convenient or acceptable, and certainly not suitable for the whole family. Sometimes we felt burned and injured by her anger and scorn, and sometimes flooded with a tenderness that we recognized to be quite simply the thing we most long for from God and from one another, and to discover within ourselves.

I really can’t help thinking of her as a clue to what Jesus must have been like. The impression he made on people comes to us through stories whose outlines are blurred in translation from translation. And yet, faded as the colors are, we do get a sense of someone speaking with an authority that is completely different from those who speak to us of God at second and third and fourth hand. We are living through an epoch in which second hand religious authority, ‘the authority of the scribes’ is steadily melting away. Some holders of religious offices may still attempt to command obedience by dint of their rank or accreditation, but these attempts are palpably less effective than they have ever been. We can’t be ordered to believe anything. We have no alternative but to identify the voices that are speaking to us at first hand, with immediacy and freshness from their own struggle with the mystery of God, and these voices won’t necessarily be measured and rated as unoffensive to the general audience. We need voices that are willing to risk scorching people, not just warming them – voices that are unafraid of paining us and opening us right up.

In one of her own songs, “Throw it away,” Abbey invited us to the self-imparting life of openness; “Give your love, live your life, each and every day and keep your hand wide open. Let the sun shine through.” This throwing away is the same as Jesus’ invitation to give ourselves. And like Jesus, she knew that the outcome of this risk is not depletion, but a strange fullness, “ ’cause you can never lose a thing, if it belongs to you.”

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

Resisting the urge to walk away,
resisting the urge to give in

By George Clifford

No less an observer of, authority on, and participant in American Christianity than Duke Divinity School professor Stanley Hauerwas has remarked that all American Christians are now congregationalists (Andy Rowell, “The Gospel Makes the Everyday Possible,” Christianity Today, September 2010).

Rampant congregationalism is readily apparent in the Episcopal Church (TEC). Many congregations act as autonomous Christian outposts with only nominal accountability or loyalty to broader ecclesial structures. For example, a relative handful of congregations angry over a variety of issues have attempted to withdraw from TEC as a congregation, taking their members, real property, and other assets with them. Pope Benedict’s recent overture to Anglicans appears to be an attempt to capitalize on this congregationalism, inviting (perhaps even trying to entice by lowering the emotional cost) individuals and congregations to align with Rome.

Concurrently, the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina, the Rt. Rev. Mark Lawrence, views his diocese as being engaged in a global struggle for the soul of Anglicanism. Among other complaints, Bishop Lawrence accuses TEC Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, of attempting to intrude on his Diocese’s sovereignty by posing queries about the Diocese of South Carolina’s actions in response to at least one of its parish affiliating with another province. Bishop Lawrence’s sentiments are sadly not unique among TEC dioceses, though perhaps more extreme and certainly more publicized. The diocese is historically the Church’s basic organizational unit. However, no diocese, any more than does an individual congregation, constitutes an independent entity. In biblical language, no arm or other part of the body can survive detached from the rest of the body.

So what’s a good Anglican to do?

We can’t turn the clock back. Even if one thinks the Roman Catholics were correct to object to making the Bible available to everyone (and I am not among that number), foreseeing that this would unleash an uncontrollable plurality of views, there is no closing that Pandora’s box. William Tyndale, Miles Coverdale, and all the saints, celebrated and anonymous, who translated the scriptures into the language of the people surely did God's work. Tolerating the uninformed reading and study of scripture that results in a minority of Christians (mostly non-Anglicans, thanks be to God!) adopting idiosyncratic or even harmful interpretations is a small price to pay for the benefits of widespread accessibility to the Bible and competent scholarship. I would rather lament Episcopalians generally having a shallow acquaintance with scripture at best (cf. the recent U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey - Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life) rather than despair over our wide variety of theologies, orthodox or otherwise. Depth of love, not theological perspicacity, measures the Church’s faithfulness.

Unanimity of theological views does not exist in any Church, including the Roman Catholic Church with its strong, central hierarchy. A Roman Catholic who worked for me was the first Polish-American priest Pope John Paul II ordained. Careful to always toe the party line out of understandable personal loyalty to “his” Pope, even this priest, occasionally voiced personal reservations and nuanced points of agreement. Honestly acknowledging, affirming, and appreciating theological disagreement seems far healthier for individuals and the Church than pursuing a mythical holy grail of unanimity.

Furthermore, we can’t substantially compromise our understanding of God's vision for the Church as a community that practices radical hospitality without compromising our faithfulness to Jesus’ call. Compromising our vision of who God has called TEC to be for the sake of peace or even unity within the Anglican Communion is to seek doctrinal purity on a diocesan level rather than congregational level, an equally quixotic and unrealistic quest.

We can improve our skill at playing nice with others, one of life’s basic lessons according to Robert Fulghum in Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Of course, that idea was not original with Fulghum; Jesus encouraged his followers to love others, including one’s enemies. Playing nice means not picking up one’s marbles and going elsewhere because one loses a game or one’s feelings get hurt. Playing nice also does not include always insisting on having one’s own way. Ironically, research suggests more clergy, most of whom presumably answered a call to minister to God's people, lose their jobs because they have not learned this basic lesson than for any other single reason. One miracle that I discern today is that the Church retains as much fractured unity as it does in spite of the many centripetal forces that seek to tear it apart (individualism, a pervasive congregational ethos, clergy and laity who have not learned to play nice, etc.).

We can forthrightly avow our intent to remain in full communion with Canterbury and the other members of the Anglican Communion. However, even as TEC is responsible for its choices, so the Archbishop of Canterbury, the various Anglican Communion structures, and the individual Anglican provinces are each responsible for their choices. If one or more of those entities chooses to “punish” or impair communion with TEC, TEC should recognize that the decision and responsibility for it belong to those who made the decision and not to TEC. TEC, as far as I can discern, remains broadly and strongly committed to traditional, “big tent” Anglicanism and the historic understanding of the Anglican Communion as Churches in voluntary, non-authoritarian non-hierarchical communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. When other entities strive to manipulate TEC with ultimatums, threats, or blame, those groups exhibit behaviors that egregiously deviate from how Jesus treated people.

George Clifford, a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, is now a visiting professor of ethics and public policy at the Naval Postgraduate School, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

What a good boy, what a smart boy, what a strong boy

By Adam Thomas

When you listen to the Gospel, you might notice the trend that folks rarely answer questions directly. Instead, the responder either completely ignores the question or says something so profound that the question ceases to matter. Most things Jesus says in the Gospel fall into one of these two categories. Think about how often someone asks a question, and Jesus responds, “Well, let me tell you a story about that. Once there was a farmer…” Before Jesus enters the scene, however, John the Baptizer finds himself under interrogation, and he does just a good a job as Jesus in not answering questions with the expected answers. His unexpected responses to the folks interviewing him (as recorded in John 1) show John’s understanding of his identity, which helps us understand ours, as well.

The priests and Levites come to John and ask him a series of questions, the first being “Who are you?” This question seems to have an obvious answer: I’m John from over yonder, my parents are so-and-so. But that’s not what John says. Instead of saying who he is, he explicitly says who he is not. “I am not the Messiah.” And what’s more, he’s quite emphatic about it: “He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed…” By his answer, John seems to know what they are getting at, so he makes sure with his first response that any gossip about his messiah-ship is highly overrated.

So they try again: “What then? Are you Elijah?” He says, “I am not.” They try once more: “Are you the prophet?” “Nope.” John steadfastly refuses to play into any expectations these priests and Levites have about his identity.

I wonder to what degree our identities are based on the expectations of others? It’s not necessarily a bad thing for others to have expectations for us, of course. A community (family, church, team, circle of friends) plays a significant role in the development of our identities, and expectations are a natural part of that role. But if those expectations begin to suffocate us or make us begin to dislike the people we are becoming, then there is something wrong.

In the film Dead Poets Society, Neil Perry has a passion for acting. When he sees the flyer for auditions for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he says, “For the first time in my life, I know what I want to do. And for the first time, I’m going to do it!” He throws himself into the role of Puck, and he’s good, he’s really good. But his father expects him to be a doctor and thinks this acting business is nothing more than a dangerous whim. Neil defies his father’s wishes and continues rehearsing for the play. After Mr. Perry discovers him at the theatre, he furiously tells Neil that he is not going to let Neil ruin his (Neil’s) life. Neil feels suffocated and trapped: he has found his calling as an actor, he has found himself. But Mr. Perry is stifling this identity with his expectations for Neil’s future. That night, Neil commits suicide.

Expectations like Mr. Perry’s can smother us. They can make us feel less worthy, less capable, less adequate because our worth and capability and adequacy fall outside the limits defined by those expectations. In their song “What a Good Boy,” the Barenaked Ladies lament:

When I was born, they looked at me and said,
‘What a good boy, what a smart boy, what a strong boy.’
When you were born, they looked at you and said,
‘What a good girl, what a smart girl, what a pretty girl.’
We’ve got these chains hanging round our necks,
People want to strangle us with them before we take our first breath.

When we feel smothered, stifled, or strangled by expectations, troubling questions form in our minds. What if I’m not a smart girl? What if I’m not a strong boy? What if I don’t measure up? Then another question compounds these: Will they still like/love/accept/welcome me? These expectations that help shape our identities now morph into ultimatums. They signal the possible breaking of a relationship: This is who I am, and if you don’t like it then fine. And the door slams shut. In this scenario, we begin to define our identities by focusing negatively on the rebellion against expectations rather than by stating positively who we are.

Expectations themselves are neutral things. They surely can be used to spur us to excellence or to inspire us to continue to grow and discover who we are. But they can also be used to deny our self-worth or sense of belonging. When John the Baptizer refuses to be defined by the expectations of the priests and Levites, he is holding onto the identity he has as the voice crying out in the wilderness.

The priests and Levites are unable to pin their expectation on John, but they can’t go back to their bosses empty-handed, so they press John asking: “What do you have to say about yourself?” The Baptizer answers with a quotation from the prophet Isaiah: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ ” Even here, when they ask him deliberately about himself, he answers by pointing ahead of himself. Their concern is based on his seeming lack of authority to baptize, for he is not the Messiah or Elijah or the prophet. But such trifles don’t worry John. He states dismissively: “I baptize with water.” And then he points ahead of himself again: “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me.” Everything John says about himself, he is really saying about Jesus. He only speaks in terms of Jesus; he deflects questions about himself, preferring to point to the one “who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”

Rather than playing into their expectations, John flourishes in his identity as an arrow pointing to Jesus. To change the metaphor, he shines because he lives fully into his own particular, God-given identity. Like the moon, he has no light of his own, but he reflects the light of Jesus who is coming after him. Even as we struggle with the expectations of others and with discovering our own identities as God’s children, I can think of no greater joy than to be a moon to Jesus’ sun, reflecting the light of Christ.

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

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