The pain of pilgrimage

By Tamie Harkins

It took me fifteen minutes to walk the last 30 meters, so great was the pain in my feet. This was my fourteenth day of walking the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrim path across northern Spain that culminates in Santiago. The doors to the albergue—the pilgrim hostel where I’d stay for the night—were thick as tables, great slabs of splintered wood, and they opened to a grass garth dotted with quiet, beer-drinking pilgrims, laundry flickering in the wind, and huge stone pots filled with flowers. Billy was there, and José, and the short Spaniard. There was also a clear blue pool of water. You’re here now, it all seemed to say. Welcome!

The hospitalero came out to meet me and immediately took me to a room without asking for my credencial or money. Walking that slowly is its own credencial. He chose a bunk for me and lifted off my pack. In Spanish he told me to wash and rest, and then we could think about credencial and money. I crept up the bunk and lay my feet on the railing so they would be higher than my head. I clenched my eyes shut against the pain of the blood leaving my feet, and when the pain was done I slept deeply.

It would often happen on the Camino that my sleeping bag became a cocoon around the soft and slowly transforming chrysalis of my self. Even after I woke from the always-deep sleep of my daily siesta, it often felt impossible to leave the sleeping bag, sometimes for hours. I knew I needed to be motionless. I watched shadows on the wall; I listened to other pilgrims; I lay very still. The huge, muscled animal of my mind was blindered and bridled. Something seemed to be being decided, brokered, healed.

When I was ready to leave my sleeping bag, the hospitalero of the albergue introduced himself to me as Hugo from Argentina. He and his Spanish wife bustled around me, concerned.

“Blisters?” They asked.

“Tendonitis,” I replied.

“Ah.” Hugo smiled his huge happy smile, invited me to sit down. Together they made me a sandwich for free and asked me to stay with them as I ate. His wife smoked one cigarette after another, and their daughter or niece perhaps lounged at the table, unburdening herself of gossip or woe.

The craft of these hospitaleros is hospitality and healing. Tens of thousands of pilgrims walk the Camino each year and I was clearly young and healthy; my burdens were bearable; my injuries were minor. Yet they welcomed me into their home with the same care with which they might have treated an ill or elderly pilgrim. As members of the Order of San Jacques (Saint James), they seemed to have gotten serious about Jesus’ teaching that the way you treat the poor and the hobbling and the insignificant is the way you treat Him.

On a day like that, I just wanted to eat a filling peregrino—pilgrim—dinner and sleep shoulder to shoulder with all the other pilgrims. What had been done—even what should have been done—had been done. I wanted to let it be, and rest. But the day was not finished yet. After I ate the sandwich, I checked my e-mail. I read through them one by one and just as my time at the kiosk was running out, I began reading an e-mail from Meredith, one of my best friends from college. She wrote that the doctors had just found a tumor, a rare form of cancer, the doctors did not know if she would live. Before I was done reading her words, the Internet time ran out, the screen went black, and I was suddenly alone in the dusty village of Boadilla del Camino.

I did not know what to do. Should I leave the Camino? Should I go home to the States? But what could I do there?

I sat very still; I was afraid. Inside, I thrashed around. I was the chrysalis still, but now the cocoon was a trap, not a comfort. I was stuck here in the middle of Spain, my broken feet my only vehicles. I was stuck here in a body, a mortal human among other mortal humans, some of whom I loved so much and did not want to die.

I wanted to purge myself of uncertainty and grief. I wanted to call someone else who could bear these feelings of powerlessness for me.

But grief and pain are not burdens you get to put down before they have lived out their life in you. Not-knowing was the shoes I walked in; solitude was the path itself. There may be distraction in this life, but there is ultimately not escape, and on the Camino there was not even much distraction.

I climbed back into my bunk, zipped the sleeping bag closed around me. I envisioned Spain, and that one little thread of a path through it, the Camino. I imagined myself, a tiny pilgrim on that path. Then I imagined that the whole country of Spain was the thumping muscle of the heart of Being, the Camino one vein through that heart. Every one of us are caught up in the life flow, I thought, whether we were good or indifferent, know it or not. The day’s walk came to me: I was being held in love, and the love was Being held in fire. The limitations of the pilgrimage are the same as the gift of the pilgrimage that night: to be hemmed in, encompassed, not yet done. I needed to walk the rest of the pilgrimage, and it would take time.

That evening, all the pilgrims gathered for a communal pilgrim dinner. These were rare throughout the pilgrimage. Pilgrims did usually eat all together, but rather in smaller clusters, and often in restaurants. That night we all feasted together under Hospitalero Hugo’s generous attentions. There were heaping helpings of beef stew, soft baguettes, clay cups of red wine. I sat across from Billy, José, and a new-to-us Argentine pilgrim who had begun the pilgrimage years before, riding horses through South, Central, and North America, then flying to Amsterdam and riding down Europe to the Camino. I vacillated between interest in the Argentine’s story, translated to me by José, and panic at the day’s events. I left the table early and hobbled back to my bunk.

For the last few hours my mind had been shrieking that I needed people to pray for me if I was to continue. Then a thought came to me. Perhaps I did not need my friends and family to know exactly what was happening. Perhaps the fact of their love had always been carrying me. Maybe their very lives were like prayers being lived through them, our lives held together, holding each other. Even our ordinary lives have the quality of reaching for transcendence, after all, for connection and hope. And maybe I could reach for Meredith simply by faithfully walking the Camino. Beginning the next day, I decided, I would offer my walking as a prayer for Meredith. I would follow the yellow arrows and learn to walk as one being prayed.

Tamie Harkins is working on her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction at the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine. She lives in the small Alaskan town of Kodiak and will be commercial salmon fishing this summer.

More Facebook for Lent!

By Jennifer McNally

There has been a slight but noticeable exodus from my Facebook home page since last Wednesday, the first day of this 2011 Lenten season. “I’m giving up Facebook for Lent, see you after Easter!” is the common theme of the farewell posts. And I’ve heard it preached not just a few times: “We are too distracted” and “We don’t make time for God because we’re too busy with email and Facebook”. This type of observation and these gentle admonishments are met in the congregations in which I sit with knowing smiles and nods and always at least one, “A-men!”

But, I don’t know. I think God loves Facebook.

Giving up Facebook is not the message I hear, when I sit with my God in meditation each morning. In fact, when I sit in the morning, turned toward the rising sun, my palms lifted up, my heart open, my breathing deep and steady, the call I hear is, “Go to Facebook, my beloved child.”

I fully understand the intent behind the “We are too distracted” sermons and reflections. It’s true; there is no getting around it. Email and social media and cell phones and texting can pull us out of The Moment. Am I present with my son if I am sitting with him but also texting with a friend? Not entirely, no. On the other hand, when my son and I giggle like crazy over a joke we’ve just shared and we decide to text Daddy with the same joke, and then to also include aunties and uncles and a few friends in our texting, well, there is all kinds of being present and connected right there. We are drawing our circle wide, and then wider. We are building community.

In the last year or so, my home church added our presence to Facebook. Church members joined in rapid succession and as a result I also gained new personal Facebook friends. These Facebook connections have brought much to our growth as a community. There is something about knowing someone only through Sunday morning worship that can be quite distancing. The older woman over there, the one in the matching pantsuit, carefully pressed, with pearls around her neck? I say hello to her every week, but I know I don’t have much in common with her. In fact, I know this so well, that I don’t make the time to engage in more than superficial conversation with her. Until Facebook. Thanks to the magic of Facebook, I now know this woman and I both get stupidly excited on the nights Glee is on television. And we strike up a conversation about it one Sunday morning, which leads to coffee, which leads to the discovery that we also love the same books, and music, and guess what? A friendship is born. And the new mother over there? The one who always looks serene and put together? Thanks to Facebook, I know she was up all night with a sick baby, and I know I should offer to watch her daughter for an hour today so she can nap. Suddenly, I have made a small difference in someone’s life.

Isn’t that what God wants us to do, ultimately? To understand how our lives overlap. There isn’t much that can happen on Facebook that won’t be seen by the masses. Isn’t that what God wants us to know? That we truly are all connected to each other. Time with our God is important. Time alone and in silence to fill our hearts with all that is good. But we are called, ultimately, to connect with one another.

“I’m giving up Facebook for Lent” can read, in a manner, as “I’m giving up staying connected to your life in order to focus on mine”. What if, instead, my status read, “I am going to take more of an interest in each and every one of you for Lent”? What if I encourage a friend to post a photo of her child on Facebook so I can share the smiling face she sees every morning? What if I ask a neighbor to post vacation photos so I can ooo and ahhh, and celebrate with them their time of rest and relaxation? Your dog woke you up at 5:00 am? Share with me, so I can say, “Hope you get a nap today!” Your daffodils are blooming? If your Facebook status lets me know, I will reply with, “Three cheers for hope and new life!”

It can feel like God’s work to me, dancing around Facebook with greetings and notes for family and friends near and far. Taking an interest in their lives. Spreading love.
We are called to see God in each other. We are called to be Christ to one another. I hear that call as “Be there for each other”. Not just in times of trouble, not just in times of celebration, but every day. When you’re having a regular, standard, run-of-the-mill Tuesday morning, God is there in that, and I want to be there, too. So go ahead and post “Regular ol’ Tuesday” as your Facebook status. I may respond, “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

I think God would “like” that.

Jennifer S. McNally is a student at United Theological Seminary in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.

Whatever happened to the common good?

By Donald Schell

Was Jesus a socialist? Is there a Christian position on taxation? How about this – how can Christians renew a vision of the Common Good? If we can’t live up to the Sermon on the Mount, might we at least take Adam Smith seriously: “To feel much for others and little for ourselves, to restrain our selfishness and exercise our benevolent affections, constitute the perfection of human nature.”

Consider the erosion of California public school system. When I started kindergarten in 1952, we were living in a small house in a not particularly prosperous neighborhood. Nonetheless our class was small. That was true through elementary and middle school. In my high school most of our teachers were very, very good. We had art and shop and music classes; sophisticated teaching of high school math extended all the way through calculus; we were offered up to five years study of French, German, and Spanish, learning conversationally with satisfying class discussions of current events and great literature, and well-designed, effective language labs helped our aural learning and accent development; physical education and arts learning encouraged broad participation in well-funded theater and sports programs.

Looking back, I understand now that before California’s Proposition 13 began a wave of ‘tax-payer revolt,’ we had the best-funded public schools in the country. When I left home and went out of state to a challenging private college and got my first taste of classes with peers from East Coast prep schools, I had no sense whatever that they’d gotten a better education than we had.

In 1978, Proposition 13’s tax protest rhetoric was that it ‘wasn’t fair’ for seniors to pay property taxes to support schools when they didn’t have children in school. The proposition passed by a 65% majority and within five years, half of the fifty states had passed similar limits on property taxes.

Today California leads the nation in another way. Factoring in a cost of living correction, California schools today are among the nation’s worst funded and it’s projected to get worse as the state faces severe budget cuts from the state legislators attempts shrink a $25.4 billion budget deficit without raising taxes. Again California’s chapter is getting retold across the country, and school cuts were and are just the beginning.

We’ve seen the same reversal nationally on health care. Our mid-century health outcomes (measured by low infant mortality and long life expectancy) were with the best in the developed world. Now U.S. health care outcomes are the worst in the developed world – where we’re decisively behind Japan, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, Spain, Canada, France, Ireland, Italy, Australia, Greece, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, places with higher taxes than ours and one form or another of “socialized medicine.”

Politicians (both parties) who tell us we just haven’t got the money for a social welfare, ‘nanny government,’ and that we’ve got to balance the budget simply won’t talk about the cost of social inequality in a stagnating economy, massive unemployment of our youth (including college graduates), and collapse of our educational base for industrial innovation and human growth in the arts. Our politicians (both parties) clamber to claim a high ground of fiscal responsibility (claiming moral justification for cutting programs) without challenging our exaggerated investment in prisons and war, both of which are vastly greater (proportionately and absolutely) than any developed country’s.

What’s this got to do with church? How about this - no one seems willing to talk about rendering the Caesar the things that are Caesar’s (paying appropriate taxes for a complex, developed society). What’s going on?

Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land and a Saturday walk put numbers and suffering human faces to this. Judt’s book puts statistics and historical context on our thirty-year national drift toward me-ism. Judt offers numerical comparisons, those I’ve summarized above and more, concluding with the startling observation that in the last thirty years, we’ve seen the wealth disparity in the U.S. (how few hold what percent of capital and receive what percent of income) grow and grow until the 1% of our population that controls 25% of the nation’s wealth is a disparity greater than any in the developed world – and matches that of China.

The last thirty years, as Judt describes them reversed a hundred and thirty years progress from de Toqueville’s grim 1835 observation of money’s importance in the American character: “As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”

Particularly with Roosevelt’s response to the depression and the ways we shaped recovery after World War II, with Johnson’s Civil Rights Act and War on Poverty, we were beginning to tax ourselves in ways that made it possible to educate, organize, inoculate, and guide us by services and programs away from inequity. It was a bumpy road but it was working. And the church - mainstream Protestantism, public progressive Catholicism, and yes, we should beyond the church, progressive Judaism - was a committed participant in that change. As a young adult, a college student and at the end of that era as a seminarian, I remember the church’s vocal and bodily presence in demonstrations for Civil Rights, actions to end the War in Vietnam. Our seminary student body and faculty marched together on Wall Street in protest of the bombing of Cambodia. Our seminary chaplain presided in the hall of the Pentagon at a mass protesting the war.

But a shift was beginning in 1970’s after 60’s activism broke our comfortable 1950’s religious consensus apart. Clearly it was a shift toward a more secular society. Some of us welcomed that. With a number of clergy colleagues, I quit wearing a collar, rejecting it as a symbol of the church’s habitual deference to clergy privilege and an implicit assertion of the religious or spiritual special status for clergy.
While we were struggling through Prayer Book change, and struggling to accept women and LGBT folk into ministry (and give them explicit voice in our whole life together), almost without noticing it we were also stumbling into a society in which our church’s voice, the recent mainstream consensus for justice was quiet. It began quietly enough that we hardly noticed it. Time and Newsweek closed down their Religion sections. Newspapers didn’t replace their religion writers. When National Public Radio asked for the ‘Christian response’ to heavily conflicted issues like abortion, right to die, and increasingly to LGBT rights and eventually marriage, even NPR gave this defining voice of ‘Christianity’ to lobbyists and speakers from an individualistic and libertarian religious right. We began to lose our language.

As ‘liberal’ became a dirty word, the self-designated ‘orthodox’ claimed they were the old-time religion (a claim that’s historically pretty shaky). The religious right claimed the word ‘Christian’ for themselves and routinely explained why many who claimed they were Christian actually weren’t. As the Religious Right claimed the name, “Christian,” by the 1990’s, I was hearing more and more new, previously un-churched and de-churched participants in our growing mission congregation say that they considered themselves “followers of Jesus,” but preferred not to call themselves “Christian.”

In a weird alliance between religious fundamentalism and social Darwinism, ‘The Market’ became the hand of God that would guide us toward the good. Hardly noticing it had happened, our national discourse fell into the kind of assessment of ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ poor that the church had been party to in the early 19th century. Vigilant pursuers of ‘welfare cheats’ and ‘government waste’ vehemently defended people’s unequivocal right to spend everything they’d received from their work or their social position and inherited wealth. We were making it clear that we’d finally decided our worth was determined by what was in our wallet.

And my Saturday walk?

I’ve been training for a rim-to-rim Grand Canyon hike in May. That means I’m discovering I can walk to familiar destinations in our city, so Saturday morning, I was walking down the steep hill from our house, across the Mission District and up the long, steep hill to Diamond Heights on my way to an early morning diocesan meeting at St. Aidan’s, San Francisco’s highest (by altitude) Episcopal Church.

It was early morning and at age 63, I wasn’t surprised that I needed a restroom before I’d reached my destination.

Like most American cities, San Francisco has almost no public restrooms. Those we have are downtown and in the areas tourists frequent. I was forty minutes into an hour walk, beginning my climb to Diamond Heights, and worrying about the distance I still had to go, when I passed a Whole Foods grocery and remembered the Whole Foods back on our hill had a restroom, so went in to this one and found a neat sign over the locked restroom door - “Ask in cheese department for door code.”

I asked and got the code, as I knew I would because I look like someone who’d be shopping there. I felt grateful for the clean restroom and continued my walk. But as I walked on, I recalled homeless men waking in doorways that I’d passed in the Mission District. The code on the Whole Foods restroom door was to deny men like that access to the restroom. The colorful Latino cafes and new gentrifying coffee and pastry places had all had signs, ‘Restroom for customers only,’

No public restrooms and citations for peeing in an alley make a clear equation: full humanity and ‘membership in society’ demand a credit card in a wallet and the will to use it. When had our society decided citizenship was bought with our purchasing power?

So I’m back to my opening questions: Was Jesus a socialist? Is there a Christian position on taxation? And how can Christians renew a vision of the Common Good?

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

The central role of conflict in the life of the Episcopal Church

By George Clifford

Recently, a dental hygienist whom I had not previously met cleaned my teeth. She worked in silence, a welcome change from hygienists who expect their patient to converse in spite of having a mouthful of fingers and dental instruments. When she had finished the cleaning, she asked me what I did. I said that I was an Episcopal priest.

She replied that she had been Episcopalian, but that she had tired of the endless controversy and conflict. The massive, continuing exodus of people and congregations from The Episcopal Church left her feeling dismayed. She rebuffed my attempt to describe the size of the exodus factually with anecdotal evidence from her own experience. To her, the exodus had and continued to feel distressingly huge, though I gathered she disagreed with those exiting.

After she moved to Raleigh several years ago, her teenage daughter had made friends at school with kids who attended a nearby Lutheran church. Consequently, this woman was now a Lutheran, believing it good for her daughter to attend church with her friends. Becoming Lutheran conveniently allowed her to avoid the conflicts in The Episcopal Church (TEC). Nevertheless, the hygienist, who subtly indicated that she was not open to returning to TEC, expressed a preference for our liturgy.

My encounter with this woman started me thinking about conflict. Conflict is essential for growth, whether physical, intellectual, emotional, or spiritual. Confronting limits, crossing barriers, and moving into new territory each represent a form of conflict as a person moves beyond the known into the unknown.

Approaches to conflict vary along a spectrum that ranges from avoidance to seeking. Those who seek conflict seem unable to thrive without it. Psychologists sometimes refer to these individuals as “drama queens/kings.” In the absence of sufficient conflict, a drama queen/king will create conflict. Apart from the emotional intensity of conflict, such individuals often seem flat or lost. Living with a drama queen/king frequently exhausts family and friends.

Sometimes, I think TEC has more than its fair share of drama queens/kings. These individuals appear to rely upon conflict-generated emotion to provide momentum for their worthwhile endeavors. This has happened in TEC conflicts over civil rights, prayer book revision, the ordination of women, and full inclusion of GLBT persons. Unfortunately, the conflicts left numerous casualties, like my dental hygienist, in their wake.

At the other extreme are persons who wish to avoid conflict at all costs. Conflict avoidance, like living with a drama queen/king, is emotionally exhausting. Like the proverbial ostrich with its head buried in the sand, conflict avoiders pretend that everyone agrees, that everything is good, and demand the complicity of everyone else in supporting those false claims.

Small congregations that pride themselves on being a harmonious loving family – and there are a large number of these – embody this type of dysfunction. Not only is sustaining the pretense of loving harmony draining, it also prevents the difficult work of identifying and removing the barriers the congregation has erected, usually without conscious intent, that now prevent growth. If the congregation were truly as wonderful as imagined, then people would travel many miles to join. The congregation’s self-image conflicts with reality, pointing to the need for change.

Between those two extremes, a multiplicity of points exist in which, to some degree, conflict functions as an opportunity and potential catalyst for change and growth. One sine qua non for positive conflict management that leads to growth is mutual respect on all sides, something too often lacking in TEC conflicts. Mutual respect requires not only listening (of which we have sought to do much), but also mutual learning (of which we have done too little, convinced that those with whom we have fundamental disagreements have nothing to teach us).

Jesus reminds his hearers to remove the log in their own eye before carping on the mote in another’s eye. I feel strongly about practicing radical hospitality and welcoming all of God's people. However, before I speak about the mote in another’s eye, I would do well to listen to them, to see if they can help me to identify the log in my eye, (presumptuously) presuming that if I knew what the log was, that I would be at work removing it.

A second important element of capitalizing on the potential benefits of ecclesial conflict is to preserve a broad vision of the Church’s identity and mission. Single-issue politics has greatly contributed to the polarization of politics in the United States. Sadly, a similar focus on single-issues has greatly contributed to polarizing TEC.

No person or organization can focus equally on the plethora of needs, concerns, and issues crying out for the Church’s attention and response. Thankfully, that is not the biblical vision of a Christian or of an individual Christian community. Each person and community receives gifts for ministry and a call as to the context for exercising those gifts at a particular time. Together we have the capacity and resources to do what we cannot do individually: address the plethora of needs, concerns, and issues that cry out for the Church’s attention and response.

Functioning as a mosaic necessarily introduces different emphases, even conflicting aspirations and competing claims on limited resources. Promoting particular agendas has too often found expression in myopic vision that excludes those with whom we disagree rather than preserving a breadth of vision that enables us to perceive a beautiful mosaic of God's design.

Do those with whom I disagree incarnate their part in God's mosaic more faithfully, equally faithfully, or less faithfully than I do mine? Asking that question moves beyond mutual respect and holding a broad perspective to begin identifying common goals and values, a third critical element in enabling conflict to become a catalyst for transformation. The Book of Common Prayer provides one such commonality, although some few will disagree about the preferred version. Commitment to loving God and others in Jesus’ name constitutes another commonality. Additional, more particular commonalities almost certainly exist in every conflict.

Finally, people and groups must sometimes live with their disagreements. Unity does not necessitate unanimity. Discerning the movement of God's Spirit often takes time. Being Church is messy. I am disappointed that my new dental hygienist seems permanently disenchanted with TEC. However, I am thankful that she did not leave the Church entirely but moved to another branch in which to live out her spiritual journey. Additionally, perhaps her story is a gift to those who remain in TEC, encouraging us to reflect upon - and change - how we deal with conflict.

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 if it’s all true?

By Kathleen Staudt

As I prepare to lead various Lenten experiences inviting people into prayer and deepened reflection, I have been noticing how the season offers us, if we wish to embrace it, a “time out from doubt.” Not that doubt or questioning are in themselves bad things – an openness to questions is part of what has kept many of us in the Episcopal Chuch. But I’m thinking that Lent is a time to stretch our faith -- to live with these familiar stories, which we’ve called Good News. Take a break from questions about what may be “factual” or accurate and ask “What if it’s all true?”

What if it’s all true? What if (to begin), the Ground and Source of our being, our life, our connections with one another and the earth, is real and alive, though beyond our ability to name it. What if this Reality is best described and apprehended in personal terms, through our human images of love – mother-love, father-love, the love of devoted friends, the love of an artist or a gardener for what she has made or nurtured, the love that desires, above all things, the well-being of the beloved. What if it’s all true? What if the heart of Reality is that love?

And what if it’s true, as we Christians claim (set our hearts to – as the word “credo” implies) that this Love became human, took on fully our experience of bodily life, limiting itself (himself/herself – for this is a personal Reality) to a person in history, with parents, friends, enemies, a culture, a community.? What if Jesus is the Word made flesh, “Incarnate,” as we say. A mystery beyond our understanding, perhaps: but what if it’s true? What if, fully human, he experienced what it is to be loved and cared for, and to be oppressed, rejected, betrayed, killed. And what if the witness of all those early disciples is true – that death could not contain him: that the life Jesus lived and brought and called us to is actually eternal life, and has already begun, even in a broken world?

And what if it’s true that that Life and Love cannot be killed. What if, in the life of Jesus, in companionship with him, we can re-learn that love at the heart of Creation, and embody it in our lives here and now?. What if he really does live on in the gathered worshipping community (ekklesia/) that we call the Church. It seems so unlikely, and yet what if, through all our divisions, abuses, human distortions, abuses and misunderstandings of the good news, his life still lives in us. What if we are held, despite it all, in something that could be called “the Divine Mercy”?

And what if it is still possible to somehow be, in this world, that risen body of the Holy One, through our life together, through our relationships, through the choices we make for ourselves and for others. And what if there is power available to us, beyond what we can find within ourselves, to become what we were made to be – whole, and just and loving, bearers of the divine Love. What if there is a Holy Spirit, working through us, that really can transform and change? What if the whole thing is a whole lot bigger than we thought? What if it’s all true?

What would it be like, truly to live in the hope that it’s all true?

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

What are bishops for?

By Martin L. Smith

Taking my usual walk around the Tidal Basin yesterday, I was pondering our upcoming episcopal election. A wry quotation from Claire Booth Luce popped into my head: “Anyone who is not confused today cannot be thinking straight.” Understanding what a bishop is meant to be and do has become complicated. So many expectations are now heaped on the role: What person could possibly fulfill the wish list of ideal skills in our “profiles?” I can’t help shaking my head over it all. I have had the experience of being a chaplain to the House of Bishops though turbulent years. I have been a chaplain to a Lambeth Conference, and the spiritual director and confidant of quite a few bishops. I know the harm done by the cruel unrealism of our current projections onto the office of bishop.

The path round the Tidal Basin—alongside the Jefferson Memorial, through the Roosevelt Memorial and now past the glorious new monument to Martin Luther King Jr. —is quite an intense place for reflecting about leadership! And there are two images that helped me focus on the core vocation of bishop. There is the bronze statue of FDR sitting down in his wheelchair, and now there is the grand stone image emerging of Martin Luther King standing tall. Sitting and standing represent two fundamental aspects of the episcopal vocation.

A core symbol for the bishop’s office is the chair. Traditional language of a see, of having a cathedra, or official seat, comes from the ancient practice of sitting down to teach. Teachers help us find meaning, and no one should offer themselves to be a bishop who doesn’t want to serve by helping us concentrate on the fundamental issues of what life means in the light of the gospel. God help us if we prevent that ministry by turning bishops into tortured managers.

As well as symbolizing the call to articulate the gospel’s meaning with us, the chair resonates with other pastoral needs in today’s world. When all seems constantly in flux, when technology is racing and the ground is heaving under feet, we need leaders who will sit down with us, to center us, to stabilize, above all to help us focus. The bishops who have inspired me all have been good at sitting down. They put roots down quickly. They are willing to sit round the table and roll up their sleeves. They have a knack of leveling with us and getting to the point. As pastors they have known how to minister simply by sitting with people.

The complementary symbol for the bishop’s office is the vantage point. Episkopos simply means supervisor or overseer. It implies the vantage points enabling a leader to see the big picture, to take in the larger context, to relate what is happening in a particular spot to movements in the main organization and society at large. Larger vision is intrinsic to the bishop’s office, and the willingness to stand up for the imperatives of the big picture of God’s world in its predicament, and God’s promise of the Kingdom. The new King monument is a thrilling artistic expression of the ministry of standing out and standing up for the demands and hopes of God’s bigger picture! No one should be a bishop whose nature is to be immersed in the local scene alone. God calls for the practice of standing up to see ahead and around and even afar, and the willingness to pay the price of reminding us of our larger connectedness: it always arouses resentment.

My walk brought me back past the Holocaust Museum, and I glanced up at my old office there, and thought about a letter Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, wrote to the church in Ephesus, en route under armed guard to his inevitable martyrdom in Rome. Advising the laity about their relationship to their own bishop, he wrote, “Pay special attention to the bishop when he is silent.” Here was a leader who kept the mystical core of his faith intact, who continued to be in awe of the profound mystery of God, and the way the crucified Christ brings us, through his vulnerability, into personal intimacy with that mystery. There’s nothing sentimental about that intimacy, and holy silence is our protection against glib religiosity. A visit to the Holocaust Museum induces the kind of silence Ignatius wanted to see a bishop practice. Well, we can kill our bishops by smothering them under our projections, so my hope is that candidates will come forward who won’t let us, because they maintain in prayer their own intimate connection with the mystery of God. Bishops who pray don’t pretend to have answers to everything, and they can foster our humility, which in the Episcopal Church today should be a high priority. We have good but hard times ahead.

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

Faith and the entrepreneur

By Margaret Treadwell

Entrepreneurs practice the art of turning ideas into a marketable product or service, then assuming the risk and management of the resulting business enterprise.

At this point in our lengthening Great Recession, many entrepreneurs are born out of necessity. This column focuses on the thinking and action that has brought one particular entrepreneur, “Gabe,” to a better place during this recession.

In retrospect, Gabe sees that he began his business career when he graduated from college. He worked hard to become known as an honest, forthright, organized professional. He advanced to responsible jobs in television production and media entertainment at excellent companies, both of which eventually downsized, cutting out his successful broadcast design and animation departments. In the second situation, while employed but pending layoff, he sought full time work until he decided to use his sizable energy and commitment to launch his own design company.

Gabe says, “I focused on three main topics that are the backbone of my business philosophy: the mechanics of starting a successful design business; a business strategy of collaboration rather than competition, which means that I’m always striving to be an active participant in the artistic and production community; and the ‘steps to avoid’ pitfalls in an effort to answer the question, Why do some companies succeed while others fail?”

First Gabe created a lengthy list of questions along a timeline. He identified his business opportunity – the value, practicality and uniqueness of product/services provided – and the necessary financial, legal and people resources. He acknowledged the competition. He broke his questions into smaller “doable do’s” to avoid feeling overwhelmed and eventually realized the questions sorted themselves out without being roadblocks to success. Friends who wished him well contributed their services of web and logo ideas, and previous bosses and peers offered sage advice. He selected a venue for his launch and threw a fantastic party that drew colleagues and other supporters from near and far.

He says, “Above all, if you lose your job remain an active member of your industry’s community and/or professional associations, become a volunteer in your field, take or teach a class, gain a certificate, learn a new piece of software – all networking experiences where you can share your passion for what you do.”

Staying connected to combinations of dynamic, always changing people became the backbone of his business and a motivator for persistence and stamina despite the natural setbacks that always accompany growth. Now he seeks out opportunities to mentor. One secret: “When you ask someone how they are, really mean it and listen well.”

Once the mechanics of establishing his business were accomplished, Gabe’s joy has been managing his business as he gains clarity about what kind of company he wants and what type of leader he is. He believes his ability to change focus, shift gears, push the business in the direction of the skid (what his clients need) is key. Able to rent studio space after his first year profits, Gabe’s dream is to continue creating established pipelines of work as he functions as an offsite art department for clients.

“My business strategy answers the question: How are we all going to win?” he says. “I’ve created my mission statement to reflect my collaborative leadership… a broadcast design and animation studio for creative people on a mission to amplify and unify the design community.” He believes this collaboration will be key to his company’s success.

And what do faith and family have to do with entrepreneurship? Gabe says, “I gained valuable insights when I stopped blaming my tumultuous childhood and took responsibility for my own destiny. … I support reason and tolerance in our communities and embrace a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. I respect my wife’s religious background; we were married and had our children baptized in her church.”

His wife, an entrepreneur in her own right, stands back to let him do his thing without becoming too anxious over his progress or setbacks; he does the same for her. They share parenting and housekeeping responsibilities and try to foster each other’s personal and professional growth.

“Optimism is the recognition that the odds are in your favor; hope is the faith that things will work out whatever the odds. Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up. Hopeful people are actively engaged in defying the odds or changing the odds.” – David Orr, Hope is an Imperative

Margaret M. “Peggy” Treadwell, LICSW, is a family, individual and couples therapist and teacher in private practice.

Stage fright

By Marshall Scott

“See the man with the stage fright,

Just standin' up there to give it all his might.

He got caught in the spotlight,

But when we get to the end

He wants to start all over again.”
(From “Stage Fright” by The Band)



I am commonly amused, and sometimes surprised, by the music that pops into my head. So, I had to wonder what it was going on when, as I thought about the arrival of Lent, the refrain from “Stage fright” popped in my head.

Perhaps it was that thought that I am accountable, and in that some stage fright. I know that I’m progressive, and open to historical critical interpretation of Scripture and all of that; but I still retain, if only for my own reflection, a pretty classical image of being accountable. I still think about literally “standing before the Throne” – yeah, literally. I trust in God’s mercy; but I still have this expectation of uncomfortable reflection on some events in my life that I’m not proud of, with perhaps some uncomfortable conversations with others who were involved. Talk about being caught in the spotlight!

And I’m there with the thought that I need to give it all my might. There is a thought I hear often enough from patients and family members: “I don’t go to church as often as I should, but I try to be a good person.” And I’m certain each of them is trying to be a good person, as am I. If perhaps we’re not always giving it all our might, we’re certainly trying for consistency. At the same time, every time I hear that, I think I hear an undertone of, “And I’m self-conscious, even anxious, when I think of how many times I fall short.” I know I hear that undertone in my own thoughts.

So, perhaps what I’m most aware of is that desire at a point of transition to start all over again. I long ago gave up resolutions at New Year’s Day, and yet year after year I stop to think about my discipline for Lent. I feel the need to stop, and to start over again.

That makes sense with the music, doesn’t it? Music has been an important part of my life, whether I’m participating or simply enjoying what I’m hearing. I have been part of various performing groups through my education. That has given me a clear memory of how one learns music. There is that old joke of the tourist who asked the street musician how to get to Carnegie Hall; to which the busker answered, “Practice, practice, practice!” That’s how we learn music: we practice over and over again. And, we don’t just practice whole pieces, whole songs. We break them down into pieces, and each piece gets its own attention. Piece by piece, and again once we have put the pieces together, we practice and practice – which is to say, each time we get to the end, we start all over again.

Growth in our relationship with God is like that. Indeed, any relationship is like that. I love, and in loving try to listen. All too often, I don’t listen well enough, whether from distraction or sleepiness or, to be honest, a moment of indifference. And with each little slip, no matter how brief, I have, in some sense, to start all over again. Some small part of the trust has been lost, and I have to step back, to recover some lost ground. My beloved wife and I say often enough, “Marriage is one negotiation after another;” but we might just as well say that it is “one rehearsal after another.” So, with each small slip, and also with the regular renewals of birthdays, anniversaries, and other family celebrations, we step back and start again, to practice and practice and so do better.

So we find ourselves in our relationship with God. The great Christian spiritual writers reminded us of this. I think especially of Walter Hilton’s Stairway of Perfection. He leads the reader up steps in the relationship with God, beginning with that “chiefest of sins,” pride. He notes, though, that the “stairway” is more a spiral than a straight line, and that sooner or later we will be brought back again to our pride, and need to begin again.

Hilton only confirms our contemporary experience. Not long ago, on that rare Eighth Sunday after Epiphany, we were called not to worry, translating a Greek word, merimnaw, that suggested just this splitting of our memory, our attention. We are all prone to find our consciousness, our very lives divided, and to allow our attention to our life in Christ to slip. It happens however hard we try for consistency, and once again we’re not listening as well to the words of Christ, to the call of the Spirit. By God’s grace, at that point we have the opportunity to step back, to start all over again, and by rehearsing go father than we had gone before the slip.

And we have Lent. As in our relationships there are those special events, those birthdays, anniversaries, and family celebrations, so in our life in Christ there are special events. We might have these thoughts at Advent, or even at each baptism, when together we repeat the Baptismal Covenant. However, the most pronounced of those annual family celebrations, if you will, is Lent. We are called to “a devout and holy Lent,” not to wallow in our wretchedness, but to stop, go back a few measures, and start again.

So, perhaps it wasn’t so strange that as I thought about Lent the refrain of “Stage Fright” popped into my head. Certainly, when we are honest and reflect on our accountability, we can be uncertain, anxious, and perhaps a bit resistant. We might fear that bright light in which God sees us, and our realization that in that light even our best efforts are punctuated by our moments of distraction, inattention, and indifference. And we can also embrace and appreciate God’s grace in Christ, so that, knowing that Christ is forgiving us, we can also forgive ourselves. We can literally practice our faith, rehearsing those passages where we struggle until we do better. We know we will not see perfection, except in and through Christ. But with each difficult passage, and with each completed song we can go farther; even if when we get to the end we need to start all over again.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a hospital chaplain in the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

Sewanee Plan opposed as Imperium in Imperio

With Jim Crow on the rise, Bishop Green of Mississippi suggested a meeting of the "Bishops of the Late Slave States" in preparation for the General Convention. Twelve southern bishops met in Sewanee, Tennessee in 1883 to consider segregation of the Church. The view of the Sewanee Conference bishops is described by Bishop Howe of South Carolina in his convention address of 1873:

I find, myself inclined to think, at least from present observation and reflection, that if our Church is to do any work of moment among this people, it must be done by the Church at large. Let a Missionary Jurisdiction be erected by the General Convention with express reference to these people, and let a Missionary Bishop be consecrated, who shall give his whole time and thought to this work; who, as the executive, not of a single Diocese, but of the entire Church, shall organize congregations, provide them with Church schools and pastors, and in due time raise up from among the colored people themselves, deacons and priests who shall be educated men, and competent to the work of the ministry. It would seem as if the Church, even in lack of precedent, ought to be able to provide for our perplexity.
When General Convention rejected the plan, southern bishops acted on their own by segregating blacks into "colored convocations" within their respective dioceses.

In 1907 the Sewanee Plan for a diocese for blacks was brought back to General Convention, this time by a blacks who chafed under the southern system of colored convocations. They wanted a diocese of black parishes under a black bishop. What convention did instead was to put into motion the creation of the office of suffragan bishop, action that was finalized at the 1910 convention. The understanding was the office was a middle road that would lead to black bishops for blacks -- bishops without the powers of a diocesan, but rather answering to a white southern bishop.

The Very Rev. James. S. Russell, the son of slaves, served as the Archdeacon for Colored Work in the Diocese of Southern Virginia. He favored the status quo over either of these alternatives. He expressed his views in The Churchman of October 5, 1907:

A canon almost identical with the present, providing for a missionary episcopate, was presented to the General Convention of 1889. The Committee on Canons reported adversely upon it on the ground that it was antagonistic of the history and the traditional policy of the Church and episcopal jurisdiction in the sense that it created an "imperium in imperio"; that it trenched so closely on Article IV, that its constitutionality was doubtful, and finally it recognized a racial distinction incompatible with the general tenets and policies of the Church.

...

From time immemorial the boast of the Church has been the brotherhood of man, and its disregard of race or color in its ministrations. This is not a mere sentiment, as some claim, but one of the most cherished and time-honored principles of the Church, and one which she has held fast to throughout all the changes of the years. The one bishop administering to the sheep of both flocks is not a mere sentiment or tradition, but a priceless heritage, rendered sacred by the practice and injunction of the years. The bond of union between whites and blacks has been swept away successively until this is the only one left.

...

Talk about being a laughing stock -- we would simply be the butt of other denominations. Our bishops under such a system [of suffragans], when compared with bishops of other denominations would appear at a disadvantage. ... Our latter condition would be infinitely worse than it is now.

Biographical note: Born into slavery, Archdeacon James Solomon Russell (1857-1935) was founder of the St. Paul Normal and Industrial School (now Saint Paul’s College).

In 1882 Russell was ordained to the diaconate of the Episcopal Church by the bishop of the undivided Diocese of Virginia, the Rt. Rev. F. M. Whittle, who four years previously had opened the way for the Archdeacon's training. Bishop Whittle appointed him as missionary to Brunswick and Mecklenburg Counties.

He was the first Negro to be appointed to any department of the Board of Missions of the National Council and served eight years (1923-1931) as an additional member of the Department of Christian Social Service of the National Council. He attended eleven consecutive triennial sessions of the General Convention.

James Russell Solomon was named a Local Saint during the 1996 Winter Session of the 104th Annual Council of the Episcopal Church of the Diocese of Southern Virginia. (Abridged from here.)

A hands-on Jesus

By Deirdre Good

Mark's Gospel explores ways Jesus is tangible. Yes, Jesus is a powerful exorcist, recognized by demons. Yes, Jesus tells enigmatic parables. But Mark seems particularly fascinated by ways this same figure reaches out to touch ordinary people. In Mark, more than in any other gospel, Jesus reaches for and grasps women and men firmly to heal them by the power of God. This makes Jesus accessible and vulnerable. Is it not extraordinary that in John's gospel, the gospel that describes the incarnate Word, Jesus does not touch, grasp or hold anyone firmly? It is left to the author of 1 John 1 to write of "what was from the beginning," what was heard, seen, looked at and touched.

At the beginning of Jesus' ministry in Mark, Jesus grasps Simon Peter's mother in law by the hand, raising her up from a bed of fever. He then extends his hand (either in anger or compassion, the text is not clear) and touches a leper who requests healing. Sometime later, a woman in a state of impurity lays a hand on his garment and is healed. In the same episode, Jesus touches a corpse and raises a young girl thought to have died. But the actions and force with which he reaches out to heal are turned against him in the course of the gospel narrative. Those around Jesus-- perhaps his family, perhaps his disciples-- seek to detain him early in his ministry, thinking him unbalanced. His healing ability is inhibited by the skepticism of those in his hometown. A crowd presses against him. In the latter half of the gospel, opponents seize people Jesus knows: John the Baptist, the naked young man in the garden, and finally Jesus too. Until his arrest Jesus nonetheless continues to raise people up and heal them from sickness and death. After crucifixion, he is raised by God to new life.

Because Jesus' critics are bent on destroying him right from the beginning of his ministry, there's little time to grasp or apprehend him. But there is a glimpse of faith growing secretly one day as Jesus responds to a request from Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, that he lay hands on Jairus' dying daughter (5:22-34). A great crowd oppresses Jesus as he moves forward to respond to Jairus' request. Hiding in it is someone who reaches out to Jesus in faith. Mark structures the account of the woman who interrupts Jesus' move towards Jairus' daughter in such a way that the whole narrative focuses on her intent to touch Jesus. Bullet points in the translation below show a string of circumstantial participles indicating what the woman overcame to bring about her action in the main verb: "she touched his cloak."

A woman
· Being in a flow of blood twelve years

· And who had suffered much from many physicians

· And having spent all she had

· And having received no benefit but rather

· Having become worse,

· Hearing about Jesus

· Having come behind in the crowd,

Touched his cloak for she said, "If I touch just his cloak, I will be healed."

The plight of the woman is pitiful. But her belief is firm that touching (and grasping firmly) with faith can lead to healing and understanding. We see the way she thinks: "Even if I just touch his clothes…" (5:28) And we hear the physical vindication of her faith: "she knew in her body that she had been healed" (5:29). As she touches Jesus for healing, she affects his physical self-awareness: "he knows the power has gone out of him" (5:30). Ignoring the disciples' incredulity: "You see this crowd pressing against you," Jesus "continues looking around to see the woman who had done this." (5:32). His search for that woman, not just someone who has touched him, is ignored by all modern translations. Surely we should render it correctly. When each recognizes what the other knows, the woman tells Jesus "the whole truth." Calling her "Daughter" and identifying her faith, Jesus names her healed and restored to the community.

Holding a leper by the hand, being touched by those with diseases (Mark 3:10; 6:54-6) or a woman in a flow of blood renders Jesus ritually impure. It explains why the woman comes behind him from the crowd, and why she falls at his feet publicly in fear and trembling after she has been healed; and why the leper asks for healing. Neither the woman nor the leper is observed by Mark to contaminate Jesus; instead Jesus heals them. Perhaps the healings that result overcomes the threat of ritual impurity: the healed woman is called a daughter of Israel and the healed leper shows himself to the priests so that he can rejoin the community. Could these two experiences enable Jesus to step on into the house of Jairus and risk corpse impurity by grasping the hand of a girl thought by many to have died?

Mark's Jesus can heal the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman from a distance but he heals people more frequently by touching, laying on of hands and holding them firmly. In describing an angry and compassionate Jesus; in showing Jesus being inhibited from healing by doubts of others and having others take healing from him, and in being tortured and crucified, Mark seems to be meditating on the wonder of Jesus' physical body from which power seems to ebb and flow. This reflection is the miracle of a tiny window through which we can see and hear a human being mediating God's healing power for life and being enacted upon for life after death.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. An American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and keeps the blog On Not Being a Sausage.

Spirit’s work in the slaughterhouse

By Donald Schell

Much that I’m seeing and hearing outside church makes me look back to celebrate (or worry at) what we’re doing in church on Sunday and in our faith communities. Could these unexpected prophetic voices hint at how the Spirit blows where she will to make all things new? And when we meet the Spirit outside church, is she challenging how we do church work? What I see outside makes me wonder where the Spirit moves (and doesn’t) in our church practice of mission, community-building, and adult formation.
Recently these glimpses of the Spirit at work outside church moved me:

- HBO’s award winning biopic ‘Temple Grandin,’ on the hard life and huge gifts of the autistic Ph.D. who overturned a whole generation of experts’ settled conclusions about autism while she radically altering our treatment of cattle in the U.S.

- the NPR story of the Vipassna Buddhist meditation program for lifers in Donaldson Prison in Alabama

- National Geographic’s documentary on atheist neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky’s research on stress in baboon communities in Kenya and his wholly unexpected discoveries when a disaster moved one baboon community toward a active teaching of compassionate, collaborative behavior

- “Fresh Air’s” interview with Matthew Alexander, author of Kill or Capture, How a Special Operations Task Force took Down a Notorious Al Qaeda Terrorist.

These stories have come back to me again and again as I participate in ongoing conversation on NAECED’s list-serve (NAECED is the National Association of Episcopal Christian Education Directors) and have been helping shape and lead a workshop/training series for ECCC’s (Episcopal Camps and Conference Centers) summer camp directors. These two conversations about Christian formation, like many other conversations elsewhere in the church, have us talking about human development and how God shows up in human experience. Naturally we’ve had kept an eye toward the Charter for Lifelong Christian Formation that was adopted at General Convention in 2009 and naturally the Baptismal Covenant in the Book of Common Prayer comes up repeatedly.

Listening to witnesses of godly experience outside church, I feel glad the Charter asks us-

- To study Scripture, mindful of the context of our societies and cultures, calling us to seek truth anew while remaining fully present in the community of faith.

- To develop new learning experiences, equipping disciples for life in a world of secular challenges and carefully listening for the words of modern sages who embody the teachings of Christ.

- To prepare for a sustainable future by calling the community to become guardians of God’s creation.

For a generation now our Prayer Book has put a central emphasis on baptism with the 1979 Prayer Book’s innovation of a Baptismal Covenant. I have some questions and reservations about that innovation and may write about them on another occasion. For me I’m glad to say how grateful I am that the Baptismal Covenant points us toward serving ‘Christ in all persons,’ and striving for ‘justice and peace among all people,’ as we learn to ‘respect the dignity of every human being.’ Directing our attention to ‘all persons,’ ‘all people,’ and ‘every human being’ steers us back to God’s startling work outside any tidy bounds of church or religion, just what Jesus does in his teaching and his practice.

With the collapse of Christendom, I’m grateful whenever our liturgy invites us to be alert for the work of God in the lives of the unbaptized, in skeptics, in unbelievers, and in the faithful in other traditions, people whose experience we’re only now coming to acknowledge and value.

I think the Charter for Lifelong Formation and Baptismal covenant both ask us to see Christ in people like Margaret Sanger, Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Nelson Mandela, four people who are, to the best of my knowledge, an atheist, a Hindu, a Buddhist, and an agnostic humanist. How does remembering these help us see and hear the Spirit’s work outside our Christian and Episcopal box? And within our communities, do these lives help us see and hear the Spirit’s work among us differently?

First their stories remind us to look for the Spirit beyond our border because God is at work everywhere. And then their lives remind us that God who is at work in unexpected places may also show up in unexpected ways within our communities.

I also find that looking and listening for God’s work outside the boundaries of church enlarges possibilities for grateful conversations on the borders of faith. Who do we talk to on the border? Some, of course, are people seeking community who bring their own experience to join with ours. But the border is also where we encounter people who aren’t looking for church. Their stories bless us because we know their best committed work is holy, whether they’re people of other faith or none. Their stories ask us to listen to experience and only then wrestle with the questions of theology.

So,

In an interview with Dave Davies on NPR’s ‘Fresh Air, and in his book, Kill of Capture, Matthew Alexander who served as a senior military interrogator in Iraq, insists we get demonstrably unreliable information from ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ our euphemism, he says, for torture. Then he contrasts that kind of information with what he and those he trained found they got – even in battlefield interrogations under huge time pressure – by deliberately acknowledging the humanity of the prisoner under interrogation, making an honest promise not to hurt them, offering them steady human respect, and asking questions to find what hopes, dreams, and vision the prisoner and the interrogator actually shared. Matthew Alexander found, to his surprise he could find common ground in a prisoner’s hope for a better, more peaceful life for the next generation, or respect for Islam’s legitimate place as a voice for compassion and order). Even from an admitted, violent terrorist, extending respect and asking and listening to what had motivated the person usually made them much more willing to give accurate, life-saving information that ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques never reached. With a war raging the Spirit of truth and reconciliation shows up when someone makes a commitment to listen.

Stanford University professor of neurology and neurosciences, Robert Sapolsky was astonished to discover in a baboon community he’d observed for over ten summers in Kenya that when the Alpha males’ hoarding and consumption of tainted human garbage killed them all, the surviving members of their baboon group created and carried forward an unprecedented new baboon culture. The recently terrorized non-dominant males didn’t take claim the oppressor’s place in the new hierarchy like the old one they’d known. Instead the surviving males and that band’s females worked together to re-socialize the male adolescents who found their way to the band so the group perpetuated an adaptive, ongoing baboon culture of collaboration, mutual concern, and kindness. Even in our primate cousins, community can shape creatures for goodness and make peace.

Teaching Vipassna meditation in the Donaldson prison in Alabama, Vipassna teacher Carl Franz could document a twenty percent reduction in disciplinary action among the 430 inmates who have gone through the intensive meditation-training program. Evangelical chaplains, deeply suspicious of this foreign, non-Christian meditation practice, attempted to close the program and failed. And then Vipassna’s success won their grudging respect. Chaplain Bill Lindsay says it’s “kind of strange- something different,” but, “What’s a life worth in this business? If you can get just one, who knows?” And as inmate Grady Bankhead said, "Before I went to a Vipassana meditation…I was probably the angriest man in this prison." Now, recruiting others to take the very challenging course, he says, "We have to have some kind of balance back in our lives from the horrible things that we've done." The Spirit is present wherever hearts are changed and people are turned from hostility.

In 1950, when she was three years old Temple Grandin’s doctor told her parents that their autistic daughter would never speak and would need institutional confinement and care for life. Temple’s mother refused to believe that and found teachers who would work to free Temple’s spirit and help her find her voice. They found a remarkable voice, though along the way she was the shunned kid in school, an outsider who couldn’t read others’ cues and struggled to figure out what people might mean by their ‘feelings.’ Temple Grandin herself says the HBO film gives us the picture of her literalistic hearing of every metaphor. The director and cinematographer flash onscreen pictures and patterns and diagrams Temple Grandin would see directly as she grasped design and pattern and movement in machinery or even in patterns of animals’ movements. And they take us to feeling how her painfully attuned senses guided her to sensing the fear in the mooing of cattle in feed yards and slaughterhouses. We watch her put that organizing vision to work to design new ways of handling fellow creatures so we can ‘kind to them as nature is not.’ And we begin to see how her almost crippling empathy for cattle made her more able to speak her autistic experience to brain researchers like Oliver Sacks and to the teachers and parents of autistic children. The little girl without speech became the creative Word for others without speech.

Years of hearing and telling our Christian stories, years of praying with the community and sharing in Christ’s presence at his table opened my ear to hear Spirit in these stories. And that’s what makes me so glad to find many in our church pursuing our new focus on formation while encouraging us to share Jesus’ vision for God at work in Samaritan strangers, a Canaanite woman, and a lot of people whose religious credentials weren’t in good order.

As important as it is to find richer and more provocative ways to tell our Christian story inside our communities, we need to keep our ears and eye open and alert. Scripture and Tradition both point to reason/experience and invite us to see the Spirit at work all over the place. I pray that our new urgent commitment to Christian formation will help us discover in all human formation, God’s unrelenting work making us more compassionate, more awe-struck, kinder and more loving, and more open to graceful surprise.

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

Ash Wednesday in the streets

By Sara Miles

The afternoon looked like rain; the skies were grey, and trembling. "Hey, did you know today is Ash Wednesday?" a white hipster shouted into his phone, as I led a procession of fifteen men and women dressed in black cassocks and carrying smoking thuribles into a plaza by the subway near my home in San Francisco’s Mission District. “Yeah, no shit.” 26880_375133213594_152978483594_3787729_2857604_n.jpg

It was a year ago. Bertie Pearson, a young priest who’d been a DJ in the Mission’s coolest nightspots, had set up a makeshift altar on a black-draped card table in front of the stairs to the subway. Duct-taped to a fence behind it were two handwritten signs: Life is Very, Very, Very Short said one, and another read More Forgiveness. Our impromptu group, assembled from various neighborhood Episcopal churches, looked around a little nervously. There were a couple of priests, and a few seminarians, but most of us weren’t used to stomping through the streets in long black robes. I put more incense on the coals in my thurible. It was copal, the yellowish resin used by the Aztecs to bless the four directions of the world, and it still filled Mexican Catholic churches with the smell of prayers more ancient than Jesus. “Ready?” I asked, and then we walked around the corners of the plaza, censing east and west, north and south with clouds of smoke.

We returned to the altar and fell on our knees. “O God,” began Bertie, chanting in a serious, thin voice only partly drowned out by the buses going by, “you made us from the dust of the earth. Grant that these ashes may be a sign of our mortality and hope...” He lifted the baby-food jars we’d brought with us. They held the ashes of burned-up palms from last year’s Palm Sunday, when we had gathered to hail Jesus as king on the way to his death. Now bystanders were edging nearer to see what we were doing, and a seminarian with long black hair addressed everyone. “Let us kneel before the God who made us,” she said.

I knelt and pressed my forehead to the dirty sidewalk, the whole rush of my neighborhood, its crazy beauty and apparent hopelessness filling my heart. I’d walked through this plaza the day two teenage kids were shot a block away; I’d seen someone OD in the subway entrance. I’d come here busy and distracted on the way to the library with my five-year old daughter; I’d eaten tacos, chatted with beggars and laughed with friends in this place. “Lord,” I whispered, “have mercy.”

We rose. I marked Bertie, dipping a thumb into the soot. “Remember you’re dust,” I said, pressing the sign of the cross on his forehead. “And to dust you shall return.” “Amen,” said Bertie, and then I bent my head to receive the ashes from him. A curious crowd was forming around us. The priests stayed in front of the altar, waiting for people to come to them, up the escalator.

The rest of us divided into pairs—one with ashes, one with incense—and took off through the plaza. We started touching complete strangers by the dozen, the score, the hundred. We put our hands on people's foreheads, repeating over and over, in English and Spanish, “Recuerdo que eres polvo, y al polvo volverá.” I grabbed Deb, a young woman from my parish who was swinging a thurible, and set off walking up and down Mission Street, into the dollar stores, the taquerias, the parking lots and beauty salons and restaurants, offering ashes to everyone we saw.

26880_375130103594_152978483594_3787691_3006936_n.jpg We touched the foreheads of commuters, and the gang kids on the corner, and little children, and a bunch of obnoxious drunks. I was pausing to impose ashes on an older lady when some guy pulled up in a truck, put on his blinkers, and threw open the door -- "Oh! can I have those? Wait, my mom is in the back seat, can you go give her some?" Deb led me into the library, and a librarian said "I saw your sign that said forgive more. That's what I need in my life right now. I need to forgive more." At the taqueria, a cook said, "Oh...did you come because you knew we couldn't get to church, so you came to us?" Deb was transfixed. “It’s so intense,” she told me. “Whenever your fingers touch the forehead, it’s like time stops, over and over and over.” Deb stood watching, her mouth open, in the Italian bakery, as a big woman in an apron, holding a three-layer birthday cake in her arms, leaned over the counter toward me. The woman closed her eyes and said, quietly, "Please." I told her she was dust.

We walked through an alley, where a teenaged drug dealer grinned at us and lifted his cap to show the cross already marked on his forehead. “I never thought I’d be walking along the street censing trash cans and storefronts,” Deb said. “and so many people would come toward it.” I know,” I said. “I think people might want a lot more church than we generally give them.”

McDonalds was crowded with teenagers and fry cooks and families buying cheap fast food, and people reached out to us eagerly, pulling us over. A Guatemalan woman unwrapped her tiny baby, who she told me was a week and a half old, and held him up. I crossed his forehead with ashes, and took a deep breath, and told the baby he was going to die. And then his mother, like every single person who leaned forward to receive that day, said the same words: thank you.

Why would you say thank you when a stranger tells you that your child is going to die? Because it's the truth. People say thank you to that hard blessing because finally, despite all the lies of our culture, it means nothing is hidden, or pretend, or made-up anymore.

The truth is that we all go down to the dust. And that we are loved: to the end, and beyond. We're not alone in life or in death. And when the face of God's truth is revealed in Christ Jesus, with all its terrible suffering and beauty, you can only say what our neighbors said on Ash Wednesday: Thank you.

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

The patch

By Todd Donatelli

The patch is about one inch by two inches. It covers the burn mark. I touch it at least once a week.

In an episode of The West Wing President Bartlet is standing in the nave of Washington National Cathedral having a vigorous argument with God. He has cleared the space in order to be alone and is smoking a cigarette while making his complaint to the Holy One. His long time, dutiful secretary has been killed by a drunk driver and he is in deep anger. As well he is wrestling with whether or not to run for a second term. He wants to run but is torn by a promise made to his wife not to. He is also torn by other political realities about which he is not pleased. As he is making his final pronouncement, he drops his cigarette on the Cathedral floor and rubs it out with his shoe.

I remember being engrossed by the scene. I greatly appreciated the honesty and integrity of this prayer clash with God. Too often these types of scenes are predictable and simplistic with some character wondering if God is present because of something they don’t like in their life. For President Bartlet there is no wondering if God exists, he is only too convinced of that. He is simply less than enamored with the way God’s world seems to function. He is only too ready to tell God what he sees as the shortcomings of this universe and God’s incompetence. It is honest. It is the kind of conversation I think a mature faith finds itself having on occasion.

It was only later on a trip to the National Cathedral that I learned the scene was not done is some studio but in the actual nave. As well the cigarette snubbing was not computer generated but done on the actual floor of the Cathedral. The show’s producers had not told the Cathedral of their plans to grind the cigarette on their floor. Suffice to say the Cathedral was less than enamored with the action. As I listened to the Cathedral folks speak of the scene, as I heard their anger about what they experienced as a defacing of the Cathedral, I thought to myself, au contraire, what a great opportunity to show that faith is not simply all sweetness and light. I felt the scene a great moment of evangelism; a scene exploring the hard side of faith, the moments when we run into the frailty and limitations of our world and our rage about it. I felt it actually made faith more compelling and less trivial. I remember thinking, these poor folks, they don’t get the grittiness, the earthiness of faith. Faith is not simply pristine and polished, it is dark and messy at times. Where better for folks to express themselves honestly to God than in our sanctuaries.

A few months later I was in my office at All Souls Cathedral. A call came to me from the reception desk. “The docent has just come to the office as there is a gentleman in the church shouting out loud and knocking things over.” I entered the Nave to find the gentleman had already left. I found booklets and some prayer books tossed about. As I walked up to the altar I found the cigarette butt. It had been mashed into the top of the altar burning a hole through the linen into the wood. The burn is right in the center on the side of the altar where the presider stands. For some moments I was the proverbial liberal who had been mugged. I was angry with what I was seeing. I was angry about this random act of vandalism.

About thirty seconds into my rage, I recalled my judgment of the folks at the National Cathedral. I began to laugh at myself. So, what’s it like to have someone come into your space and express themselves like this? I had to step back and listen to my earlier thoughts. Why had this gentleman chosen to come into the space and act this way? Was it simply that we were open? Was there something in him that needed to be in this space acting this way? Was God not big enough to take what this gentleman had to offer? Is God not big enough to take what we have to offer?

After gathering myself I wondered about the reaction of our altar guild members. The cloth cover over the fair linen was not an issue, but the fair linen under the cover is of some value. Their response was better than mine. “We’ll simply sow a patch on there. It will remind us of the gentleman. He is now a part of us.”

Each Sunday and at liturgies through the week we gather around this altar present with the patch. When I am presiding it is clearly visible speaking in concert with the words of the Eucharistic Prayer. I often find myself touching the patch. It has become a channel to mystery. It reminds me of the way we are all burned, torn apart, patched, and sown back together by God. It reminds me the point of relationship is not perfection or pristine appearance but the real experience of being fractured and restored. It reminds me that all my moments, the ones I would like displayed and the ones I would like hidden, are known and embraced by God, all our moments are Eucharistic: the broken becomes the food.

I don’t recommend handing out cigarettes in churches as a means of experiencing honesty in prayer. Yet the patch keeps me honest. It is a doorway.

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

The vow

By Adam Thomas

A couple of months before our recent wedding, my wife and I sat down with the Book of Common Prayer and turned to page 423. We read the header and the italicized rubrics, and then our eyes fell on those famous words: Dearly Beloved. “We’re really doing it?” she asked. “We’re really planning our wedding ceremony?”

“We really are,” I confirmed. We each held one side of the book as we leafed through the service, discussing music and readings and the people we might ask to participate. When we reached the end of the printed liturgy, she looked at me, confusion written on her face. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“When do I get say ‘I do?’ ”

I stifled a chuckle, remembering that each of the brides I had counseled before their weddings had asked me the same question. From the days when brides, my wife included, draped white pillowcases from their hair and walked down imaginary aisles lined with dolls and stuffed animals, they had each dreamed of saying those two small words. When they discovered that “I do” doesn’t appear in the beautiful Episcopal liturgy, I had ten-minute mutinies on my hands. “What do you mean I don’t get to say ‘I do?’ I’m out of here. We’ll get married at the VFW hall and my cousin will get a temporary license to officiate and he’ll let me say, ‘I do.’ Come on, dear, we’re leaving.”

After of few minutes, though, they calmed down enough to listen to reason. Now, I don’t relish the thought of destroying the dreams of brides everywhere, so I try to be as sensitive as possible. But when my own bride-to-be wondered aloud about the lack of those two little words, I didn’t really know what to say. My standard pastoral line wouldn’t work on her because I’m not her priest. So instead, I patted her on the back and resisted the urge to say, “There, there.”

A few weeks later, we had our first premarital counseling session, and the priest suggested that we memorize our vows rather than have the officiant feed them to us line by line. We decided to take on the challenge. Each day from then on, we practiced the vows. We spoke them aloud, prompting each other when we hesitated and gently correcting each other when we mixed up the phrases. Over the course of a few weeks, we learned the words by heart.

In the name of God, I, Adam, take you, Leah, to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.

These deep, rich words sunk into us as we learned them. They are now the bedrock of our marriage, and (I hope my wife agrees with me!) they are so much better than “I do.” These words make me wonder: how often in our lives do we vow something? We might give assurances that we’ll get the paperwork done or promise to pick someone up after school, but when don’t “vow” to do these things.

Vows don’t happen too often. Witnesses swear to tell the whole truth in court; government officials, new citizens, and military folks pledge to uphold the Constitution or obey officers. These are as close to “vows” as people make outside of the covenant of marriage. But the “solemn vow” of marriage is unique in society, and that makes it all the more special.

A vow is neither time nor place specific. It covers more than the limited scenario during which one might make a promise. Indeed, a vow is not promise, but the framework on which promises are hung. This is made explicit by the pairs of opposites that the couple speaks during the vows – better and worse, richer and poorer, sickness and health. The vow is the acknowledgment that life will never quite be the same as it was before that moment, no matter how long a couple might have been living together before marriage. When I vowed to take Leah to be my wife, I entered into a new type of existence, one in which I now (at long last) own the fact that I am not the most important person in my own life. I vowed to cherish her and to love her – come what may. I can think of no greater duty and no greater joy than to explore with her this new existence that our vow has opened to us.

This new existence begins with the vow – not two measly words – but a few sentences that changes lives. And the vow begins with a few more words that are more important the all the rest: “In the name of God…” The vow would mean nothing if God were not part of it. Just as the vow is the framework for all promises, God is the framework for the vow. The new existence into which we entered a few weeks ago at our wedding happens with God’s name at the top of the page. It couldn’t be otherwise.

I know that it has only been a few weeks, and we aren’t planning on having children for a while; but I wonder if our future daughter will put a pillowcase on her head and walk down an imaginary aisle? She probably will. But hopefully, we will teach her not to look forward to saying, “I do.” Rather, we will teach her to dream about the deep, rich words: “This is my solemn vow.”

The Rev. Adam Thomas, one of the first Millennials to be ordained priest, is the assistant to the rector at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Cohasset, Mass. He blogs at wherethewind.com. He is the author of the forthcoming book Digital Disciple, out this May from Abingdon Press.

You cannot serve two masters

By Bill Carroll

Over the past five years, I've presided at a dozen funerals. More often than not, perhaps because of the name of the parish I serve, families choose the Good Shepherd reading for the Gospel. But, even when they don’t, we tend to use the twenty-third Psalm. Like other Christians, we draw strength from the Lord our shepherd as we make that final journey across the Jordan. As we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Jesus guides, feeds, and protects us. We are reassured by the Psalmist’s vision of still waters and green pastures--and the divine abundance that makes our cups overflow. Many of us know these words by heart. What a powerful prayer they become in times of anxiety, grief, or fear.

In the forty ninth chapter of Isaiah, the prophet presents a similar vision of God shepherding Israel. To a people in exile, God offers sure and certain hope of return. But it's more than that: God promises Israel they will be a sign of God’s own faithfulness—that they will be given as a covenant to the people. Nevertheless, the heart of this prophecy concerns the shepherding of sheep. Speaking to a people who have suffered violence, captivity, and extreme want, God promises that

on all the bare heights shall be your pasture; you shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike you down, for he who has pity on you will lead you, and by springs of water will guide you.

In the Book of Revelation, the risen Christ makes similar promises to us. When God makes all things new, the slain Lamb will become a Shepherd and guide us “to the springs of the water of life.”

It's against this backdrop that we must hear the Gospel about the lilies of the field. When Jesus asks us not to worry about our life…when he asks us not to be anxious about what we should eat or drink or wear, he is not embracing a naive optimism. He's nothing like the prosperity preachers who invoke his name, certain that God will provide for the faithful as a reward for righteousness.

If the Bible is clear about anything, it's that God's People are seldom more righteous than their neighbors. God’s People have never lived up fully to our calling. Indeed, in times of calamity, the prophets are prone to interpret exile and defeat as signs of judgment, which begins with the household of God. Even in better times, whatever holiness we possess is the gift and work of God. God didn't choose Israel because they deserved it, but because they were poor and oppressed in the land of Egypt. God took wandering, landless tribes of Hebrew slaves by the hand and made of them a great nation.

When Jesus invites us to look at the birds of the air or consider the lilies of the field, he is inviting us to adopt the perspective of faith, which means radical trust in God and God's coming Kingdom. Jesus is inviting us, in other words, to shed our defenses, to rely more fully on God and each other, and to become once more the creatures we were made to be.

That brings us to the difficult saying in the Gospel. "No one can serve two masters," says Jesus, "for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth." Too often, I think, we read our own resentments into this Gospel. We make it sound like it's a sin to have money or be concerned about it.

The poor have no such illusions. They know better. So too do those working families who have taken to the streets in Madison and Columbus. These teachers, cops, and firefighters are members of the vanishing American middle class, fighting to keep from being pushed into poverty. Polls show that most Americans, whether or not they happen to like unions or agree with everything they do, do support their right to exist.

Many church traditions would agree that people have a natural right to assemble and organize to promote their interests. Pope John Paul II, for example, in words that came out of his experience in Poland, wrote that unions "are indeed a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights of working people in accordance with their individual professions."

The Episcopal Church has a similar teaching, though not all our members would agree. Meeting in Columbus in 2006, the General Convention reaffirmed the "right to organize and form unions as a means to securing adequate wages, benefits, and safety conditions for ALL workers" and encouraged "all levels of the church to be informed about, and act accordingly, when rights of workers to associate is being jeopardized." Voluntary poverty may be a powerful witness some of us undertake in a world rife with injustice and excess, but the poverty that most of us work so hard to avoid is contrary to the will of God.

What Jesus condemns is not wealth per se, but rather the injustice that lies at the root of so many fortunes. He also condemns the attitude that serves wealth as our master, rather than using it to meet human needs. This attitude springs from our denial of death. We want to have so much that death cannot touch us or those we love. We want to accumulate enough, so that our children will never want for anything and our achievements will live on beyond the grave. After a while, the pursuit becomes an all consuming passion, perhaps destroying even those good things that led us to want money in the first place.

The birds and the lilies have no guarantees. They all will die, and some will die before their time. But they are beautiful. And, by and large, they enjoy being themselves. Animals may know sorrow, but it is a natural sorrow—an intrinsic part of what it means to be God’s creatures. Animals love and praise their Maker by their very being. Humans alone know the sorrows of injustice and broken fellowship with God. We alone choose to be less than what God made us to be.

When we truly serve God (and we do it best by serving our neighbor), we can enter into that self-forgetfulness that characterizes children at play, before the violence, lust, and greed of adulthood set in and limit our imaginations. And in that harmonious alignment of our will with God's will, we can experience a deep and lasting peace. We can come to place our trust in God’s coming Kingdom.

This is a profound mercy, and it comes as a gift or not at all. According to Jesus, it will not be given to those who choose any master besides God. Indeed, the service of mammon--wealth personified as a kind of god--against which Jesus warns us so sternly today, has hardened many a heart and blinded many a would be follower of Christ to the just claims of our neighbor.

So seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and do not worry about the rest.

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.

Claiming our voices

By Lauren R. Stanley

Finally, finally, FINALLY, I went to see The King’s Speech.

I did not see this movie because of the cast – although Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush all do magnificent jobs.

I did not see it because it is nominated for awards everywhere.

I saw this movie because as a child, I, too, had a speech impediment, and from one line I head in an NPR interview with director Tom Hooper – the King yelling, in Westminster Abbey, “I have a voice!” – I knew this movie was telling part of my story as well.

Unlike King George VI, I did not stutter. I had a lisp. It was an awful lisp some days, which I had until I was in seventh grade, and for which I was made fun of by classmates and playmates and even my siblings at times.

When the NPR interview last November began, I wondered: “A movie about the King of England during World War II? He had a speech impediment? Really? I thought he lifted up his people with all kinds of speeches on the radio?” I knew that George VI wasn’t supposed to be king, that his brother David abdicated the throne to marry Wallis Simpson, and that as king, George inspired his people.

He had a stutter?

And then I heard that powerful line – “I have a voice!” – and shivers went down my spine and I thought, “I HAVE to see this movie!”

I had to see it because I remember thinking, in my childhood, when people where making fun of me, “Just because I lisp doesn’t mean I can’t speak. Listen to me!”

The lisp was the result of losing my two front teeth when I was 2. I was in a car accident, caused, I’m told, by a drunken driver who ran a red light and plowed into our station wagon. It was back in the early ‘60s, when no one thought to put their children in car seats, and seat belts weren’t a huge priority. I was, I’m told, standing on the back seat, clinging to the front bench seat and doing what 2-year-olds do: goofing off. When our car was hit, my mother told me, I flew into the nice metal strip that was on the back of all bench seats in station wagons in those days (don’t ask me why they were there … they just were).

Now these were my baby teeth that I lost; my adult teeth weren’t due in for years. We didn’t do implants in those days (again, don’t ask me why) or spacers. So what happened?

I spent the next four years without my front teeth. Which meant that I had problems whistling (this was huge in my family), and I developed a nice, pronounced lisp. It was so pronounced that at times, my stepfather would joke about taking me down to the woodshop in the basement and fitting me with wooden teeth, like George Washington supposedly had (I learned later that his teeth were made from hippopotamus ivory). That threat used to scare the bejesus out of me.

And then there was the jealousy factor: one of my older brothers got to sing All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth when he was in first grade. But he HAD his front teeth, so it had no meaning for him. Me? I was soooo excited about getting to sing that as well … until my front teeth finally came in just weeks before it was my turn, and the song lost its significance.

But the coming of new teeth did not end the lisp. It hung in there for years, until at last, my mother put me in speech therapy. I had to do “exercises” involving strings and small weights, and others pronouncing letters and sounds, and every day, I literally had think about my tongue and where it was positioned in my mouth, not just when I was speaking but also when I first woke up … when I was watching TV … when I was sitting in class. I had a little notebook and had to record, with smiley faces and frowns, where I found my tongue at any given moment. (To this day, I still catch myself checking my tongue placement.)

When my friends found out what I was doing, they made even more fun of me. I was mortified on the playground at school when I found some of them imitating my therapy exercises. I’ll never get over this, I used to think. Never!

But all those exercises paid off. Within a year, I was lisp-free. And when I conquered that lisp, I truly found my voice. I no longer had to worry about what I would sound like when I was speaking. Instead, I could concentrate on what I was saying.

Now, to be honest, I haven’t thought about the days of my lisp in years. I’m a public speaker now; anyone who knows me will tell you that I’ll preach the Gospel at the drop of a hat, and that getting me to shut up can be very hard indeed. For me, my lisp was a thing of the long-ago and forgotten past.

Until I heard that one line – that powerful, spine-tingling scream from the movie – and all of my frustrations and fears and tears came back, and I realized: I have to see this movie!

Not to relive those frustrations and fears and tears, but to see this message that yes, we DO each have a voice, and yes, our voices, individually and corporately, ARE important.

God gives each of us that voice, and God wants to hear it. God wants us to raise our voices to the heavens, to proclaim God’s love and glorify God’s name and strengthen and inspire God’s people and, yes, to tell our stories.

Even when we stutter.

Even when we lisp.

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is a priest of the Diocese of Virginia and church consultant who served for five years as an overseas missionary.

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