The modest charms of the petit bourgeois

By John Graham

American historian Christopher Lasch wrote that when critics accused Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil rights movement of being "petit bourgeois," many of King's followers responded, in essence, "Yes, and what's your point?"

The term petit bourgeois covers a multitude of sins and virtues. Among them is surely the desire to "do for myself," or "do for ourselves". King's movement neces- sarily addressed larger issues of law and policy, but mostly in the service of opening opportunities for individuals, families and communities to "do for themselves": address their own issues, provide for their own needs.

Recent events in Tunisia, Egypt and beyond reflect this petit bourgeois aspect of the U.S. civil rights movement. The young man whose self-immolation catalyzed the Tunisian uprising was just trying to start a small business, so he could care for himself and his family. Government enforcers made it so difficult to do so that he found his life unbearable. Many of the Egyptian protestors were young people who just wanted to live honorable, decent lives; the regime that governed them made this modest goal ridiculously hard to achieve.

All of this might put us in mind of that avowedly petit bourgeois apostle, Paul. In the third chapter of his second letter to the Thessalonians, he writes: "...we (Paul and his fellow-apostles) were not idle when we were with you, we did not eat any one's bread without paying, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you." He adds, here and in his second letter to the Corinthians, that we should not only work hard to avoid burdening others, but also so that we'll have something with which help those in need when the occasion arises.

Some great movements have very modest goals. Paul's mission, King's movement, the Tunisian and Egyptian insurgencies: each embraced revolutionary change, but eschewed grandiosity. For this reason, perhaps, they reach across the centuries, or half-way across the world, to touch and inspire us.

The Rev. John Graham is rector of Grace, Georgetown in Washington, D. C. This article was previously published in Washington Window.

Atlas shrugs. Jesus weeps.

By Richard E. Helmer

I find my recent ministry haunted by none other than Ayn Rand -- a name I barely knew until a few years ago when she came up in a pastoral conversation. Since then, I've learned she was an inspiration at some point in a number of our parishioners' life journeys. Something about her words captured youthful aspirations towards self-actualization and independence. When I at last started reading more about her, I realized in a profound sense that I did know her, or at least her ideas, from my own youthful ambitions as a concert pianist. Rand's perspectives captured in many ways my hyper self-absorbed, rugged, rationalizing pursuit for success in a competitive world where my own mettle and skill -- even in generating something as moving to the soul as beautiful music -- mattered more to me than anything or anyone else.

While our nation's body politic currently is filled with the stench of half-truths, shocking indifference, bureaucratic paralysis, and bitter hyper-partisanship, Rand, though long deceased, has suddenly appeared very close to the forefront of our discourse. I confess a pit forms in my stomach at the thought of paying to see the recently released movie of her wildly popular book, Atlas Shrugged. I can dine on most theatrical fare, but the idea of wallowing in hours’ worth of Rand's philosophy -- if it can rightly be called that -- gives me enormous pause. Objectivism, the heart of Rand's meandering corpus, eyes the world with a mirthless, cold stare. One of our parishioners, before she became a Christian as an adult, explored, amongst various philosophies and belief systems, Ayn Rand's works. Recently, she reflected to me that she once met a thorough-going objectivist who said there was no such thing as a truly happy objectivist. When material reality and our perception of it is all there is, when reason is without divinity and intuition and inspiration are marginalized, when other human beings and the wider world are means to whatever selfish (and Rand used the word in a technical sense) means we devise for ourselves, when life is a race against time to achieve for me and mine alone, what room is there for old fashioned happiness?

In a recent excoriating commentary in Newsweek , Jonathan Chait notes how the new, smart-as-a-whip congressional budget leader, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, openly brings to bear Rand's economic philosophy on his political ideals and budget proposal. It's easy at first to understand why Rand is the resurrected goddess of portions of the neo-conservative, libertarian, and tea party movements. Her strident support for laissez faire capitalism is matched only by the creeping social Darwinism of her attitudes. And her best-known protégé, Alan Greenspan, arguably is the most influential individual on the economic system we have inherited, more so even than any President or congressional leader.

But Donald Luskin in another recent editorial, this one in The Wall Street Journal, reflects how in other respects, Ayn Rand could be considered a liberal's liberal. She was a fiercely independent woman who, by refusing to live in the shadow of any man and by paving her own career path, could be considered among the first wave of mid-century feminists (though she apparently publicly criticized feminism, and her relationship with the movement is conflicted at best). She deplored racism, supported integration of public schools, and staunchly opposed the war in Vietnam. Luskin notes how Atlas Shrugged casts almost as many aspersions on Big Business as it does on the bogey-man of Big Government. Rand, he writes, ultimately offers us a celebration -- though that might not be the right word -- of the innate dignity of the individual.

But for many conservatives and liberals alike, Rand poses considerable moral problems. Her infamously open marriage and her hyper-sexualized characters betray something deeper than simply a political philosophy that fits whatever contemporary agenda we'd like to inflict on her memory, whether governmental spending cuts or individual rights. Ayn Rand was an atheist of a sort that meant that the fiercely individualistic "I" was ultimately self-referential. The element of her conflicted popular philosophy that is mysteriously endearing to the American grassroots psyche is the rugged, no-holds-barred lack of accountability, an amoral construct that is truly all about the individual me. It captures our cultural navel-gazing and our simultaneous fascination with singular supermen and superwomen: our tragic obsession with pseudo-heroic egoism that, if unchecked, risks landing us with a Donald Trump as Commander in Chief, CEO of America, Inc.

The well-heeled intellectual elites of our society have too long dismissively pooh-poohed Rand, much to all our peril. The egoism she promoted, our rampant egoism she reflected in her work, makes for a slavery to self that wreaks havoc on the fabric of our relationships. Integrity, Rand seems to assert, is only internal and individual. But of course it isn't, unless we are prepared to arrogantly chuck out the very heart of thousands of years of moral tradition that has weathered the storms of humanity in multiple cultures and spiritual traditions around the world. The current madness around Rand's legacy is our collective madness, a reflection of our shared humanity wrecked on the rocky shoals of our hyper-protected egos now laid waste by crises too many to number.

The poor, the invalid, the destitute, the homeless: they all threaten our egos by reflecting our interdependence and vulnerability. No wonder we want to shrug them off. But we are not supermen or superwomen, we are frail, yearning creatures capable at times together and individually of awesome works and horrific acts. And sometimes we are plain down and out. We could conceal this messy, fleshy reality from ourselves when times were good. Now they're not, and now we can't anymore.

I am struck, along with many, that ostensibly Christian politicians openly embrace the sometimes ankle-deep and oft-tangled philosophical constructs of someone who once remarked that the Church is little more than "the best kindergarten of communism possible." But I suppose Ayn Rand can be forgiven for this slight. The idea of living to serve others and something far greater than ourselves probably felt far too much like the autocratic threats to essential human dignity of the Soviet regime in her native Russia. And I suppose objectivist eyes cannot see anything but silliness in what I spend a lot of time these days doing: devotion to what a Rand fan I once met somewhat derisively called my "invisible best friend."

The real irony for me is wondering whether or not Rand would welcome the mercy of Christian forgiveness. John Piper, a Baptist pastor in Minneapolis offers a succinct and compelling simultaneous appreciation and critique of Ayn Rand's ideas, concluding that her Godless world view was most critically devoid of mercy: that foundational Christian virtue that understands an imminent and transcendent God loving us and all Creation into being and ultimately -- not because we deserve it but because we need it -- salvation. God shatters Rand's ideal of relationships built on objective transaction, the philosophy of life structured around the quid pro quo. The God of faith, beyond all human logic, needs nothing from us, and yet offers us everything, from our first breath to our last, and beyond.

Our world right now seems littered with odd new juxtapositions. I am caught in this season of Resurrection reflecting on Ayn Rand outside the tomb of Lazarus -- a strange juxtaposition indeed!

Martha notes that our body politic, like the body of her brother, stinks.

In reply, Ayn Rand's Atlas shrugs.

For his part, our Jesus weeps, and then calls forth the dead into life.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif., and a postulant in the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs at Caught by the Light.

Elizabeth Johnson, Reliable Guide

By Deirdre Good and Jane Redmont

Nearly twenty years ago, in 1992, the late Catherine Mowry LaCugna, a Catholic theologian still respected and cherished in the theological academy for her book on the Trinity, God With Us, wrote an essay in the Jesuit magazine America titled “Catholic Women as Ministers and Theologians.” LaCugna noted that a critical mass of Catholic women had emerged with doctorates in theology, scripture, ethics, and related fields, and were now teaching in colleges, universities, and seminaries. While this change in the composition of the theological profession is not unique to the Catholic Church --or to Christianity-- LaCugna pointed out that of all professionally trained women theologians in the U.S., by far the majority were Roman Catholic. “Further,” LaCugna added, “the field known as feminist theology has largely been the project of Catholic women.”

LaCugna was under no illusion that the church as a whole had changed, despite the fact that a significant number of clergy and lay ministers, in this country at least, had been educated by theologians who were women. While women in the varied ministries of the church (both volunteer and professional) already far outnumbered men, church leadership remained clerical and less than collaborative, women were still barred from ordination, and feminist theology was treated as a fad.

Today the Catholic Theological Society of America, formerly a male, clerical, and white preserve, is still largely Euro-American, though it has recently seen its first Asian-American, African American, and Latino presidents. It is, however, no longer the preserve of either men or priests. These days, women and lay men make up a large proportion of the society; half of the members of its Board of Directors are women, and a woman president is no longer a novelty. Elizabeth A. Johnson, a former president of the society, is one of many Catholic women theologians who do not shy away from explicit feminist critique of church and theology. She is also, by most accounts, a moderate.

Professor Johnson’s 2007 book Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God received renewed attention when a letter from the Committee on Doctrine of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, dated March 24, 2011 and published on March 30 issued a 21-page statement criticizing the book for “misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors” which they said “completely undermines the Gospel and the faith of those who believe in the Gospel.”

Being a Catholic theologian in trouble with authorities is nothing new. Many of the expert advisers at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) were formerly silenced scholars. They are now honored as fathers --they were all men-- of contemporary and theological studies, among them the French Dominican Yves Congar and his compatriot the Jesuit Henri de Lubac. Recent history is dappled with Latin American (Leonardo Boff, Ivone Gebara), Asian (Tissa Balasuriya), European (Jacques Dupuis) and North American (Charles Curran, Peter Phan, Roger Haight) targets of criticism by the hierarchy, often at the level of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Indeed, the CTSA’s highest honor --an award which Professor Johnson received in 2004-- is named for the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, who had his own troubles with the Vatican (he was silenced in 1954) but went on, a decade later, to draft the Second Vatican Council’s document on religious liberty.

Analysts of the nuances of Catholic hierarchical statements may note that a condemnation by the USCCB does not carry the weight of an intervention by the Vatican. But, as the CTSA Board of Directors pointed out in a statement praising Professor Johnson’s work, the bishops did not follow their own rules, which they and a committee of Catholic theologians had set up during a painstaking process lasting nine years, from 1980 to 1989. As both the CTSA and Professor Johnson herself asked in her own brief response, how is it that Professor Johnson was never asked to meet with the bishops to discuss her book?

Professor Johnson began her professional life after entering the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood in the late 1950s. Having first taught science at her order’s request, she has long been interested in science and ecology and their relationship to theology and spirituality. Her book Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit, reflects this, as does the chapter on science, creation, and ecology in Quest.

A Trinitarian through and through, Professor Johnson has focused in particularly eloquent ways on the Holy Spirit, present in history and in daily life, in several of her works. She articulates a christology based on wisdom categories, both accompanying and inaugurating a recent trend.

In a 2008 interview with Tom Fox, former editor and publisher of the independent weekly National Catholic Reporter, Professor Johnson said “I just wanted a book out there, a simple book that people could pick up and read and munch on and feast on and have a banquet… in the theology of God.” Episcopal clergy of the Diocese of New York know the book since Bishop Mark Sisk gave them all a copy of it. It was his “innovative choice” for 2009, selected because it offered “a valuable reflection and overview of modern theological trends.”

Quest for the Living God is a creative venture, exploring ways in which Christians, as theologians of the pew and the street and as the people of God in their faith of many cultures and voices have been wrestling with, naming, and celebrating the presence of God in the world.

The book seeks to write “a new chapter in an ancient story,” as the first chapter indicates. Quest for the Living God begins with a warning: ancient cartographers marked the limit of known worlds by writing “Here be dragons" in empty space at the map's edge. “There is something frightening about moving into the unknown, which might harm or devour us,” Johnson writes. She invites her readers “to test where the limits of their own ideas about God might be” and to risk a journey through dragon territory to new places “already discovered to be life-giving and true by others in the church.”

Professor Johnson sets up three ground rules to equip readers for the journey: first, the recognition that God's reality is an ineffable, incomprehensible mystery. God has drawn near in Jesus Christ “but even there the living God remains unutterable mystery…” Consequently, the second ground rule is that no expression of God can be taken literally. “We are always naming toward God, using good, true and beautiful fragments” of our worldly experiences to “point to the infinite mystery who dwells within and embraces the world but always exceeds our grasp.” Every word we speak about God is metaphorical or analogical, namely, that particular notion and more besides. From this, it follows, since no single name is ever sufficient, we need many names for God, each adding to the richness. These three precepts are rooted in the biblical warning against idols. They “free our imaginations from standard cultural models of the divine, the paltry heritage of modern theism.”

In chapters that follow, Professor Johnson explores God-talk emerging out of the crises of human history. How can we speak of God amid human suffering, especially the massive suffering and evil of the last century with its genocides, world wars, nuclear arms race, struggle to emerge from colonialism, and ecological destruction? How can we speak of God in a Christian way --a way advocating Christ’s uniqueness-- in a world of many religious and wisdom paths? Professor Johnson probes insights that God who suffers, who liberates, who acts “womanish” in “a symphony of symbols,” who breaks chains of racism and accompanies the poor and colonized and inspires them to celebrate fiesta, a God who is generous beyond our imagining in a world of plural religious experience and belonging, is also the Creator Spirit in an evolving world. She concludes in the Trinitarian God of love as beyond us, as with us in suffering, and as the pervading ways of the Spirit.

By all accounts (and our professional and personal experiences confirm this) Professor Johnson is a thorough scholar, a heartfelt Catholic, a determined and clear-spoken feminist, and a beloved teacher who is also a warm and witty public speaker. Joseph McShane, S.J., president of Fordham University, where Beth Johnson is Distinguished Professor of Theology, spoke swiftly and clearly in her defense, as did the Board of the CTSA.

Quest for the Living God is a simple, accessible book with no footnotes. Its wisdom is to examine contemporary insights about God fearlessly and generously so as to detect broader and deeper religious truths. An instructor of Professor Good’s acquaintance who used it in an introductory theology course scheduled it for the end of the quarter, when participants are exploring the future of images of God and the sacred. She found the book highly accessible theologically to an array of students. The writing style presents evocative images and metaphors with which students, both young and older, can play, pray, and engage. The bibliography at the end of each chapter provides resources for further investigation. The professor concludes that the students appreciated this book because it touches on vital concerns that haunt them and about which they wonder: it made theology much more real to them.

Professor Johnson is a firm believer in the church’s mission of reconciliation. At a 2008 gathering of leaders of Catholic religious orders of women and men, many of whom feel anger at the institutional church, Professor Johnson, in a keynote address, invited the assembly to focus on the Holy Spirit’s power to build community in the church and to foster forgiveness. She also minced no words in naming the situation that angers many of her sisters and brothers: “We in this Catholic church continue to live with patriarchal values that, by any objective measure, relegate women to second-class status governed by male-dominated structure, law, and ritual.”

Forgiveness, Professor Johnson said, “does not mean condoning harmful actions, or ceasing to criticize and resist them, but it does mean tapping into a wellspring of compassion that encompasses the hurt and sucks the venom out, so we can go forward making a positive contribution, without hatred.”

Why the condemnation of this particular book? Why now? Professor Johnson has written far heftier works for two full decades. Her book She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (1992), won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award and in many ways was and is far more radical than Quest for the Living God. Professor Redmont remembers wondering at the time why the book did not get Professor Johnson in trouble and answering her own question in two ways: 1) The book, which places in dialogue feminist and classical Christian wisdom, was so exquisitely researched, so deeply rooted in scriptural and patristic study, so beautifully argued and written, that it was virtually impossible to shoot scholarly or doctrinal holes through it. 2) The bishops had not and would not read it, both because of its sophistication and because Professor Johnson was, after all, a woman. Most women theologians have more education in theology than most of the U.S. bishops.

Which brings us to the level of theological sophistication of the Catholic laity, including (for canonically they are lay persons) Catholic sisters. The bishops’ stated concern about Quest for the Living God is that as a book conceived to be popular, it is being widely read and used in undergraduate college courses and that it is leading the faithful astray. Have the faithful no intellectual capacity to discern or no capacity to be taught by their professors and clergy? As the French would say, Un peu de respect! (A little respect, please.) In a follow-up statement issued during Holy Week, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, carefully delineates in doctrinal language the respective roles of bishops and theologians but inserts a sports metaphor. “In any sporting match, football, tennis, baseball, there are referees and umpires. The game can proceed with the supervision of a referee. In a tennis match, it is not the player who calls the ball ‘out of bounds’ but the referee. The player may object that it was not his or her intention to hit the ball out of bounds. He or she may even question whether the ball is out of bounds. But it is the referee who must make the call.”

Not surprisingly, sales of Quest for the Living God have, since the issuing of the original condemnation, shot up to the top of the Amazon.com sales list and in direct sales from Professor Johnson’s publisher, Continuum.

Even as we share the outrage of our Roman Catholic theological colleagues, we should not limit our ecumenical solidarity to complaints about Professor Johnson’s treatment by hierarchs who have tried --unsuccessfully so far-- to sully her good name and her credentials as a Catholic theologian. Indeed, we would do well to exercise our ecumenical muscles by learning from Professor Johnson’s theology.

As we celebrate the central mysteries of the Christian year and continue through the season of Resurrection, Professor Johnson’s critiques and constructive suggestions are well worth pondering, not only in Quest for the Living God but in all her works. Professor Johnson began her erudite, thoughtful, and faith-filled book She Who Is with thoughts that apply not only to Roman Catholics but equally to us as Episcopalians. “Inherited Christian speech about God,” she writes, “has developed within a framework that does not prize the unique and equal humanity of women, and bears the mark of this partiality and dominance.” How do we, in our theology and in our common prayer, speak of God and how can we struggle poetically and faithfully to speak of God rightly?

“To even the casual observer,” Professor Johnson writes, “it is obvious that the Christian community ordinarily speaks about God on the model of the ruling male human being. Both the images that are used and the concepts accompanying them reflect the experience of men in charge within a patriarchal system.” Professor Johnson continues: “The difficulty does not lie in the fact that male metaphors are used, for men too are made in the image of God and may suitably serve as finite beginning points for reference to God. Rather, the problem consists in the fact that these male terms are used exclusively, literally, and patriarchally.”

We strongly urge that Christians, catholic and reformed, read and discuss Professor Johnson’s books. Let her teach us. We have much to learn from her.

For further reading:

- Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology (1990)

- She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (1992)
Tenth anniversary edition with new Preface, 2002.

- Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit (1993)

- Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints (1998)

- Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (2003)

- Dangerous Memories: A Mosaic of Mary in Scripture (2004)

- Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (2007)

- Elizabeth A. Johnson is also editor of The Church Women Want: Catholic Women in Dialogue, a book of proceedings of a 2002 symposium, and the author of numerous journal articles.

Deirdre Good is Professor of New Testament at the General Theological Seminary. Her latest book is Studying the New Testament: A Fortress Introduction with Bruce Chilton (Fortress Press 2010). Jane Carol Redmont teaches religious studies and theology at Guilford College and is the author of Generous Lives: American Catholic Women Today (1992) and When in Doubt, Sing: Prayer in Daily Life (1999, pbk 2008). She will be presenting a paper on an ecumenical panel inspired by Elizabeth Johnson’s Friends of God and Prophets at the June meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

On making too much of vows II

This is the second of a two-part article. Daily Episcopalian will return on Monday.

By Donald Schell

My alarm goes off at 5 or 5:30 weekday mornings. I get up quickly to leave my wife sleeping and go downstairs to make us breakfast before our prayers together. Seeing her sleeping as I leave our room, my thoughts are not a rehearsal of promises made long ago. I offer the briefest prayer, “Thank you, Jesus,” and cherish a first moment of wonder at love.

The promises we make at a wedding mark a beginning for faithful love, but the path forward is something else. Walking forward from promise comes in finding the grateful freedom of a path chosen newly each day. That freedom feels truer and readier to suffer if need be than trying to hang tightly to, ‘I gave my word so it’s settled.’

Full disclosure – a long time ago, for a handful of years I tried walking that path the other way, dealing with a mutual failure, confusion, not knowing each other in a first marriage that became, for both of us in its way, a dogged attempt to hang on to the vows.

So when I said wedding vows to Ellen thirty-six years ago, it was my second time saying them. I leaned hard on my own spiritual director and a priest mentor for prayer and counsel to sort out how I could make the promises again. It was additionally heavy in 1975 because I was already ordained. I know only one priest who was divorced and remembered. Remember patterning our lives after Christ? Today the number clergy we know who are divorced and remarried or divorced and now in a same-sex partnership feels comparable to the once married or celibate. But in 1975, at least one good clergy friend and one very close lay friend told me they could not be present to witness my second speaking of those vows because my first marriage had ended in divorce. The friendships weathered that absence - both of them are glad that Ellen’s my wife.

Now I love hearing those vows again at a wedding. It gives me deep pleasure to wonder and hope and dare along with a couple speaking those words to each other and feeling that they mean everything they’re saying even though they know they can’t know what such unreserved commitment will mean for them. I love hearing them, love that moment of beginning, but feel no desire to speak those words to renew the moment.

When Ellen and I got to twenty-five years we threw a bit party and invited family and friends, but we didn’t renew our vows; we asked a good priest friend to pray the nuptial blessing over us again and welcomed the hearty toast of family and friends. To me vows feel like a workable, holy beginning, but we’d traveled on. In time the path becomes clearer and holier even than the wonder of its beginning. Living in faithfulness is all discernment and as those vows come close to saying, it’s full of unknowing.

In the film Of Gods and Men, we watch two terrified monks veer toward losing their faith as they’re itching to flee back to safety in France. Grace overtakes them as they find their old love.

I have a small taste of the clarity of such love emerging for the Trappists in the film when I open my eyes to the wonder of someone I know so well and am still getting to know a third of a century later. I thank God for morning light and another day we can share. So I’m remembering and hoping in the life together the vows launched, but not thinking of the vows.

No, I’m not saying the promises we made don’t matter. They’re pointing somewhere, or better, they’re pointing toward someone. At this Eastertide, I want to come stand by Peter and have Jesus challenge and question me too. Rumi supplies the music as Jesus asks me, you, and us again, ‘Do you love me?’

“Come, come whoever you are, worshiper, wanderer, lover of leaving, ours is not a caravan of despair. Though you have broken your vows as thousand times, come, come again, come.”

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

On making too much of vows I

This is the first of a two-part article.

By Donald Schell

It feels like a new Episcopal church norm or standard may be emerging, making an Easter Vigil part of our Holy Week. I like that. For more than twenty-five years I was pastor of a congregation where the Saturday night Vigil was our biggest liturgy of the whole year and our only Easter celebration. Easter Day we had a picnic.

But often the rediscovery of the vigil brings with it yet another “Renewal of our Baptismal Covenant.” I’m increasingly uneasy with our attachment to promise making and promise renewing – renewals of baptism covenant, renewals of ordination vows for clergy in Holy Week, anniversary renewals of wedding vows. The passion narratives in Holy Week and the Easter appearances of the Risen Jesus sharpen my worry. Each of the four Gospels tells catastrophic story of promise making and promise breaking - Peter’s vehement promise to stand by Jesus when everyone else abandons him.

The oldest version of Peter’s promise making in Mark’s Gospel has him insisting to Jesus, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” Jesus replies with the haunting prophecy that before the cock begins its pre-dawn crowing Peter will have denied him three times that very night. Resurrection stories in all four gospels attend in some way to Jesus’ mending the fracture of betrayal, folding Peter back into the community. Often the New Testament lists Peter as the first witness to the resurrection, displacing the story of Mary Magdalene encounter with the risen Jesus, probably for the sake of telling the story to emphasize the restoration of Peter the to the place among the twelve that his betrayal might seem to have lost him.

To my mind John’s Gospel offers the loveliest of these reconciliation stories by the lakeside in Galilee, almost at the very end of the Gospel. Jesus has appeared, shared breakfast with the disciples, and then takes Peter aside and three times (to match the three denials) asks, “do you love me more than these?” and “Do you love me?” Peter, insistent as ever, keeps saying, “Lord, you know I love you.” And each time to this insistence, Jesus replies, “feed my sheep” or “feed my lambs.” Loving expressed in doing seems to trump promise making.

Promise making has an odd history in the church’s liturgical evolution. Apparently monastic vows were the first church-acknowledged promises. Wedding vows come some centuries later. The earliest Christian wedding practice followed Judaism, where the sacramental act wasn’t husband and wife making promises, but the priest (or rabbi) praying on behalf of the family and assembly to ask God’s blessing on the couple. Apparently the most ancient ordination rites also were blessings prayed by the bishop without the person who was being ordained offering vows. We certainly know of a number of sainted priests and bishops who tried to refuse ordination in this period and in the end were forcibly ordained against their will – doesn’t sound much like promises were made there. And the baptismal covenant that we’re often repeating now was an addition to baptism with the last round of Prayer Book revision. Whenever I hear someone talking about ‘my baptismal covenant’ or ‘our baptismal covenant,’ I remember Martin Luther’s refuge in times of darkest depression feeling himself besieged by Satan himself (like the line in “A Mighty Fortress,” “and though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us”). Luther’s steady response to facing his demons was to remind himself, “I have been baptized.” He didn’t find direction or comfort in his own promise but in the church’s faithful act and God’s faithfulness.

Actually, of course, most Episcopalians over the age of about thirty-five were baptized without any covenant being uttered, not even on their behalf as babies. It was the revisions leading to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer that reframed the apparent working of the sacrament around an extended vowing.

So what did these sacraments look like before each, in succeeding centuries was reframed with vows?

Jewish style, they were blessings with a physical, enacted or embodied affirmation:

-a blessing over the water and a sacramental gesture of water and the sign of a cross,
- a blessing over the ordinand and a sacramental gesture of laying on of hands,
- a blessing over the couple and a sacramental gesture of a kiss and exchange of gifts or rings.

I’m not against vowing or promising. I’m often deeply moved to hear a couple make this symmetrical promise each to the other in turn:

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

In fact I suspect that in the fifteen hundred year history of vow-creep that’s reshaped our ancient sacraments that the marriage vow is the most profound and spacious – it’s simple as unreserved, faithful love until death no matter what.

Baptismal vows and ordination vows for the orders of bishop, deacon and priest all go beyond simplicity to offer a fuller picture of the commitment the candidate is making. It’s not a bad picture they make. All these other vows draw appropriately on the Bible, on tradition, and on experience to sketch that picture, but somehow in the end what more they offer seems less than the stark, lean vows of a wedding.

This time of year with Holy Week, musing about ordination vows and baptismal covenant, I was haunted by the French film, Of Gods and Men, the Trappist monks facing what would be their martyrdom in Algeria. The film retells a real event of 1996 from the accounts of the two surviving brothers of the community, the journals of the martyrs, and the stories of their friends and neighbors in the Muslim village alongside the monastery. Nowhere in the painful, confusing time of choosing to stay and face possible death do the brothers remind one another of their ordination vows.

“Peter, do you love me?” “Feed my sheep.”

It’s love that drives them, not keeping their word. Love for Christ, for the brothers in their community, for their Muslim friends in the village. And they don’t stay in order to be martyred, but simply because they come to see staying and facing danger with each other and their neighbors as the only reflection of their love that makes sense.

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

Is the Episcopal Church going the way of the Grange?

By George Clifford

Ample evidence of the continuing numerical decline in The Episcopal Church (TEC) is widely available. The recent report, Episcopal Congregations Overview: Findings from the 2010 Faith Communities Today Survey, provides the latest documentation:

• Over half (52%) of all Episcopal congregations are in communities of 50,000 or fewer people and another 8% are in rural areas, a cause for concern given the steadily increasing urbanization of the U.S. population.
• The median age of Episcopalians is 57; fewer and fewer young people identify with TEC.
• Unless the median age drops significantly (or life expectancy increases very rapidly!), half of all Episcopalians will die in the next 18 years.
• Only 3.1% of Episcopal congregations have an average Sunday attendance of 351 or greater; these large congregations are more likely to grow than are smaller ones.

The picture is deeply depressing for people who value TEC. Median attendance in Episcopal congregations was 66 in 2009, 72 in 2006, and 77 in 2003 (Episcopal Café: Numbers worth watching). If that rate of decline continues (i.e., median attendance declining by 5 people every 3 years), in 15 years the median attendance will be 31 and in 30 years attendance will average just 6 people on a Sunday per congregation.

Having once taught college statistics, I know that projecting a linear decline over the next 30 years based on three data points relies upon an indefensible methodology. However, the projection underscores the dire future confronting TEC. Although some Episcopal congregations are growing, and a handful of dioceses have experienced some growth, the preponderance of the evidence clearly points to the inevitability of continuing denominational decline if not demise.

This decline constitutes an existential threat to TEC. Unless TEC reverses the decline, TEC will soon become a remnant numbering in the tens of thousands. When that happens, the media will not care, and few non-Episcopalians will even notice, what the Episcopal Church says or does. TEC will no longer be a vital incarnation of God's love in Christ. Instead, TEC will have gone from being the established church in several eighteenth century American colonies and states to being a twenty-first century anachronism.

In my hometown, the Grange has made a similar transition. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Grange was a vibrant, influential organization that enriched the lives of its members and celebrated, supported, and defended an agrarian lifestyle and economy. Today, that agrarian economy and its associated lifestyle are long gone. The Grange Hall sits empty, maintained by a handful of elderly members who find satisfaction in each other’s companionship and in caring for the building.

Although I hope that no Episcopalian wants such a future for TEC, the denomination’s current trajectory seems inexorably headed toward an elderly and (hopefully!) companionable remnant preserving underutilized buildings as monuments to once vital ministries and missions.

Contrary to some pessimists, I do not believe that the current trajectory and prospective fate of TEC are irreversible. Change is possible. Even as a small rudder can steer a mighty ship, so can visionary leadership steer an organization. Adding the momentum of committed people and well-utilized resources to that vision will accelerate the speed of organizational transformation.

Visionary leadership begins with a simple question: What is our agenda? That question integrates vision (who we are) and mission (what we do) into an action-oriented proposition. An agenda that addresses the root causes of numerical decline may enable TEC to alter course. An agenda that fails to address fifty years of relentless numerical decline in TEC is tantamount to acceding to the denomination’s passing from influence and presence on the American scene.

Current TEC agenda items include developing rites for blessing same sex relationships, publishing a new hymnal, restoring Church buildings and ministries in Haiti and Japan in the wake of disasters, and resolving a host of governance issues, not the least of which is the proposed Anglican Covenant. Those are important issues. Some of them evoke passionate responses; some of them, such as the rite for blessing same sex relationships, are long overdue. As important as any of those issues is, or others that I neglected to mention, none represents or identifies an existential threat to TEC. None of those issues, individually or collectively, will cause the demise, much less the renewal, of TEC.

What should be our agenda?

Better use of our resources is an obvious agenda item if TEC is to reverse its numerical decline. Demographic analysis quickly reveals that TEC has resource distribution problems. A majority of TEC congregations (53%) were founded before 1901. Consequently, population shifts have left many congregations with underutilized facilities in a location where the congregation is unlikely to grow. Apart from staff support, most congregations (remember the median attendance is just 66 people!) expend the largest portion of their resources on maintaining their physical facilities (19-36% of the budget, varying indirectly with average attendance – the larger the attendance, the smaller the percentage spent on facilities). Staff support represents the largest set of expenditures, averaging about 50% of a congregation’s budget. The 17% of congregations with average attendance of 1-25 persons on a Sunday, the 36% of congregations with average attendance of 26-50, and the 66% of congregations with average attendance of 51-100 that now have full-time clergy do not fully utilize this costly resource. Similarly, a disproportionate share of diocesan resources supports a small congregation (episcopal visits, deployment issues, etc.).

From an objective, statistical perspective the analysis proceeds easily. Identify congregations that waste resources based on average Sunday attendance. Then find and implement a creative alternative. Some congregations could merge, with either another TEC congregation or a congregation with whom TEC has intercommunion. Other TEC congregations could yoke together, establishing team ministries, as is increasingly happening in the Church of England. In both cases, congregations could cede surplus assets to the diocese and utilize revenues, previously expended on building maintenance and staff support, to fund mission. Dioceses, serving fewer congregations, would also have more resources for mission.

However, these are not new ideas; TEC has rarely implemented any of these ideas. The real agenda in TEC is not maximizing our participation in God's transformative activity. The real agenda, though generally unspoken and unacknowledged, is self and local congregation. Institutional and personal inertia, emotional attachments to buildings, and Churchmanship modeled on the eighteenth and nineteenth century Church of England all represent substantial barriers to change. As readily apparent from meeting agendas and budgets, congregations and their members invest themselves and their resources more in building maintenance than mission; TEC and dioceses similarly invest themselves more in institutional maintenance than mission.

I am not arguing, à la Rick Warren and The Purpose Drive Life, that the Church’s purpose is evangelism. I am passionate about making a difference in the world. I believe that the Church should incarnate God's love for the world, modeling in community the abundant new life that God wants people to enjoy and offering living water, literally and figuratively, to a world dying of thirst. TEC talks a great deal about this or a similar vision for itself. Yet we fail to incarnate that vision. In truth, we are more about maintaining the status quo than about transforming the world. A dying church unavoidably sends the opposite message. A dying church dissipates its precious resources in a losing campaign to maintain an increasingly lifeless institution.

Yet, we in TEC have some cause for hope. The Episcopal congregations most likely to have experienced numerical growth in the past decade are large and very liberal congregations, according to the 2010 Faith Communities Today Survey. A Church committed to ongoing renewal, a Church that seeks to live ever more fully into love for God and others, and a Church that recognizes that theology, worship, and resources are but earthen vessels is a Church that will become an increasingly vibrant and alive incarnation of the body of Christ. I want this future, this agenda, for TEC. I believe God wants this future, this agenda, for TEC.

George Clifford, a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina. He 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 (http://blog.ethicalmusings.com/).

Read, mark, learn...

By W. Christopher Evans

It is often remarked by insiders and outsiders alike that Anglican Christianity, among all traditions of Christianity, seems distinctly shaped by Benedictine monastic traditions.[1] This is not a surprise in light of how deeply Benedictine traditions shaped Isles[2] practices and life onward from the mission sent by St. Gregory the Great of Rome as led by St. Augustine of Canterbury up to our series of reformations. And precisely in the central piece of work arising in and surviving through our reformations, The Book of Common Prayer, this Benedictine influence remains with us today and shapes us if we dare take it up and pray.

It has often been remarked that Thomas Cranmer intended to remake the Isles peoples into a vast monastery. I think this romantic notion gets Cranmer’s intent backwards. Rather our Prayer Book reforms the basic pieces of monastic piety and life precisely because in the first instance these matters should concern all Christians, not just monastics: Daily prayer and a life lived toward God and for neighbor in all the cares of daily and national life, including disputes over gentry seizures of commons and political intrigues at court. In other words, he intends to remake the Isles peoples into more well-formed and single-hearted, that is, praising Christians at work, in their home, and in their everyday community. It is within this generous framework that the particular dedications of our monastics should be placed, not vice versa.

In some ways then, Anglicanism is a version of Benedictine tradition for all comers, for all persons, for the sake of our social worlds, not away from or despite these. That is, ours is a common praying and communal discipleship tradition that takes seriously the corporate “I” or persons-as-persons-in-community-participating-in-the Life of Three Persons One as well as God’s care for each unique person as a person with a particular makeup and needs and mission and ministries all within the container of God’s faithfulness to us and our responses of trust in Who God shows Godself to be in Jesus Christ. And we take this service into everyday life. As Br. Anselm Grün observes,

God is present to us as one who speaks to us. The initiative comes from God….God speaks to us before we have asked him. He speaks to us in the words of Scripture. Benedict places the words of Scripture in God’s lips in such a way that they are personally addressed to us. This is no abstract word of God, but a word in which God speaks to me now, concretely, in my present situation….God’s presence is not something that is always the same; it is not like an impersonal space that surrounds us. Instead, it is like a trusted person who addresses us in ever new ways. Of course, for Benedict, God is also the Spirit who dwells within us and is ever-present to us. But we do not melt into God. We are not dissolved in God. Instead, God always approaches us as a partner, as someone who challenges us. Depending on the situation and the word with which God addresses us, God always encounters us in a new and often surprising way. When we sit silently, alone in our room, we find God in the words “Here I am” differently than when we recall those words in the midst of a quarrel with another person. But we never experience God as a vague atmosphere of the divine; we encounter God always as a person who confronts and challenges us. God wants to change us through the word….Nowadays we are in danger of avoiding this stance of being addressed….the word of God…addresses me, touches me, calls me into question, wounds and judges me, but also heals and frees me.[3]
Our Prayer Book itself forms the core of a shared or common rule of life,[4] a way of ordering our lives together as instructions on living out of God’s gospel to us in Jesus Christ as gospel responses in our own lives through thanksgiving and praise in all things—singing, praying, working, recreating, loving, living, struggling both with ourselves in examination and with others in solidarity for shaping a world more transparent to and reflective of the heavenly and earthly chorus: Holy, holy, holy, God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Our Prayer Book is our version of Eat, Pray, Love. The Prayer Book makes Holy Baptism the center and ground of our always reality: We are marked as Christ’s own forever in “indissoluble bond” (BCP, 298). The round of daily prayers and Sunday Holy Communion shares the same core as that of The Rule of Saint Benedict and is intended to turn us again and again to God who chooses us in the baptismal font and nourishes us for the race as disciples, as witnesses to and bearers of God’s gospel, God’s creative, redemptive, and sustaining eternal and incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, and the implications this Word has for the ordering of our lives together, not just as Christians, but as human beings—lives reoriented to thanksgiving and praise in all things, that is, the Kingdom, the Kin-dom, the Reign of God among us here and now with a hope of our very messed up lives and social worlds becoming more proximate. This implies that the Word, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are ever at work among us as Church and in the life of our social worlds. We pray so.

Our beloved Lutheran kin have somewhat of an allergy to anything smacking of rules, so I have taken to coining a phrase, “patterned gospel responses,” that I think reflects an Anglican concern for a habit-forming life of discipleship. This phrase acknowledges also the Lutheran concern for the gospel we must always keep before us and that our lives are lives of response. Framed within our central rites, we find patterned gospel responses or the ordering of Church life in various ministries to the Body such as ordination and of our lives as gospellers flung far and wide in our ministries in and to and with and within our social worlds in such things as marriage and death and prayer in trials and tribulations as we work for a more proximate peace and justice of Christ among us here and now on earth. And as we regularly confess and profess, a peace and justice, that finally is God’s work and completing.

Intended primarily for parochial use, the Prayer Book has often been a beloved companion of Anglican Christians. I have several copies, a sign of our own age, but one tatty copy of poor binding is still my preferred praying companion even in the age of cool iPhone apps and fine internet sites.[5] In our time partially because of a very positive development, the recovery of regular Sunday Eucharist, the Offices have become increasingly a householder practice and the canonical discipline of the ordained. Never private prayer, the Church’s public, and yes, personal prayer—remembering we are persons-in-community-participating in the Life of the Persons Three —may require adaptation when used by householders depending on one’s circumstances—maybe only one lesson morning and evening, for example. Lectio divina fits very nicely within the framework of the two principle Offices, Morning and Evening Prayer following the lesson: Silence may be kept after each Reading.[6]

While lectio divina has often been characterized as holy or spiritual reading, I would characterize lectio in words similar to those of Dr. Martha Stortz, “The Bible reads us.”[7] God reads us and does so by and through the words of Scripture and sometimes our theologians besides.[8] Lectio divina is a way of strengthening us in the race by making room for to God read us and speak to us how it is each of us might best serve God’s Reign in our life this very day. In classic Benedictine tradition, there are four moments: Lectio (Read), Meditatio (Meditate), Oratio (Pray), and Contemplatio (Contemplate). What I offer here unfolds lectio in eight steps arising from a Cranmerian Collect in The Book of Common Prayer. The Eight moments are simply an expansion on the four. All that would happen within the four is simply given more distinction in the Eight.

Eight Moments in God’s Reading of Each of Us

Hear

We pray:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.[9]

We chose a scripture passage. I usually do this within the framework of Morning or Evening Prayer, so I go with a text from the Daily Office Lectionary (BCP, pp. 933-1001). Currently we’re in Year One, Week of Lent 5 (p. 956).

The scripture passage is then read aloud slowly and reflectively.[10] We simply listen to the word as it is proclaimed to each of us, and God’s Voice in its being spoken or sung comes to and wells up within you, me, each of us by the power of the Holy Spirit. At least one minute of silence follows.

Read

The scripture passage is read aloud again slowly and reflectively. We now listen for what the still small voice of God is speaking to each of us personally through a particular word, an image, a phrase, an action, a person. In other words, God reads us. At least one minute of silence follows

Mark

The scripture passage is read aloud again slowly and reflectively. We deepen in the resonance God creates in our being by that word, image, phrase, action, person. We are invited as we feel comfortable to share aloud or to write down the word, image, phrase given to us. A journal is a good place to keep these words God gives to you.

Learn

We have a conversation with God. That is, we pray. We lift up our own joys and concerns, delights and sufferings. We ask God to show us what this word, phrase, image, action, phrase may be calling us to do in our own life this very day.

Inwardly Digest

We “chew” on the word, image, phrase, action, person like cattle or sheep might digest grass. In other words, we wrestle with God’s word to us and with what this word means for our life this very day.

Embrace

We simply and gently rest in God who first and always embraces us, trusting that God will give us the grace needed for this day to do what God is calling us to do. If we choose, we may use the word God has given us for today as a mantra or koan for focus or for setting aside distracting thoughts when they arise. Or we may use our regular prayer word if we have one for meditation.

Hold Fast

Having rested in God who first and always embraces us, we ready ourselves to embrace others (our neighbors, friends and enemies alike), holding fast to the love of God in Christ in all that we do this day, and especially in doing the word God has given to each of us. We remind ourselves of God’s promises to us to be with us this day and always no matter what by making the Sign of the Cross and praying The Lord’s Prayer. At the close of the day, we will confess we cannot do it ourselves and we need God to do anything good.

Live

We go forth, with God’s word to each of us, into all that makes up our daily lives, our social worlds, living out of the Eighth moment, the Eighth Day, the ever-present power and presence and promise of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has made us a new creation in Holy Baptism and gives to us eternal life to live here and now. In all that we encounter this day, we turn to the word God has given us for strength and solace, and so, live.

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

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Larger than life, or not

By Marshall Scott

Once again, there they were, flanking the stage, huge and bright.

I was at a conference, a gathering of almost 800 chaplains from almost every tradition you might imagine. Many of our meetings and workshops were small – usually fewer than fifty. However, for plenary lectures and banquet meals we were all gathered in a large hall. And in the hall, on either side of the platform, hung two large screens. Indeed, the hall was long enough that a third screen was hung for the back third of the room. Some of the lectures and events included slides or films, and the screens allowed us to see them. However, most of the time projected onto the screens was the image of the speaker.

At first, I found myself thinking the screens provided a clear view of the speaker, and a sense of immediacy, even intimacy. I could remember conferences in years gone by, before the screens were there. To sit in the back of the room was to see almost nothing of the speaker. Oh, you could see that there was a person at the podium, and even some details of a face; but you were conscious of the distance, and of how little you could actually see.

With the screens you saw, if not everything, then great detail. It was not exactly like sitting across the table from the speaker, but certainly in the same, much smaller room. Sure, there were two cameras, and periodically the angle of view would change. But you always saw things clearly.

But, when for a couple of events I sat down front, close to the dais, I found the experience disconcerting. I could see the speaker herself at the podium – in a natural perspective, with enough distance to lose some size, perhaps. Still, I could see the person as a person, in human scale. At the same time, there above us was the projected image, large almost beyond imagining. Even across the table, the speaker would never look that huge. The projected image was distracting, pulling attention away from the real, live person. We had made the real person literally larger than life.

It seems so often that we make folks larger than life. Perhaps that's because we want to see and to feel that we are close. It can be hard to feel that close when the person is in natural scale, yet visibly so far away. That's true in our conferences and in our concerts. It's true in our church conferences and many large churches (which suggests, I suppose, that it's rare in Episcopal churches; but I digress). I was, after all, at a conference of chaplains. We find ourselves looking more often at the projection than the person. Whether we’re honoring or lampooning, we have this tendency to make the person larger than life.

Which I found ironic, at least for me as a Christian. As often as God’s action was literally cosmic, many times God's activity was not larger than life. Abraham’s lunch with the three men wasn’t larger than life, nor was Moses’ birth, and look what came of them. Vain and petulant Elisha was all too rarely larger than life (think about those poor boys!), and he was one of the great prophets of God!

Indeed, God's most important act was specifically and deliberately not larger than life. "The Word became flesh and lived among us;" and among us Jesus was not larger than life. Born in a barn, hungry and thirsty, tempted and tired, and hanging on a cross, Jesus was not larger than life. Even resurrected, he was not larger than life. If he had been, Magdalene would have known him from the gardener. Cleopas would have known him on the road to Emmaus. Surely there would have been no breakfast by the lake if Jesus had been larger than life.

We are in a season when we contemplate all that God has done. We set the Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection in the context of “the mighty acts of God.” However, central to our faith – indeed, central to our salvation – is the fact that these events were not larger than life. It was God in human scale who came among us, to sit at table and welcome even the least. It was not a projection but God seen with our own eyes who accepted that most universal and most terrifying of human experiences, suffering and death. When Jesus rose that that we might rise with him, we encountered it not in the shaking of the earth or the parting of the skies, but in one mistaken for a gardener and in a companion on the road. For all our temptation to the larger image and the false intimacy of the big screen, that was not God’s way. Instead, our salvation was accomplished in events that, for all their cosmic consequences, were recognizably, almost frighteningly familiar – and certainly not larger than life.

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.

A casserole ministry is about more than casseroles

By Ellen Painter Dollar

Until poor health curtailed her activities, my mother-in-law Ruby was the head of her church’s Bereavement Committee. We got a kick out of watching this woman—prone to rambling reminiscences offered from the ancient recliner where she spent about 80 percent of her waking hours—spring into high gear after receiving a phone call reporting that someone in the church had died. As far as we could tell, the sole responsibility of the Bereavement Committee was to provide bounteous food to grieving families. More than once, we overheard my mother-in-law berate some unfortunate committee member for not pulling her weight, leaving those poor families without paper products, for example, with which to serve the bereavement bounty.

We thought it was quaint, this idea that the most vital service a church community could offer its members during times of grief was platters of ham biscuits and pitchers of sweet tea. Once again, though, I’ve discovered that Ruby knows a thing or two about what’s important.

Last October, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a non-invasive, curable cancer. I knew I would recover fully, after some surgery and radiation (and I have). I didn’t want to make a big deal of it, to appear needier than I really was. But when I had to cancel a lunch date with our church’s assistant rector because of multiple doctors’ appointments, I let her know what was going on. She asked if I wanted her to pass my name on to our Casserole Ministry, so I could be free of cooking chores during my recuperation.

At first, I didn’t think I was sick enough to need this kind of help. My surgeries were straightforward, requiring only a couple of days to recover, during which my husband would be home to help out. The main side effect of radiation therapy is fatigue, but it often doesn’t kick in until the final days of the regimen. Besides, because I have a physical disability and chronic pain, a fair amount of fatigue is normal for me. Surely, the Casserole Ministry was meant for people who are really sick. Not for me.

Eventually, though, it became clear that others’ response to my illness and treatment was out of my hands. A good friend (not part of my church) started an account on a web site that allows people to sign up for specific dates to bring someone a meal if they are sick, recovering from surgery, just had a baby, etc. She publicized it through Facebook, and soon a dozen friends had signed up to bring my family a meal. When the assistant rector asked again about the Casserole Ministry, I directed her to my friend’s web site, and watched as church members snapped up many of the blank dates.

For seven weeks, I had people showing up on my doorstep most evenings bearing food. Some were good friends, but many of the church volunteers were people I had never formally met. A friend asked me if it felt weird to have people, especially near-strangers, feeding my family. Yes, it did. Particularly since I didn't look or feel terribly sick. It took some getting used to. But it turned out to be really welcome.

The hardest part of radiation treatment was its dailiness—every weekday for seven weeks. Having it smack in the middle of every morning made it hard to get anything done when the kids were at school. I could rarely get momentum going on writing, cleaning, or other necessities, because as soon as I got started, it was time for radiation, some vital errand, or school pick-up. The treatment did cause some fatigue, so my evenings were also pretty much shot. Being able to focus limited energy on things other than cooking, and give my full attention to the kids after school without having to think about dinner too, really helped.

People at church told me they were praying for my recovery and my family, and those prayers were welcome. But it was the regular, substantial, concrete delivery of meals that really made apparent how our church community was supporting us. Being on the receiving end of the Casserole Ministry also made me feel more at home at our church (which we’ve attended for a little over two years). Now, as I sit in my pew on Sunday mornings, I can look around and see half a dozen people whose names I now know, whose baking dishes are stacked in a corner of my kitchen, ready to be returned to their owners, and who spent a few minutes in my kitchen asking after my health and my kids’ well-being when they dropped off their goodies.

I am currently reading Sara Miles' memoir Take This Bread, which is an account of the author's Christian conversion and the centrality of of giving and receiving food (through both communion and a church-based food pantry) in that conversion. My own parish is planting a vegetable garden in a few short weeks, with plans to deliver fresh produce to a family service center in one of our city's poorest neighborhoods. I could wax theological about the symbolism of food for Christians, for whom sharing bread and wine is a fundamental act of faith. But instead I’ll just say that receiving food from my church community during my cancer treatment has done more to make me feel at home in this church, to feel the love of Christ made real through his people, than any adult education class, worship service, or potluck dinner ever has.

I now understand why my mother-in-law was so serious about making sure that grieving families had plenty of paper plates, pasta salad, and pound cake. It’s hard to know what to do in the face of someone else’s suffering. We want to fix it, and we can’t. So we are called simply to love them in whatever way we can. While food isn’t love exactly, it sure comes close.

(One practical observation for readers who have or are considering starting a Casserole Ministry in their church: Every meal was made with love, delicious, and welcome. But the most welcome foods were actually not casseroles. One family provided hand-breaded chicken cutlets, which I could cut up and call “chicken nuggets” for my kids, or serve on hamburger buns. A huge Greek salad provided me with an entire week’s worth of healthy lunches. Other ready-made green and fruit salads meant I could serve nutritious produce at every meal without the work of cutting it all up. Loaves of fresh bread, besides being delicious and comforting, gave the kids something to fill up on, even if the main dish was not to their liking. And meals that included brownies, cookies, or a small cake made for a celebratory vibe even on regular old weeknights.)

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

In a pluralistic society, mutual respect is a moral imperative

By George Clifford

As a person with dual loyalties to God and country, loyalties that sometimes but not always conflict, the two Florida pastors burning of the Koran and the violent rioting by Afghan Muslims in response left me both upset and concerned about the future of a civilized global community. These events are but the most recent in a string of incidents that include some radical Muslim leaders issuing a religious ruling authorizing Salman Rushdie’s killing after he published The Satanic Verses and the furor that erupted after a Danish newspaper published cartoons that many Muslims believed disrespectful of the prophet Mohammed.

I willingly served in the U.S. Navy for twenty-four years, retiring as a Captain. Like all military personnel, I swore an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. I took that oath in good conscience because I believe the rights and freedoms that the Constitution establishes as the basic law of the land provide the foundation for a healthy, progressive society.

Free speech is one important right, enshrined in the Constitution’s First Amendment. This right includes actual words and “speech acts,” gestures and deeds intended to communicate a message. In broad terms, U.S. law only prohibits speech that directly jeopardizes the safety of others (e.g., yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater) or harms property that belongs to another person (e.g., malicious libel that ruins a reputation or burning a cross on someone else’s lawn). Free speech was instrumental in the U.S. abolishing slavery, extending the vote to women and non-property owning males, and the continuing campaign to eliminate discrimination based on gender, gender orientation, religion, and ethnicity.

The U.S. flag symbolizes our rights and freedoms, a symbol military personnel daily accord special respect. People who display a flag that wind has whipped to shreds or who use flags as decorative items offend my sense of respect for the flag and what it symbolizes. However, I willingly defend their right to misuse the flag in those ways, even to burn the flag as an act of protest if they so choose.

Those “speech acts” may offend me but do not harm me, an important lesson that I learned as a child. I vividly remember my parents’ unflagging efforts to establish and to maintain civility in the household they inhabited with their five sons. Not surprisingly, teasing, taunting, name-calling, insults, and other verbal attacks were almost daily occurrences. Complaints of verbal harassment invariably prompted parental reminders that “sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you.” In doing so, my parents nurtured their sons’ self-esteem, fostered our moral courage, and emphasized that a person can and should control his or her emotions. Furthermore, if the miscreant was one of their sons, my parents, who knew the importance of mutual respect, disciplined the culprit swiftly and appropriately.

These are basic lessons in civility, the type of wisdom that Robert Fulghum distilled in his popular bestseller, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. These are lessons that many in our global community need to learn or take to heart, as current events have emphasized. Two people who need to learn these lessons are the Florida pastors who burned a Koran that they owned. They had the legal right to burn it. Nevertheless, they should have voluntarily restrained themselves from doing so. What is legal is not always moral.

My loyalty to God in Christ defines my moral compass. Jesus taught that his followers should love their neighbor as themselves. I find it impossible to interpret burning the Koran as an act of love for Muslims. The Christian pastors who burned the Koran disrespected Muslims and transgressed Jesus’ command to love their neighbor. Indeed, I value the rights and freedoms established in the U.S. Constitution precisely because I believe that those rights and freedoms are essential expressions of respect for others.

Similarly, a person or group that insists other people’s words and actions always respect certain ideas or practices displays unwarranted hubris that disrespects and dehumanizes those who disagree. Mutual respect without actual tolerance for diverse beliefs and practices is meaningless. Pointing a finger at Muslims who riot in the aftermath of a Koran burning and shouting “Guilty!” is easy. Building bridges to the alienated is more difficult. Having the moral courage to defend free speech in the face of threats and intimidation is still more difficult. Remembering that intolerance is not unique to Muslims can be even more difficult, e.g., an expectation, and often pressure, for people to be “politically correct” is a form of intolerance and disrespect for diversity.

I once had an agnostic sailor stationed aboard a ship for which I was the chaplain come see me. Another of the sailors living in the same berthing compartment was an evangelical Christian. This Christian left a tract (a brochure with the gospel message of God's saving grace in Jesus) on the agnostic’s bunk every day. The agnostic had asked the evangelical to stop doing that. When the evangelical persisted, the agnostic sought to enlist my aid. I asked the evangelical to stop, explaining that being an irritant was inconsistent with Jesus’ command to love our neighbor and that the evangelistic effort, no matter how well intended, was actually self-defeating. The evangelical listened politely but ignored my advice. So, one night the agnostic left a satanic tract on the evangelical’s bunk. Things immediately deteriorated; only when the ship’s executive officer threatened to punish both sailors did the two sailors declare a hostile truce.

Civilian society has no command structure to enforce mutual respect and to establish genuine tolerance for diversity. Consequently, people of good will – and I hope, in spite of the two Florida pastors, that this includes most clergy and Christians – must stand firmly and assertively in defense of mutual respect, tolerance for diversity, and human freedom as non-negotiable basic tenets of civilization and healthy, pluralistic communities.

George Clifford, a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings.

Digital Disciple III: Deserted Islands

This is the third of three excerpts from Digital Disicple: Real Christianity in a Virtual World by Adam Thomas to be published May 2011 by Abingdon Press. You can purchase the book here.

By Adam Thomas

The new dimension of virtuality that the Tech has added to our lives has brought with it new locations, new situations, and yes, new opportunities and dangers. We are pioneers moving not along a riverbank in rickety covered wagons but along the virtual paths marked by cell towers and wi-fi hot spots. The lay of the land has changed, so to speak, and our new virtual environments are affecting us on multiple levels, which we will address over the course of this book. But before entering fully into our discussion of connection and isolation, we must address briefly the influence that the new frontier of the Tech has on our identity as social creatures.

To explore this influence, join me in a quick illustration. You attend a party; say, a company Christmas party. Spouses and children have been invited, so there’s a mix of generations milling about the lobby. On the buffet table sit cheese and crackers and one rather forlorn-looking vegetable tray. The eggnog comes in two varieties, one for grown-ups only. Bing Crosby croons softly over the PA system. Adults chat in that awkward way that always happens when home and work collide. One man’s laugh keeps rising over the low murmur in the room. Everyone attempts to avoid the mistletoe because that one creepy guy from the mailroom has claimed the territory underneath it.

Walking back from disposing of your paper plate and plastic cup, you notice a trio of people sitting on one of the lobby’s couches. A teenaged daughter of a middle manager, a graduate student doing her internship at the company, and a cubicle drone in his mid-thirties each occupy a cushion. But the cushions might as well be deserted islands for all the contact among the three of them. They sit facing forward, heads bowed. And all three are tap-tap-tapping away on their cell phones, completely disengaged from one another and from the conversations happening around them and from good old Bing dreaming of his white Christmas.

Ask yourself if you’ve ever seen this behavior. (Or perhaps, ask yourself if you’ve ever engaged in this behavior.) Now ask yourself if you think the three couch dwellers in the illustration are being antisocial. “Yes” is a perfectly acceptable answer: of course, they’re being antisocial. All those folks around talking, laughing, carrying on. So many conversations to join and eggnog bowls to hover around, and those three sit in a corner glued to their cell phones! Didn’t their parents raise them better?

If this is your reaction, I heartily agree with you, but take a moment to view the situation from another angle. Perhaps these three aren’t being antisocial. Perhaps they’re being (and I’m about to make up a word) trans-social. They may not be interacting with the bosses, employees, spouses, and creepy mailroom guys who inhabit the lobby during the Christmas party, but they are conversing with (possibly multiple) friends via text message. They are checking up on what their friends are doing and where they are doing it via Facebook and Twitter. They are being social—just not with the people close at hand.

At its broadest, trans-social behavior consists of socializing with people across a distance that makes face-to-face contact difficult. Of course, this has been around as long as there have been methods of delivering messages from one person to another: smoke signals, the Pony Express, and long correspondence like you find in Jane Austen novels. But as anyone who has read Pride and Prejudice knows, there’s an awful lot of anxious pacing around sitting rooms and garden paths during the excruciating period between letters. So beginning with telephone calls and eventually continuing with e-mails, the Tech added a dimension of immediacy to trans-social behavior. No more anxious pacing— just an upbeat “You’ve got mail” from a digital voice. With the advent of online social networking in the last decade, the Tech has combined this immediacy with widespread distribution, thus providing the infrastructure for trans-social behavior to explode.

Let’s turn back to our three trans-social folks and take a closer look. The teenager on Cushion One is updating her Facebook status with a rant about the creepy mailroom guy who keeps staring at her. The intern on Cushion Two is texting with three of her friends and showing remarkable aptitude for keeping all three conversations distinct. The cubicle drone on Cushion Three is selecting the starting lineup for his fantasy football game against the friend of a friend whom he has never met in person, but with whom he has been messaging spiritedly about the game on the league’s online forum.

The threesome sit on their respective islands, but it’s no matter that the islands are deserted because they have open lines of communication to distant friends. They may be isolated in the physical world, but in the virtual world they find connections that bridge the gaps between deserted islands. We’ll pick up the threads of connection and isolation in chapters 2 and 3; for now, let’s think for a moment about the environment that the Tech has redesigned and the people like me who have never known any other environment.

We older Millennials (along with the last few GenXers) began blogging before blogging was even a word. On websites including LiveJournal and MySpace, we poured out all the mundane secrets, petty jealousies, and terrible poetry that used to belong to the private diary under lock and key. In the past, none of those words would have seen the light of day, but the Internet enticed us to divulge these confidences with an artificial promise of phony anonymity. Then older folks started warning us about our tendency to overshare on the Interwebs. “If you put something online, it can never be fully removed,” they said. We adopted the appropriate shocked expressions until they went away, and then we joined Facebook and found a sleek new interface through which to bare our souls.

We extol the benefits of social networking: friends’ birthdays right there on our profiles, reconnection with that old high school crush, the ability to organize a flash mob to re-create the Thriller music video in the middle of the mall! But only in the last few years has the danger inherent in social networking begun to sink in: the inevitability of sexted nude photos winding up on the Internet, the ability for robbers to pick easy targets based on Facebook vacation updates, the omnipresence of cyberbullies online, and the data mining that follows every clicked link.

Social networking has enabled and amplified trans-social behavior to such a degree that all definitions of privacy are being rewritten. Until recently, private, direct, personal communication dominated; now it is giving ground to wide-spectrum, impersonal communication that may be private in nature but is public in disclosure. (Think about professional athletes who trash-talk over Twitter rather than on the field or court.) Indeed, the Internet is essentially a public place; however, to many of us Tech users, Millennials especially, it sure looks private because we interact with the Web while alone. For a Millennial blogger like me, I need to keep a personal journal in a physical spiral notebook just to be sure I keep myself from revealing things on my blog that aren’t appropriate for public consumption.

The Tech has designed this public-disguised-as-private environment, and Tech users interact socially in this environment. What should be an individual’s private identity often has public access enabled. The opportunities inherent in sharing socially across boundaries of distance are tempered by the dangers of ceding too much of oneself to the virtual world. Following Jesus Christ involves locating our identities first and foremost in the God who breathes those identities into our very souls. If we allow too much of our identities to escape into the ether of the virtual world, there may not be enough left to escape into God.

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.

Digital Disciple II: "Millennials," technology and the Church

This is the second of three excerpts from Digital Disicple: Real Christianity in a Virtual World by Adam Thomas to be published May 2011 by Abingdon Press. You can purchase the book here.

By Adam Thomas

As I view the intersections between connection and isolation, Tech culture and following Jesus, you should know that I make my observations from the perspective of a member of the first generation that has never known a world without the Internet. I’m a Millennial, one of the vanguard of the generation whose first members were born in 1982. As one of the eldest of the Millennials, I remember artifacts such as Prodigy and CompuServe, which lost the evolutionary battle to AOL. I remember when Napster was new and innovative and not at all threatening to the music industry. I remember when e-mail caught the attention of spellcheck.

But I don’t remember a time before http and www were more than just letters. I don’t remember my father owning a computer without a port for a phone cord. Ask younger members of the generation, and they won’t even realize that computers came with phone ports rather than Ethernet ones. My first cell phone was for emergencies only because it had a paltry fifteen minutes a month. (Don’t tell my dad, but most of my emergencies were of the pizza-ordering variety.) Younger Millennials have had cell phones since they were in elementary school. But from the eldest of us who remember the cretaceous period of dial-up to the youngest who were born with Bluetooth implants, we Millennials are dependent on the Tech, on all the gadgets and machines and Series of Tubes that connect us one to another and each to the world.

Of course, Millennials aren’t the only ones affected by the rise of the Internet and associated Tech. GenXers, Boomers, and computer-savvy older people like my grandmother feel the strong current of the Internet pulling them online just as much. As a Millennial, I have felt this current pulling me since I could reach the keyboard. As a follower of Christ, I feel God moving in both my virtual and my real lives. Knowing that these dual influences are neither mutually exclusive nor entirely compatible gives rise to a series of questions.

How do the Tech’s simultaneous forces of connection and isolation affect our walks with Christ? How does living in a virtual world influence living in both the physical and the spiritual ones? How do we maintain the body of Christ when the physical bodies we see and touch in church expand to include the virtual bodies we inhabit online? What place does prayer have in our instantaneous, Tech-driven world? Where do we keep our knowledge of God when our preferred method of storing information has shifted to the external? How do we resist isolation while remaining plugged into the Series of Tubes?

Now, I can speak only from my own experience. But I know that we humans are ineffective at arriving at the truth on our own, so I hope and pray that you will interact with my experience to delve more deeply into the truth revealed in Jesus Christ. Each of us has a call from God, each a ministry. Within each of the questions above, we find this fundamental one: How do we continue in the tradition of the personal nature of the ministry of Jesus in lives that are increasingly siphoned off into remote, disembodied, virtual space? I invite you to explore this question with me.

But first, you might be wondering why you should take what I say seriously. I claim neither special revelation from the Almighty nor a mandate from my generation. I’m just another disciple of Jesus Christ who has a few words to share with you. I endeavor to follow Christ wherever he leads me, but increasingly I find myself walking along the data streams and fiber-optic paths of the virtual world. Is it possible that Jesus might find me and I might find him on those virtual paths? Is it possible that God can use the Tech to create better followers of Jesus Christ? I am convinced that the answer is a resounding yes, but a yes stamped with a necessary warning label. Our Tech-driven world is changing rapidly, and we are changing with it. Unlike the great cloud of Christian witnesses that has pre- ceded us, we’re not simply earthbound, pavement-pounding disciples of Jesus Christ. The Tech has added a new dimension to our lives; we are physical, emotional, spiritual, and now virtual people. But I believe that God continues to move through every facet of our existence, and that makes us new kinds of followers. We are digital disciples.

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.

Digital Disciple I: Virtual People

This is the first of three excerpts from Digital Disicple: Real Christianity in a Virtual World by Adam Thomas to be published May 2011 by Abingdon Press. You can purchase the book here.

By Adam Thomas

We call it an Internet “connection.” On any given day, I know that an acquaintance from high school just had a baby shower. I know that an old college friend chose the strappy sandals. I know who had one too many at a party last night. Through my keyboard, LED monitor, wireless router, and ISP, I’m connected to several layers of people—my close friends, my acquaintances, strangers with similar interests, and the hordes of people with spelling so dreadful it would make Noah Webster weep.

But we could just as easily call it an Internet “isolation.” While millions of little connections happen every day—from friends and relatives to subcultures and fan bases—these connections always happen remotely. I can see and hear people thousands of miles away using the warm box on my lap. But I can’t touch using Facebook. I can’t taste a friend’s tweets. And I sure can’t smell a Wikipedia entry. My senses are reduced by 60 percent. I have a contacts list on my Gmail account, but I rarely make contact. A wall of technology isolates me from you, and the more we use the Tech, the more comfortable we feel hiding behind it. We develop a dependence on what can only be described oxymoronically as remote intimacy.

Yes, we are connected, but more often than not we connect remotely. Yes, I may know your favorite bands and books, but I may never know the timbre of your voice or how heavy your footfalls are. Yes, community forms on the Internet, but how can you share a meal or look someone in the eye via an online forum?

I make the observations found in this book from a vantage point overlooking a pair of intersections. The first intersection occurs where the opposing forces of connection and isolation meet. These two forces have been around since the Garden of Eden, but never have they been as coupled as the Internet makes them. The second intersection occurs at the junction between Tech culture and the greater reality of following Jesus Christ our Lord.

Following Jesus Christ is first and foremost about connection, about the arms of love reaching from the cross to embrace everyone. The Word became flesh in Jesus Christ in order that we might see more clearly the connection that God yearns for us to have with one another and with God. The Internet offers wonderful opportunities for connection, but they always come attached with the danger of isolation. Like most things in this life, we can’t separate the danger from the opportunity; we can only hope to trend toward the opportunity while trying not to ignore the nature of the danger.

As the Internet continues to change the way we communicate and connect with one another, the opportunities and dangers grow increasingly intertwined. The trouble is that the speed of innovation has kept us from pausing, breathing deeply, and taking a hard look at technology’s effects on our lives. Consider that a hundred years ago, people dashed and dotted with the telegraph and wrote long correspondences in perfect cursive. Seventy-five years ago, they shared a phone line with half a dozen neighbors and sat in front of the radio in the evening. Fifty years ago, they had their own telephone numbers and televisions. Twenty-five years ago, mobile phones and personal computers had begun the big, boxy stage of their evolutions. Fifteen years ago, my computer spent an agonizing forty-five seconds doing a fuzzy R2-D2 impression while attempting to dial up a connection to the Internet. Ten years ago, my family got our hands on a shiny new piece of technology called a cable modem, and the connection tripled in speed. Today, broadband allows connections of ease and immediacy. The breadth and depth of content online have now matched the blazing download rate; indeed (and I’m saying this with only the slightest hyperbole), I could live my whole life virtually and never notice the lack of fresh air and exercise.

We communicate more quickly, more frequently, more globally (and often more anonymously) than ever before. The Internet, once a harebrained idea hatched in a military think tank, has pervaded our lives and our society. Removing it would be like amputating not an arm or a leg, but a central nervous system. I know I’m not alone when I confess that, while I don’t live my whole life virtually, I do almost everything online: shop, check baseball scores, read the news, watch TV, play games, chat with friends, research my sermons. I even met my wife through some combination of divine intervention and the Series of Tubes.

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.

The Winning Pitcher

by Jim Papile

I was really captured by the photo above the fold on the sports page of a recent Sunday's New York Times. It was taken in a rural village in Zambia, Africa. The photo was of a group of African children and two young, white Americans, comfortably nestled together. Everyone was grinning. Instantly transported, my memory of similar trips, similar pictures, let me feel the heat of the African sun, smell the cook fires, and hear the laughter of the children. It was as if I was in the picture myself. But it's not just me. It's about all of us, young and old, who aren't professional athletes, who don't have fabulously fit bodies, fame or fortune; but who can't wait to take that next short term mission trip to Haiti, or Kenya, Colombia, New Orleans, or Appalachia.

In early January I was getting on a plane in Washington, DC for a mission trip of my own to Liberia. I met a young woman, with a great, big backpack, traveling alone to do a mission in Tanzania. Her trip, she told me, would include, not just the plane ride, but also a rigorous two day bus ride. I think about the young people who I have shared trips with, challenged physically, or emotionally, yet who worked uncomplainingly in hot, dusty places to bring the good news of God’s love, and themselves, to help others. I keep hearing from these travelers that they get much more from those they go to serve than they give. All effective mission trips are about the transformation of the missioner more than about the project. When we sign up for our first trip it's invariably with the notion that we are going off with the express purpose to help "those needy people." If we're paying attention we soon figure out, as our young pitcher did, that we get in touch with our own humanity in ways we may have never expected. Just from the look on his face I know Kershaw did.

In the article Times writer Karen Crouse wrote:

"The Los Angeles left-hander, Clayton Kershaw, held the African audience in sway from his first practice pitch. A world removed from the grandeur of Dodger Stadium, the barefoot stood in awe as they watched Kershaw's curveball dip and spin."

As much as it delighted the children, Kershaw's pitching had a serious purpose. He was getting in a few precious minutes of training. Any young pitcher with a great future knows that training time is vital. With the season just weeks away Crouse reports that the biggest anxiety he had with the trip was that he would miss a week of training.

Baseball players, like most of us, need to be focused. Whether a pitcher, fielder, or designated hitter; or in our cases, a doctor, teacher, or realtor, focus is the name of the game. If we are to be successful then we need to concentrate, all the time. In our busy lives even taking one day off feels risky. Why else do we take smart phones, ipads and lap tops with us on vacation? We want our emails; on the beach, on a hike in the mountains, or visiting the Louvre in Paris. Wherever you are you will see somebody texting or emailing, guaranteed. I'm sure this is exactly what made Kershaw nervous when he decided to join his wife on the trip to Africa. "Will I still have the same edge when I get back as I have now? Will I lose some speed off my fast ball, the break in my slider?" Or if it's you or me; "will my office mate get the new contract, will I lose that client?" My guess is that what the young pitcher learned on his first mission was that it's the very act of getting out of the routine that allows one to see the world in a profoundly different and important way. Baseball is Kershaw's life right now, and it should be. How many of us have his gift, his talent. But he knows now too, that life can be more than baseball.

It's wonderful when a baseball star like Kershaw “gets it” and makes it to the sports page of the New York Times. But how about the rest of us? Summer is the most popular time to take a mission trip. If you haven't already experienced a short term mission trip this summer is great time to bench your smart phone and step to the plate.

The Rev. James Papile is the Rector of St. Anne's Episcopal Church, Reston VA and often writes about baseball, the church and faith.

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