You are love

By Donald Schell

I was folding laundry. My wife, international programs director of an NGO doing AIDS work in Africa, Ph.D. trained gerontologist, amateur actor, mother of three splendid grown children and stepmother to another splendid grown child, does her best to avoid using the dryer. We hang out our clothes year-round, which actually means that in San Francisco’s soggy November, December, and January and foggy July and August, we hang our clothes “in”; on a drying rack in the bedroom, one in her study and one in mine.

So, she was off at her work, and I was folding laundry before heading down to my office, and as I shook and hand-smoothed a pair of her black jeans, I found myself singing, “Love, your are love, better far than a metaphor can ever, every be.” It was a corny, enjoyable moment as I thought of her and remembered first hearing the musical “The Fantasticks” on the radio when I was 16 or 17. A lot of reading of philosophy and thinking about language lay ahead for me, and seminary too. I didn’t know Ellen then. Marrying her was a dozen years ahead of me. I also wouldn’t have imagined that I’d have some difficult experience and a failed marriage before between singing “You are love” and knowing she was the ‘who?’ I couldn’t yet answer. But the song stuck in my 16 year old brain because I wanted to know that face and because ‘better far than a metaphor’ spoke compellingly to me.

Better than a metaphor. I’m frustrated when my fellow theological liberals engage the literalist/fundamentalist dilemma with a blithe proclamation, “It’s all metaphor.” The things that matter most to me in life are themselves, real, immediate, compelling, and yet they point beyond themselves. Ellen isn’t a metaphor for love. She’s her own flesh and blood real self, the woman who decided we’d spare the environment a bit by hanging the wash on folding racks. That kid singing along with the radio knew that something called ‘love’ would have that kind of different meaning for knowing someone he didn’t yet know.

I imagine part of what prompted my recent singing moment with the laundry was the run of parables we heard this summer – the Sower (or the Miraculous Harvest), the enemy sowing darnel (or the wise farmer), and the mixed catch in the dragnet. Listening and talking with lay listeners before I preached on those readings and talking and listening with them after my sermons, I was intrigued at how hard we all found it to dislodge the allegorical tags the Gospel writers supplied for each of the parables.

Is the parable of the sower warning us about the cares of the world and exhorting us to be a particular kind of soil?

Is the parable of the darnel direction on how to deal with a diabolical spiritual enemy?

Are the undesirable fish caught in the net an allegorical warning of the perils of hell?

Several of the people I talked to around these three sermons were relieved to hear that many scholars tell us the allegories (red letters in such a Bible, officially “Jesus’ words”) were editorial insertions, probably the voice of early Christian preachers. They sensed that the hellfire threat skewed the parables. The logic of the allegory and the logic of the parable felt different. People felt relieved to hear how each of these parables begins with the storyteller’s trick of offering the soul-numbing familiars of hard work and bad luck in farming and fishing and then each takes the familiar to an unexpected place of abundance, grace, and ease. God is at work. As my youngest son says of so many things, “It’s all good.”

But whenever we talked about the parables, we kept falling into our own allegorizing. We did delight in these parables more-than-metaphorical (and vastly more than allegorical) vibrancy, and we wondered at what parts of our everyday lives and experience a storyteller like Jesus would seize hold of (“…a homeowner was building a new house and before the painters could come a gang member came with spray paint by night and tagged the garage door”).

But we found ourselves hooked again. We slipped back to thinking it was God sowing the seed or wondering that if the inedible fish didn’t go to hell, what happened to them?

What’s so compelling about this allegorical point-by-point Gnostic offering of the inexorable workings of the world?

First off, I think it’s that it’s amazingly difficult for us to even imagine ourselves into hearing these stories freshly. Two millennia and our many Sunday School and sermon iterations makes us know these parables cold, but that cools them. They were told hot, structured to surprise us and structured so the ending made us jump or nod a warm smile of unexpected recognition.

But additionally allegory lets us off the hook. That Ellen “is love better far than a metaphor” actually poses me some day-to-day choices that beginning with a more cosmic, abstracted or interpreted way of speaking of love would not. Because she IS love, I was folding laundry.

Jesus is challenging his hearers to feel their way into the pain and risk of seed-time, the anger and frustration of an anonymous hostile neighbor deliberately spoiling our best efforts to make something happen well, the back-breaking labor of hauling in a net full of fish knowing that there’s a bunch of fish in there that we’ll just be throwing back. Choices, the circumstances that make us resigned, bitter or cynical about life…and God at work in the mystery of seed growth, in our sowing, in our patience, and in a plentiful harvest of the sea.

What I find most life-giving in our church practice, things like singing, like the presence of Christ among us and in bread and wine, like offering one another God’s Peace, like sitting together in God’s silence, those things that are closest to my heart, what we’re doing in moments when we find God at work just won’t sit still to be reduced to metaphor. Neither heartless literalness and nor heady metaphor lives as they do. They’re better far than a metaphor could ever, ever be.

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

The National Cathedral is shaken, and so am I

By Ellen Painter Dollar

I spent much of the final week of August in a vacation bubble, ignoring the bad news that showed up on my iGoogle news feed each morning. Instead, I pondered such vital questions as where my family should get our daily ice cream fix or which Cape Cod beach to explore. But one news story pierced my bubble and left me shaken—the photos of the National Cathedral, its spires decapitated, crooked, and cracked after the Virginia earthquake.

Twenty-one years ago, I arrived in D.C. after college graduation to be part of the Cathedral Volunteer Service Community (CVSC), a now-defunct program that provided housing, a small stipend, and a spiritual adviser to six young people every year. We shared a Cathedral-owned house on Woodley Road (which flanks the Cathedral’s north side) and worked full-time as volunteers for various urban ministry agencies.

In college, my primary community had been InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF). At IVCF, I found the ease with which people talked about Jesus and their faith refreshing, after growing up in an Episcopal church where my faith walk was centered more on singing in the church choir than on exploring what it means to follow Jesus. Through IVCF, I learned to pray and to read the Bible, to claim Jesus as my savior, to explore how my faith intersected with daily life, and to love a rousing guitar-accompanied, hand-clapping praise song.

But my formative Episcopal childhood lingered. I could not embrace my IVCF friends’ positions on many social issues. Attending a nondenominational church decorated in shades of mauve with all the charm of a doctor’s waiting room, and where sermons took the form of plodding 45-minute “teachings,” I missed the structured liturgies, artful spaces, and poetic language of Episcopal worship. I was also seeking more guidance on how to model Jesus’ ministry with the poor, the sick, and the outcast. In my sheltered college world where “mission” involved mowing elderly people’s lawns and going to Fort Lauderdale over spring break to talk to drunk people about Jesus, there was little opportunity to explore Christian responses to poverty and related issues.

So when I learned about CVSC, I jumped at the chance to apply, and when I was accepted, didn’t think twice before saying, “Yes, I’ll come.” In both CVSC and my workplace (an Episcopal agency called Samaritan Ministry, where I provided job counseling and other support, mostly to homeless men), I was engaged with progressive Christians who often spoke a different language than my IVCF friends, but whose faith was equally vital and vibrant. Each Sunday, I worshipped somewhere different—the Cathedral’s cave-like lower chapels, the nontraditional Church of the Saviour in the diverse, ethnic-restaurant­‑saturated Adams Morgan neighborhood, and Episcopal churches ranging from St. Alban’s (nestled in the Cathedral’s shadow and spiritual home for many a U.S. congressperson) to St. Stephen and the Incarnation (a small, diverse, funky congregation in the not-yet-gentrified Columbia Heights neighborhood). My office occupied St. Stephen’s worn basement space; one morning I arrived at work to see a crowd gathered around a stabbing victim who later died, while another day, my colleague was robbed at gunpoint as he ate lunch at his desk.

My CVSC year fundamentally influenced the trajectory of my life and work. I continue to live out my faith with one foot in the progressive, mainline world of rich liturgy, Mozart anthems, and the “big tent,” and one in the evangelical world of Jesus-centered language, praise music, and an intimate, well-defined, and personally transformative faith. My CVSC housemates are still some of my closest and most trusted friends. At Samaritan Ministry, I started editing the newsletter along with providing counseling, which first led to a career in nonprofit communications and eventually to my current freelance writing work.

On one of my first days in D.C. in 1990, my housemates and I stood in the Cathedral nave, listening to the choir practice while we waited for our adviser to show up. I breathed in the Cathedral’s unmistakable smell, a mix of damp stone, incense, and communion wine. When I visit the Cathedral now, I breathe in that smell and immediately feel grounded, reminded of who and whose I am. During my CVSC year, I would lie in bed in my tiny third-floor bedroom, turning my face toward the window that looked directly onto the Cathedral’s central tower. I would stare at the tower, letting its transcendent but firmly planted heft remind me that I was here, in this bewildering city, doing this important but confidence-shaking work, because God had brought me here. The Cathedral was my talisman, my towering and sturdy reminder that the God of heaven and earth was here with me, in my tiny bedroom, in my work with ex-cons and addicts whose lives were so very different than mine, in my house full of seeking and flawed and wise young Christians figuring out our place in this world, what exactly we believed, and what God wanted us to do next.

Though I haven’t lived in D.C. for 12 years, the Cathedral still feels like my spiritual home, the place where I first started figuring out what I really believe as a Christian, and how God was calling me to live out that faith. After my CVSC year was over, I continued to live in the Cathedral neighborhood, in two different apartments on Wisconsin Avenue. Even after I joined one of the Church of the Saviour worship communities, I continued to attend Cathedral services and events. My husband proposed to me on the Cathedral’s south transept steps, and we were married at St. Alban’s church next door. Every time we visit D.C., we drag our sometimes-reluctant kids to the Cathedral for a visit, pointing out the house where I lived, the moon rock in the space window, the statues of presidents, the mighty towers with their clever gargoyles.

My attachment to this grand building is somewhat out of character. I tend to look for signs of God’s presence far from church buildings, in the broken, muddled, messy corners of this baffling world, where faithful people hang onto resurrection hope even as wars rage, children suffer, bodies fail, and loved ones betray. The Church of the Saviour purposefully avoided having dedicated worship space; we worshipped in a coffee house that served food during the day and hosted local musicians at night. Now, at my Episcopal church in Connecticut, I am the type of congregant who only reluctantly writes checks to help replace the roof or fix the furnace, because while I understand the need for building maintenance, it’s so much more compelling to give money to suffering people than to suburban church buildings.

Yet this one building, this National Cathedral, continues to shore up my faith in a most concrete way. The Cathedral is both solid and soaring, tangible and transcendent, rooted in this beautiful, complicated, hurting world even as it reminds me to look beyond it, to the God whose beauty is everlasting, in whose complexity lies the most simple truth, and who heals every hurt.

Seeing the towers that I gazed on from my little third-floor bedroom so badly shaken has left me shaken. The Cathedral’s earthquake damage appears to be significant, but far from fatal. The Cathedral still stands, and likely will (please God) for many years. It will continue to be one of my spiritual homes, one of the places I have encountered God in obvious and life-changing ways. The Cathedral will continue to remind me that I worship a God who is intimately engaged in this earthquake- and sin-ravaged world, who abides in all the cracked and crooked and crumbling places, while offering us a wholeness, healing, and grace that rises from the rubble. Our God, unlike my beloved Cathedral towers, is rock solid. Into his hands I offer my shaky, shaken faith.

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.

The art of waiting

By Deirdre Good

In the series on the BBC's Radio 3, Something Understood, Tom Robinson this week considers the idea of waiting. This idea needs defending in today's world of instant gratification. One can indeed work towards something. Some things just take awhile. I might wait for the roses to bloom each summer. Or for the sun to rise. Or for a birthday. Or for a bird to appear at the feeder. This is expectant waiting. But it depends on an awareness of durative time. As a child, I remember saying to my Mother in frustration, "When will I be six?" and, with only a vague notion of time, finding the answer "next July" incomprehensible.

Of course one might wait in vain for something to happen. The roses might be infested with Japanese beetles. It might rain all day long. No bird finds the birdseed appealing. But waiting is part of life. Think of the waiting room in a railway station. This is a transitory place in which people wait expectantly. Perhaps the walls are covered with timetables. Perhaps there's a monitor showing times of trains arriving and departing. I've conversed with complete strangers in train waiting rooms on the basis of shared expectations. I expect delivery rooms offer similar experiences. I've been in gynecologists' offices abuzz with anticipation. But airports can be places of interminable waiting, only partially offset by retail opportunities.

There are professions involving waiting: waiters in restaurants and shop assistants in shops, for example. It can't be easy to wait on people, conveying the ability to serve at a moment's notice.

Servants must spend hours waiting even if they are paid for it. This can be a kind of passive waiting. Anyone in a relationship or a family knows that waiting for someone to get ready to do something is a frequent experience. We wait for our children to finish getting dressed; we wait for family members to join us in a trip to the shops. Or we wait for results of an examination or a test. This kind of waiting is about patience. There's less of it about. People used to wait far more than they do now--for letters, for phone calls, for visits. Remember the songs about waiting for the phone to ring or the letter to be delivered through the door?

The kind of waiting in relationships is negotiated waiting. I want to be patient but whilst I wait I am tempted to do something else. Julian and I once agreed not to begin something else whilst waiting for the other to be ready. It was only partially successful. We still negotiate with each other: "Be ready in five minutes!" "Can you wait while I finish this email?"

We want to eradicate waiting. Today we Skype our friends and families across the world instantly. We expect immediate results. We are impatient: New Yorkers want it yesterday, we say wryly. But waiting is about valuing someone or something else enough to put my life on hold even for a short while. Not everything is about me. Not everything comes at once. Waiting acknowledges the claim of the other and that there are worthwhile things that only come through waiting. I'm thinking of insight as well as cups of tea.

There is a kind of waiting that longs for something other than material objects: understanding or meaning or faith. Simone Weil, the French philosopher, wrote that the purpose of education was to develop the faculty of attention, of waiting. Such an attitude, she said, consists of suspending our thoughts and bringing our minds to a state of receptive expectation. We need not seize upon an idea too hastily, she advised, but rather train ourselves in eager waiting to receive truth. "Prayer consists of attention," she wrote. She thought of prayer as the highest focus of a soul toward God.

So next time someone we love asks if we'll wait while they get ready, or we are stuck with a delayed flight, let's not growl and open up the ipod. It could be a wonderful chance to improve our prayer lives and wait on God.

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

ELCA confronts “fallout” from progress on same-sex relationships

By Jeffrey Shy

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), a full communion partner of The Episcopal Church (TEC) met this past week in Orlando, Florida for its biennial Churchwide Assembly (CWA). The CWA is the ELCA counterpart to TEC’s General Convention. One of the centerpieces in this year’s meeting was a complex report and set of recommendations titled, “Living Into the Future Together - Renewing the Ecology of the ELCA,” usually abbreviated as LIFT.

As a mainstream Protestant church, the ELCA is facing many of the same problems as those confronting TEC: declining membership, financial difficulties, concerns about national structure and its relationship to the church’s mission locally and globally and an ongoing controversy over issues of human sexuality. The purpose of this study was “to recognize the evolving societal and economic changes of the twenty years since the formation of this church [the ELCA having formed in 1987 from a union of The Lutheran Church in America, The American Lutheran Church and The Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches] and to evaluate the organization, governance and interrelationships among this church’s expressions in the light of those changes. The intended result of the Ecology Study Task Force’s work is a report and recommendations that will position this church for the future and explore new possibilities for participating in God’s mission.” (LIFT, p. 4) In its 100 pages including addenda in its PDF form, a variety of challenges to the ongoing mission and ministry of the ELCA are addressed with implementing recommendations for a host of changes from the level of the individual congregation to the church as a whole.

Of particular interest to those of us in TEC are portions that deal with the effects of and response to the ELCA CWA 2009’s adoption of the social statement on sexuality, “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” and its new policy permitting clergy to live in same-gender committed relationships. Tucked away in one of the appendices to the LIFT report were the results of a survey at multiple levels from individuals up to higher-level organizations within ELCA on a variety of topics including those things perceived as having had a negative impact on local congregations.

Responders at the individual level identified a number of factors having a negative impact on congregations, and leading these were: economic changes in the local community, changes in the culture of American society and changes in the religious climate or culture of American society. These were perceived as negative impacts on congregations by about a 2/3 majority of clergy, lay leaders and open responders (presumably mostly laity, although clergy were not excluded). Coming in fifth was the CWA’s actions in 2009 on human sexuality perceived as having a negative impact by 53% of clergy, 61% of lay leaders and 45% of the “open” category. On further analysis of the “open” responder group, it was clear that age was a major factor in how one responded. For those 44 or younger, the sexuality actions and social statement were perceived as positive by 31% and having had no impact by 34% (a sum of 65% positive and 35% negative). Among persons 45 or older, the reaction was 49% negative, a substantial difference.

In what might be seen as a backlash provoked by the 2009 actions, the LIFT report drafters recommended against bringing any new “social statements to Churchwide Assemblies until a review of the process for addressing social concerns based on a spirit of communal discernment is completed,” (2011 Pre-Assembly Report: Recommendations on Living into the Future Together (LIFT), Section IV, page 29) suggesting a desire to slow the process of consideration of contentious social issues. The LIFT recommendations were adopted and a further action of the assembly authorized “the ELCA Church Council, in consultation with the Conference of Bishops and Communal Discernment Task force, to establish a review process of current procedures for the development and adoption of social statements,” (2011 Pre-Assembly Report: Recommendations on Social Statements, Section IV, page 2). One of the reasons cited in the rationale for this recommendation was that “some in this church have described feeling burdened by the rapid succession, overlapping time lines, and controversial aspects of developing documents [i.e. social statements]. (2011 Pre-Assembly Report: Recommendations of Social Statements, Section IV, page 1). What will be the recommendations of this review process will likely not be known for some time. Following the 2009 assembly, the ELCA has seen the secession of more than 600 congregations and the formation of a schismatic new church, the NALC (the North American Lutheran Church).

For those of us looking forward to General Convention 2012 and the initial report of the Standing Commission on Liturgy on resources for same-sex blessings and well as the ongoing conflicts around the proposed Anglican Covenant, it may be wondered if TEC might face similar expressions of a need to slow down for a time on the contentious issues of sexuality.

Should TEC “pull back” and “let the world catch up” or move forward with the next General Convention?

Jeffrey L. Shy, M.D. is a neurologist in clinical practice in Mesa, Arizona and a parish member of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Phoenix.

Recovering the Commons

By W. Christopher Evans

A key marker of Anglican christology is our emphasis on the social. Christ’s own Person contains within himself a social Body meant to witness to all the world of God’s abundant care for all. And that sociality extends into, influences, and interacts with general society where too the Word is at work though hidden, unacknowledged, unknown, and sometimes, even despised. A Word that at times works through general society to bring the Body to Christ again, eschewing naïve notions of a Church that has all the answers, being incapable of rebuke from “the world”.

Anglican christology therefore is greatly concerned for the common and the commons, a Body, in which for Thomas Cranmer’s time was intertwined in daily life. A commons in which those with much were turned to those with less, and all are called to question covetousness, greed, and exploitation. St. Paul’s injunctions in his first letter to the Church of Corinth come to mind.

As I read about the riots in England this week, I was reminded that riots in England and across the Isles are not a new phenomenon. Unjust and widening gaps of distribution of necessities and means for a good life have more than once stimulated uprisings. Faith played a part in these. The uprisings of the mid-16th century nearly unseated Henry VIII.

The factors are complex in the recent riots. An unarmed black man shot to death by police—a common occurrence in my own country where the latest situation of this sort in our area happened just up the road in San Francisco. High unemployment in the inner cities and among young people ages 18-25, also common here, especially among young men of color. A seriously widening gap between the extremely wealthy and everyone else, again, as much an American disease as British. The lowest social mobility in among developed nations. A failure to care for the dignity of all, including the dignity of good and meaningful work, again, here where jobs is the mantra without concern for liveable wage or decent treatment of the employed. A failure to respect one’s own dignity in the face of indignity and injustice, even to the point of harming others. Factors, I might add, that may serve the interests of the wealthy in the short-term, but could signal their own long-term troubles. It is frankly not in the purely self-interest of those who have much to have no concern for those who have little or nothing. Even Adam Smith understood that. As Church, we understand more. Covetousness, greed, and exploitation have no truck in Christ’s own Body, a Body that is meant to signal God’s hope for all.

Those who act out of covetousness, greed, and exploitation should not be surprised to find that those with little react in kind, even with covetousness, greed, and exploitation.

Cranmer, who upbraids nearly everyone and who for all of his failure to question the crown or its slaughter as response to the Western Rebellion, does attempt to recover the commons at a time when the up and coming were using enclosures to cut off the peasantry from access to the commons.

And I wonder, where is the voice of the Churches today? Where is a rebuke to those who would hoard wealth out of covetousness and greed and exploit those with less or nothing for more gain? These who cry socialism for funding a school or supporting the aged without means, but who receive all sorts of government handouts in the form of tax breaks, loopholes, and incentives for themselves? Where is a rebuke as strong as this from Canterbury or 815 rather than a justification of one’s status because of a seat in the Lords or a comfortable place at the heart of governmental power symbolized by a National Cathedral? From his quite socially conservative “A Sermon Concerning the Time of Rebellion”:

And surely nothing more hath caused great and puissant armies, realms, and empires to be overthrown, than hath done the insatiable covetousness of worldly goods. For hereby, as by a most strong poison, whole realms many times have come to ruin, which seemed else to have endured for ever: sundry commonwealths, which before were conserved in unity, have by incurable disorder been divided and separated into many parts….they also, which through covetousness of joining land to land, and inclosures to inclosures, have wronged and oppressed a great multitude of the king’s faithful subjects![1]

And although here I seem only to speak against these unlawful assemblers, yet I cannot allow those, but I must needs threaten everlasting damnation unto them, whether they be gentlemen or whatsoever they be, which never cease to purchase and join house to house, and land to land, as though they alone ought to possess and inhabit the earth. For to such Esay the prophet threateneth everlasting woe and the curse of God, except they repent and amend their lives in time.[2]

But peradventure some will say: The gentlemen have done the commons great wrong, and things must needs be redressed. But is this the way, I pray you to reform that is amiss, to redress one injury with another? Is it the office of subjects, to take upon them the reformation of the commonwealth, without the commandment of common authority? To whom hath God given the ordering and reformation of realms? To kings or to subjects? Hearken, and fear the saying of Christ: “He that taketh the sword shall perish with the sword.” To take the sword, is to draw the sword without authority of the prince. For God in his scripture expressly forbiddeth all private revenging, and hath made this order in commonweals, that there should be kings and governors, to whom he hath willed all men to be subject and obedient. Those he hath ordained to be common revengers, correctors, and reformers of all common and private things that be amiss.[3]

All the holy scripture exhorteth to pity and compassion upon the poor, and to help them; but such poor as be oppressed with children or other necessary charges, or by fire, water, or other chance, come to poverty, or for age, sickness, or other causes, be not able to labour….They speak much against Achab, that took from Naboth his vineyard; but they follow not the example of Naboth, who would rather lose his vineyard, than he would make any commotion or tumult among the people.[4]

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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“Christian” faith and politics: having the conversation

By Kathy Staudt

Annie Dillard describes a visit she made once to a neighbor near her home in rural Virginia. Trained by Evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell to greet any stranger with a faith-challenge, the neighbor asks Dillard, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?” Dillard, a Roman Catholic, writer and mystic, relates, “She was stunned that I knew the Lord, and clearly uncertain whether we were referring to the same third party.”

I’ve thought of that encounter as I’ve heard the word “Christian” used in the media lately, especially reading about the rally led recently by Texas governor Rick Perry, strongly supported by the American Family Association and other “Christian” groups. Are we all talking about the same party when we say we are followers of Jesus, the Christ? Is it possible even to have that conversation? Absent any agreed- on source of authority, we are left with Christians of different political stripes hurling accusations at each other, saying, “Well, these people are not real Christians” (reminiscent of Muslims after 9/11 who insisted with deep plausibility, “This is not Islam). I’ve done this myself.

Particularly distressing to me is seeing the practice of prayer co-opted as a political tool, by any side of the spectrum. Tilden Edwards, writing about Contemplative Prayer, warns against what he calls the “God and me” approach to faith, widespread in our culture, which sees God as “out there” and assumes that we can somehow direct or control God’s actions through prayer, to support our agendas. He connects this to what Parker Palmer names as the “functional Atheism” of our society -- the belief that really we control everything, and we invite God in when we choose, to bless or ratify the judgments we’ve already come to, thus claiming the moral high ground.

If we’re honest, we have to admit that all of us do this sometimes. But it is a perilous thing, closing off the living God who desires to heal and transform us. Contemplatives everywhere will tell you that going into prayer begins with letting go of our most firmly held agendas, and being open to a deep and risky conversion of heart. How many Christians really have the courage to embrace a life of prayer that relinquishes our own agendas, and opens us to deep transformation? And what do we believe about the call of Christ in this kind of prayer? I have more questions than answers here, but perhaps the questions are the place to start.

It seems to me our first call as Christians, of whatever stripe, is to open ourselves in prayer to the possibility that our most beloved political agendas may be flawed, and that our political enemies are fellow human beings -- and to be available to the best ideas for meeting the urgent needs of “the least of these.” My own process, looking at our broken world, from a prayerful place, is to ask, what does the Scriptural tradition say about this? (Not a verse here or there but the whole arc of the Scriptural story of God’s call to covenant living). It’s worth asking: how has this tradition seen issues of social justice, the right use of resources, and the needs of the poor? ( It even helps to ask what do other monotheistic faiths -- say about what God desires for the social order? There is remarkable consistency here, across Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, about our obligations to the poor and to the care of creation). And how can a thinking person be guided by the tradition, knowing what we know from our best and most careful observation of social and economic realities? (Scripture-Reason-Tradition -- my Anglican orientation is obvious here).

When I try to turn to Scripture without proof- texting, I remember God’s instructions to Israel to leave food in the fields for the gleaners, to observe a year of Jubilee when debts would be forgiven and slaves set free, to even the playing field and prevent the emergence of the super-rich. And I remember the hug gap fixed between the rich man and Lazarus, and the separation at Judgment day between those who did and did not recognize Christ in “the least of these.” And I am challenged more and more by the parables of Jesus that present a world radically different from the status quo.

This is not the time to surrender the label “Christian” to a particular right-wing or even left wing social agenda. It is a time to reflect openly, with our friends and in our writing and public discourse, on how we connect our politics and our faith, resisting labels and speaking out of a core of faith and prayer, and using whatever forum we have. To do this I think we have to assume, for the sake of connection, that we’re all talking about “the same third party” in our claim of faith in Christ. I ran across a delightfully unexpected example of this the other day in a quote from comedian Stephen Colbert posted on a blog I’ve just discovered called “Dover Beach”, Colbert writes: “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

It’s a start: What Colbert is doing here, in his sharp way, is having the conversation as if we were all talking about the same third party, and without succumbing to either “God and me” or “us and them”, at least not in this moment. This is the challenge for all of us who are speaking and writing publicly, out of our professed Christian faith, in these times of pervasive social and economic suffering and injustice.

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

The deficit debate

By George Clifford

As a Christian priest and ethicist, I found the recent U.S. Congressional debates over raising the debt ceiling deeply disturbing for two reasons. First, the deficit debates revealed the disturbingly rapid pace at which self-interest appears to be supplanting concern for the least among us in American churches.

The Christian path that I understand and try to travel encourages disciples to emulate Jesus’ example and teaching by putting others on a par with self, if not ahead of self. This especially connotes caring for the most vulnerable among us.

I’m thankful that I live in a secular, pluralistic nation. However, many of our elected politicians self identify as Christian and a growing number of them try to capitalize upon their personal faith declarations when campaigning for election. Voters reasonably expect these individuals, if elected, to express their Christian values in their speeches and votes – at least some of the time.

Collectively, these politicians failed to stand vocally and firmly against legislative actions that might endanger the well-being of our nation’s most vulnerable residents. Instead, some of them adhered to campaign rhetoric and promises that are contrary to my understanding of Christianity. Others, who had voiced more compatible campaign rhetoric and promises, were publicly silent or attracted little media attention to their defense of the most vulnerable.

A cynic might suggest that the gospel of self-help draws bigger crowds than does emphasizing Matthew 25 and costly love. This perversion of Jesus quite probably represents a greater threat to Christianity’s future than secularism does. The deficit debates are a telling milestone of how far religion in America has moved in that direction.

Second, the deficit debates exposed the fragile and perilous condition of community in America. The tone of public discourse frequently lacked civility. More importantly, during the debates, I heard much dishonesty about important issues at stake, widespread advocacy of fiscal policies that would have had the unintended (or so I want to hope) consequences of further fracturing the foundations of our communal life, and explicit attacks on the integrity and good faith efforts of the vast majority of government employees. Demagoguery commonly masqueraded as reason, evoking too few objections. Individualism was ascendant and community on the wane. Mutual respect and trust yielded to mutual suspicion and animosity. These fault lines, unless healed, bode ill for the communal mutual interdependence to which God calls us and that best enables human flourishing.

Balancing the federal budget without increased revenues would require eliminating 40 cents of every dollar the government now spends. Thankfully, the U.S. government is not corrupt or ineffectual on that scale, even according to its harshest critics. In other words, eliminating the federal deficit without any tax increases will require substantial cuts or wholesale elimination of multiple programs. The Defense Department, Social Security, and three health insurance programs (Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program) each account for approximately 20% of the federal budget. Social safety net programs (14%) and debt interest payments (6%) are another 20% of federal spending. The other 20% funds the remainder of government operations (transportation, education, government retiree benefits, foreign aid, etc.).

One oft-heard sound bite during the debates asked, “Can you or the government do a better job of spending your money?” The speaker left the question unanswered, presuming that everybody agrees she/he can spend her/his money better than the government. I vehemently disagree. The federal government spends my tax dollars much better than I could. With my taxes, I buy, in no particular order of priority:

• One of the best, if not the best, highway systems in the world;
• Most healthcare for everybody in this country over age 65 and much of the healthcare for the poorest Americans;
• Pensions for the elderly;
• The assurance of generally safe food, drugs, consumer goods, air transport, etc.;
• The closest approximation to the rule of law, justice, and civil rights for all in the history of the world (not perfect by any means, but far better than in most countries);
• About 10% of the cost of educating children in the U.S.;
• More defense than I want or need.

You might list other goods and services the federal government provides that you especially value, no matter how imperfect they are. Whatever your list, if it’s honest, is well beyond what you could afford as an individual – unless perhaps you are a billionaire. Even then, I’m willing to bet that you get a decent bargain in return for the taxes you pay.

Can the United States federal government achieve a greater degree of fiscal responsibility? Absolutely. Is some government spending fraudulent, wasteful, or abusive? Without a doubt. Is every government program important for sustaining our communal life? No. We rightly debate those questions. Identifying optimal government policies, programs, and funding priorities – even if all citizens shared common values – is impossible because nobody has a crystal ball with which to predict future outcomes.

However, reductions in government spending will reduce employment when unemployment remains above 9.1% of the workforce and much, much higher for certain segments of the workforce (e.g., young black males). Underemployment remains a significant but unquantifiable problem. Indeed, a recent New York Times/CBS poll showed that voters disapprove of Congress’ job performance at an all-time high, rate job creation more important than deficit reduction, advocate raising taxes to balance the federal budget, and believe politicians must compromise to make government work.

As Christians, we bring to public discourse about public finances a concern for the well-being of the least among us and for the strength of our community. The Eucharistic readings for Laurence, Deacon and Martyr at Rome (August 10, 258), in Holy Women, Holy Men speak to the federal budget battles that will continue in upcoming months and years:
"He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever." (II Corinthians 9:9)
“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” (John 12:24-26a)

Before executing Laurence, the prefect demanded that the archdeacon Laurence, responsible for the Church’s welfare programs, reveal where to find the Church’s treasures. According to legend, Laurence responded by assembling the poor and the sick and then telling the prefect, “These are the treasures of the Church.” The prefect then supposedly ordered Laurence roasted alive. The Greek root of the English word “martyr” means witness. The deficit debates make me think that we need a new generation of witnesses, holy women and holy men who will witness to the way of Jesus regardless of the cost to their pocketbooks.

George Clifford is an ethicist and a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings (

Spirit of invention

By David Cook

What if the boat doesn't float?
Sinks straight to the bottom?
And I end up with just a wet butt
And everything wasted.

The whole town will laugh.

But at least we saw the blue sky
Felt the sun on our arms and faces
My nose peels when we do that
And things only seem wasted.

Never you mind. The next one will float.

What if the flying machine don't fly?
Busts itself up in the field?
Maybe that's how I broke my arm.
Mary Sue fussed over me,
Brought me water.

Nita Lou said "Let's take you to my granddad;
He'll know how to set it."
Cared for me, she did.

"Oh, well, the next one will fly.
I know you'll figure out how.
Maybe that part that goes around needs
To be fastened on stronger."

Yeah! I see that it does.
Well, at least we got to see the day,
And the hills all curving and sweeping
Like a fine lady waiting for her lover
Clothed in summer and all her best.

So you keep on living;
You keep from dying by the next thought
Trying: thinking the next idea up close to the roof

Until the day corruption comes
To thrust between my lips
To bring to naught the labor of all my thoughts,
As I lay busy inventing the next life;
The one that will work where this one failed.

She weeps downstairs
But we tasted the strawberries
We tasted the honey and the coconut
We watched the moon rise

And so became a part of us forever
The thing that never dies.

David Cook, a lifelong Episcopalian living in Piedmont North Carolina, has retired from a career as a medical writer, and is now branching out into creative writing.

Wounded by God

By Bill Carroll

On a recent Sunday, we heard the rather strange and disturbing story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. I’ve been fascinated by this story for about 30 years, ever since I heard my friend chant it in Hebrew at his Bar-Mitzvah. I’m pretty sure I had a yarmulke on at the time. Thank God there was an English translation.

This odd little story comes in the midst of a much longer tale of family conflict. Jacob has stolen the birthright of his brother Esau and the blessing of their father Isaac. In another land, he has worked hard to acquire two wives, two maids, many children, and large flocks of sheep. He has been chased cross country by his father-in-law and is about to reenter territory controlled by his brother Esau. Jacob is afraid for his life and that of his family. Nevertheless, he lingers behind as his wives, the maids, and the children cross the River Jabbock. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, he spends a troubled night
alone, wrestling with a mysterious man who turns out to be the living God—or at least the angel of God.

Jacob is wounded in the encounter, as the man strikes him on the hip, pulls it out of joint, and leaves him with a limp. Yet he refuses to let go. Even at break of day, when the man begs to be released, Jacob refuses to let him go, unless he will bless him. In response, the man gives Jacob a new name, Israel. And Jacob, for his part, realizes that he has, in fact, been face to face with God.

What is exceedingly strange about this story is that most of us don’t think of God as our adversary--certainly not one we could fight with and win. Moreover, for many of us, our relationship with God is a place of safety, comfort, and security. We are wounded enough already!

If we do think about struggling, our adversary is Satan. Or perhaps some lesser demon, temptation, or sin. Perhaps we struggle with an addiction or other self-destructive tendency. Maybe it’s a painful memory or broken relationship. Maybe it’s pride or anger or feelings of worthlessness. But it’s not—at least not for most of us—a struggle with God. On the contrary, God is the one who takes our side when we are fighting against one or another of these enemies. God is good, merciful, loving and kind. And, it’s true, God is all these things and more.

But some of us, perhaps, have come to know it’s not always so easy. Sometimes, we do stay up half the night wrestling with God. Sometimes, the encounter leaves us wounded, wondering if our relationship is worth it. There’s a dark side to faith. God may be good and loving but isn’t always nice. The living God is not some cosmic wish-fairy who waves a wand and makes the bad stuff go away. Relationship—especially the most holy and life-giving kind of relationship—is always fraught with risk. When we get close enough to another person—he or she can wound us. He or she will certainly challenge us and spur us to difficult and painful growth.

Often, when we wrestle with God, we are wrestling not so much with the reality but with our false preconceptions about God. That may have been true for Jacob, who tricked his brother into selling his birthright and deceived his father into blessing him. Maybe he thought God was like his brother or father, who were capable of giving or denying their blessing. Often, our families are the scene of a life and death drama, as we encounter the imperfections of significant persons whose words and deeds take on a significance far larger than life. And let’s face it: we are seldom as gracious with each other as we might be—and never so gracious as God. God is not like some human parent, who might either give or withhold a blessing. God is the infinite ocean of mercy, who is always giving more than we could ever receive.

But, there is also a real sense in which God can become our adversary. At least insofar as we are lost in sin. We are, in fact, in love with our sins—and our journey into God may involve a painful process of letting go—as we struggle to tear away from those parts of ourselves that keep us in bondage. God may have our best interests at heart, but we so identify with the things that are killing us that God appears as adversary rather than friend. The apostle Paul speaks of being crucified with Christ—of dying to sin, that we might live to God. For Christians, the path toward wholeness and victory involves deep darkness and participation in the Lord’s suffering. We may wrestle with our conscience. We may struggle against the Holy Spirit, who speaks deep within us about the gift and demand of love. And, in the end, we may find ourselves limping along as we try to follow God but keep on walking in the way of sin and death.

But the wounds we suffer are more than merely something negative—the painful removal of obstructions to relationship. They may also be our way into God. Walking in the way of the cross, a beloved prayer reminds us, we find it to be none other than the way of life and peace. Christ loves our wounds, because they make us more like him. Our wounds are signs of our status as frail and dependent creatures. Vulnerable, intimate, self-giving love is what we are made for. It’s the kind of love that Jesus gave us, when he came among us in the flesh. We are called to love each other with the hearts of human beings.
Moreover, in the Christian mystical tradition, we often speak of the wound of love—a wound that is impressed upon our soul by the presence and action of God within us. St. John of the Cross, for example, in The Living Flame of Love, speaks of the sweet cautery and delightful wound of the Holy Spirit. By a cauterizing action, like a hot iron applied to stop a bleeding artery, love burns and heals the soul, ultimately through the grace of our union with God.

“The fire of love,” John writes, is “of infinite power” and can “inestimably transform into itself the soul it touches. Yet He burns each soul according to its preparation: He will burn one more, another less, and this He does insofar as He desires, and how and when He desires.” John goes on to contrast the wound of love with that caused by material fire:

The wound left by material fire is only curable by other medicines, whereas the wound effected by the cautery of love is incurable through medicine. For the very cautery that causes it, cures it, and by curing it, causes it. As often as the cautery of love touches the wound of love, it causes a deeper wound of love, and thus the more it wounds, the more it cures and heals. The more wounded the lover, the healthier he is, and the cure love causes is to wound and inflict wound upon wound, to such an extent that the entire soul is dissolved into a wound of love.

Brothers and sisters, we ought not to pity poor Jacob—but to imitate him. Like him, we ought to persevere through the night and never, ever let go of God. For, in the very act of being wounded, he prevails and receives a blessing after a long, hard struggle. He receives a new name—Israel, the one who sees God. And his wound results from the divine touch—the Holy Spirit, who sets us on fire with heavenly desires. The more we are wounded by this love, the more deeply we thirst for God. In this desire and this thirst lies our salvation. For this is the touch of our Savior—the Great Physician--who, in wounding, makes us like himself—even as he heals us and makes us whole.

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

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