A breath of air

by Donald Schell

Conquering kings their titles take
From the foes they captive make;
Jesus, by a nobler deed,
From the thousands he hath freed.

Yea, none other Name is giv’n
Unto any under heav’n
Whereby souls in mortal strife
Rise to gain eternal life.

Let us gladly for that Name
Bear the cross, endure the shame,
Suffer with him joyfully,
Death, through him, is victory.

Jesus, who dost condescend
To be called the sinner’s Friend,
Hear us, as to thee pray,
Glorying in thy Name today.

Nevers Breviary 1727, Hymnal Version, 1940

I had been a priest for fifteen months, and was visiting my old friend Joe Doss who’d just recently been made the rector at Grace Church. New Year’s Day 1974. He asked me to preach and preside at a New Year’s Day/Holy Name of Jesus liturgy in the Grace Church’s chapel. I was hurting and confused. My marriage was coming apart and in dark moments I counted myself a failure as a priest and as human being. So I was deeply grateful for my friend’s invitation to preside and preach.

We opened singing this wonderful old hymn with its older tune (Orientis Partibus, c. 1210), a gem that didn’t make it from the 1940 Hymnal to the 1982 Hymnal.

As I’ve often done since, I preached what I needed to hear myself. That day I preached that we were celebrating the name of Jesus, Yeshua, an ordinary enough Jewish name in First Century occupied Israel, but a name that carried an astonishing promise, “God saves.” “Saves from what?” I asked with probably too evident feeling.

-from whatever takes life from us.
-from all that makes us less than God means us to be.
-from our worst fears.

Preaching my own confusion and fear, I offered a list like that.

As I preached, a young woman began sobbing. There were only six or seven or us gathered. Her crying was very public, so she said to everyone, “I’m fine,” she said. “It’s all right. Really all right, just what I needed to hear.” She was smiling and nodding as she continued to cry. “It’s all right,” she said more quietly.

She came up to me right after the liturgy. Her husband had his arm around her. She was still crying a little, but smiling as she cried. “God saves. I know it. Yesterday, I was racing my boat on Lake Pontchartrain. The wind was really strong and the boat was pounding the chop on the lake. I was excited and pushing hard to overtake the lead boat, and then I was in the air as my boat capsized. I hit the water and plunged into the cold. I went completely under and came up with mainsail on top of me. Then I was flailing and couldn’t find the edge of the sail. “It’s over, “ I thought, but I prayed, just “Jesus!” and made one last, desperate reach and found the edge of the sail and pulled myself out from under and gasped the sweetest breath of air I’ve ever tested.” She paused in her telling, out of breath. “It didn’t have to end that way. I know that. But yes, God saves.”

So began my New Year. A moment of grace and touching a stranger’s life with joy and gratitude when I felt little hope and much failure in my own life. I felt a sprout of my own gratitude. She was so right, truer and more graced in her hearing than I’d been in my preaching. God saves. Jesus.

Hear us as to thee we pray, Glorying in thy Name today.

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

Tech lament

by Ann Fontaine

This week I read Email in the enterprise: entering its twilight and I fell into the slough of despond. A sense of drowning in tech overwhelmed me almost to the point of tears. I consider myself fairly techie. I mentor two online Education for Ministry (EfM) groups where with a friend we served as tech support for a couple of years. I do the news for the Episcopal Café on Tuesdays which entails a small amount of tech knowledge, I have started blogs for myself and for the church I serve and I manage a couple of listserves. I use Facebook™ and Twitter™ for personal and church communication. I know some basic HTML code or how to find it if I need it. So why the despair at this article?

Email is without a doubt the most tried and true technology for both enterprise and personal communication, but it’s not without its shortcomings. Specifically, Atos CEO Thierry Breton cited email’s spam-like nature as one of the biggest contributors to “information pollution” that’s bogging down management. His goal is for Atos — which has nearly 50,000 employees worldwide — to be a “zero-email company” within the next three years. In place of email, Breton says that Atos will increasingly encourage its employees to collaborate on instant messaging and social networking platforms.

This marks the first time an organization of this size has made such a definitive statement on email, but it almost certainly won’t be the last. In truth, the gradual shift from email to messaging and social networking platforms began some years ago, but it’s only recently that this phenomenon has penetrated the enterprise from the consumer side.

Is this the beginning of the end of my love affair with computers, the internet and electronic communications? Will I be able to keep up? One day will I wake up and find the connections broken and the tech beyond my ability to use it? The whole process of learning new technology is exhausting as I project myself into the future.

A couple of weeks ago I learned that the system I use frequently for online classes may change. Facebook™ continues to evolve and change. Now maybe email will go the way of the mimeograph. It is like running uphill in sand: sliding back several steps for every one ahead.

I remember the first time I used email – I loved the ability to have both the immediacy of a phone call and the time to consider one’s answer of snail mail. I was in seminary and could communicate with my friend in Singapore instantly by email. I could write papers in my stream of consciousness style and re-arrange it all later, adding footnotes effortlessly. I knew the demise of email was coming when our kids no longer answered email and we had to “text” them or “friend them” or even better “friend” their friends to get information. I learned how to text, thanks to “T9 word” taught to me at General Convention by our 18 year old Deputy. But it seems change has no end.

I like being a “tech savvy” grandma – being able to keep up with kids and grandkids. I like the connections to friends and students bringing enrichment and colleagues into my life. In a small Wyoming town it increased my access to people who shared my passions in politics and the church. It allowed us to organize and make things happen. Distance learning made it possible for people who live in isolated locations to be in a small group for study and reflection when they would not otherwise find people with similar interests.

These feelings of not keeping up will probably pass for now but a time will come when reality will “bite.” The Bible speaks to the passing of our gifts:

Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ John 21:18 (NRSV)

And reassures me that it will be okay:

O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and grey hairs, O God, do not forsake me,
until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come. Your power and your righteousness, O God, reach the high heavens. Psalm 71 (NRSV)

For now I will learn all that is learnable and when the day comes when I can no longer keep up, hopefully God will provide a new thing.

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Interim Vicar,St. Catherine's Episcopal Church, Manzanita and Nehalem, OR, keeps the blog what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

The light at the inn

by George Clifford

During the winter of 1926, Chicagoan Thelma Goldstein treated herself to her first real vacation, taking a trip to Florida. Being unfamiliar with south Florida, she wandered into a restricted hotel in North Miami.

"Excuse me," she said to the manager. "My name is Mrs. Goldstein, and I'd like a small room for two weeks."

"I'm awfully sorry," he replied, "but all of our rooms are occupied." Just as he said that, a man came down and checked out.

"What luck," said Mrs. Goldstein. "Now there's a room."

"Not so fast, Madam. I'm sorry, but this hotel is restricted. No Jews allowed."

"Jewish? Who's Jewish? I happen to be Catholic."

"I find that hard to believe. Let me ask you, who was the Son of God?"

"Jesus, Son of Mary."

"Where was he born?"

"In a stable."

"And why was he born in a stable?"

"Because a schmuck like you wouldn't let a Jew rent a room in his hotel!"

Seventeenth century Puritans emigrated from England to Massachusetts so that they could worship according to their beliefs. Among other issues, the Puritans objected to Christmas. They pointed to the Bible’s silence about the actual date of Jesus’ birth. Celebrating his birth on December 25 began in the 4th century; Clement of Alexandria, whose second century writings include the first mention of a specific date for Jesus’ birth, lists five different dates on which Christians then commemorated Jesus’ birth. Obviously, nobody knew the actual date.

The Puritans also objected to the Church celebrating Jesus’ birth on a pagan feast linked to the winter solstice. They denounced the bacchanalian festivities then associated with Christmas, including drunken carolers carousing through communities and demanding gifts from the wealthy, as thinly veiled paganism.

Even the very word Christmas offended Puritans because it literally denotes Christ's mass. The Puritans rejected the mass as a Roman perversion of the Lord’s Supper. So they outlawed Christmas.

Thank God, Episcopalians are Anglicans and not Puritans! Unlike the Puritans, we’re confident that God wants us to joyfully celebrate the good news of Jesus’ birth.

Celebrations require a date. Not only does no one know the day of Jesus’ birth, scholars even debate the year of his birth, proposing dates between 7 BC and 4 AD. But Jesus was born. Celebrating his birth on December 25 is a convenient tradition. The mystery surrounding the actual date helpfully reminds us of God's holiness, i.e., the mysterious, life-giving Creator who transcends the finite, created world we inhabit. In the words of 19th century poet Christina Rosetti,

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.

Casual observers might conclude that many Americans regard Christmas as an excuse for consumer excesses in Santa’s name – modern paganism – rather than as a religious observance of Jesus’ birth. A Turkish bishop, St. Nicholas of Myra, was the original Santa. After several European refractions, the poetry of Clement Clarke Moore crystallized the popular image of Santa. The son of New York’s second Episcopal bishop, Moore donated the land for the Episcopal Church’s General Seminary, and taught Biblical literature there. In 1822, Moore wrote “T’was the Night before Christmas.” His poem memorably depicted a sled with eight reindeer driven by a plump, jolly, old man who entered by a chimney and carried a bag of toys.

Meanwhile, in Spain’s northeastern corner, Catalonians follow a set of Christmas traditions that exclude Santa Claus. Instead, a royal mail carrier appears in December to learn what gifts children want. Then, on January 6, Epiphany, twelve days after Christmas, a sailing ship arrives bearing three kings with gifts.

Adopting Christianized pagan customs offers reassurance that God really can transform a broken, hurting, sinful, dying person into a whole, healed, forgiven, abundantly alive child of God. Trees, wreaths, Santas, Nativity sets, cards, greetings, and even people – God can transform them all. Furthermore, God has chosen diversity over homogenization. There’s room at the manger for young and old, male and female, straight and gay, every race, every nationality, and even the schmuck who told Mary and Joseph there was no room in the inn.

Sadly, like Mary – heavily pregnant, weary, and far from home – many people find Christmas emotionally difficult. Suicides, however, actually peak post-Christmas. People, inundated with an unrelenting and persuasive torrent of advertising, expect great things from Christmas: an easing of their depression, restoration of shattered relationships, and solutions to lots of other problems. When Christmas fails to satisfy those high expectations, people lose hope and sink further into caves that have no light and no hope.

Some years ago, a friend’s mother died unexpectedly; her funeral was scheduled for Christmas Eve in Jacksonville, Florida. My friend lived in the mid-West. He managed to book a flight from Chicago to Jacksonville on the evening of the 23rd. The day had been dark and dreary, matching his mood. A departure delay depressed him even further. Finally airborne, the plane broke through the clouds shortly after taking off from O’Hare. He could plainly see the moon, new fallen snow, and Christmas lights. The moment was transformative; he remembered the babe born in Bethlehem and God's love, lit the darkest corners of his life.

The Christian Church celebrates Christmas near the winter solstice, not only Christianizing a pagan feast, but also providentially because of the profoundly Christian message that the timing and customs symbolize. Light begins to overtake darkness as the days slowly lengthen. Light, even from a single candle, banishes fear and darkness, bringing life and hope. Evergreens emphasize God renewing life. Gifts remind us, in Archbishop Rowan Williams striking phrase, that God in a “small bundle of shivering flesh,” revealed a love so profound and complete that we, two thousand years later, still discern God’s continuing activity in the world. This is our thanksgiving and why we joyfully celebrate Christmas, the mass of Christ, our holy feast, the Eucharist.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings.

Changed by holiness

by Maria Evans

"If you wish to become a person of knowledge and moderation, and if you want not to be enslaved to the passion of self-conceit, always search among existent things (i.e., creation) for what is hidden from your knowledge, and finding many and varied things that have escaped your notice, you will be amazed at your ignorance and you will abase your presumption. And, coming to know yourself, you will understand many great and marvelous things, because to think to know does not lead to progress in knowing." --Maximos the Confessor

One of the things I really took to heart about Maximos' quote is that concept that we are changed in holiness by searching for hidden knowledge among already existing things. It's been my experience that most revelatory things I've discovered have been things that I came to realize, have been in front of my nose all along and simply had failed to notice them. I had an opportunity to experience those things in a new way one recent Sunday.

We have a member of our parish who has been physically unable to attend church for some time, because of her broken hip, and the fact that our building is physically inaccessible to her--so we have been taking turns bringing at least bits and pieces of the church to her. Our priest brings her the Sacraments, and several of us have taken turns accompanying her. On a recent week when it was my turn to go on this visit, I ended up with a rather large hunk of consecrated bread, because our priest was headed out of town, and we had more than enough in the tabernacle in reserve. So I was left with this daunting amount of the Body of Christ to consume, and not enough appetite to do it in one sitting. I ended up carefully wrapping it in Saran wrap and carrying it around in the pocket of my hoodie until I had enough appetite to finish it off. So to make a long story short, this piece of consecrated bread got to accompany me on several of my afternoon errands all around Kirksville and on my Sunday afternoon walk down and back on my dirt road that I usually take.

Even though at the time this was happening, we were still a month and a half before Advent, I found myself thinking some very Advent-y thoughts--because there I was, with the Body of Christ snuggled against my belly, going here and there and everywhere--literally the theotokos of Adair County.

Now, generally speaking, I am already a person who tends to want to be obedient to the rules and the customs of the church, so I did not really expect to be changed by this exercise. But as the afternoon played out, I kept noticing all the little things I was doing differently, simply because I was carrying a large wad of the Sacraments around. I thought about how just looking at me, people would not know what I had in my hoodie pocket. I found myself subconsciously keeping a hand on it, in my pocket, so it would not fall out. I didn't have my usual verbal outburst at the person who cut me off in traffic. Things just seemed unusually calm and peaceful that afternoon, even when I was dealing with the usual irritations of my life--and in a strange way, I felt...well...honored that I was entrusted to give the proper liturgical care to such a large remnant of our home Eucharist. I called a friend of mine and even told her about the experience.

Then, all of a sudden, a giant recognition slammed into my brain without warning. What I was being shown was a teeny-tiny glimpse of what Mary felt like when Gabriel told her the news that she was pregnant! I had even subconsciously recapitulated telling Elizabeth (although I'd called a friend, not my cousin.)

In Advent seasons past, I've frequently thought about how unbelievable Gabriel's visit to Mary must have seemed, and had been puzzled that she was merely "perplexed," according to Luke, as opposed to the outright fear most people in the Bible get when they encounter angels. I never understood why she was not full of disbelief, acting out, or even downright despair.

I sat there in my truck, I pulled out the bread, and stared at it in the Saran wrap, laughing to myself. "I GET it now!" Being told to take care of the bread by my priest was not a fearful thing, because I was pretty sure she trusted me with it and I was happy to honor that trust. I walked around the streets of Kirksville unnoticed, but quietly protecting a treasure inside my hoodie pocket that would not have appeared to be a treasure. I didn't feel the need to show it off because I did not want it to be mishandled or treated irreverently.

Suddenly for the first time I could identify with a Mary who understood somehow that Gabriel, an agent of God, trusted her on sight. I could imagine her, as the Christ Child grew inside of her, being protective of him, and being a little grateful that she was rather inconspicuous. It must have felt comforting to not have to deal with other people's projections of the unlikeliness of such a prospect. The attention of such a thing would have been uncomfortable and would have put both of them at risk. She would have told Elizabeth simply because she felt pretty good about the whole thing, and that's the kind of thing one only admits to folks one feels close enough to reveal such a thing.

When I finally got around to eating that bread, it was with gratitude to God for such a unique, yet ordinary way to come to that knowledge.

Advent is the time that we prepare for new births, new possibilities in our lives. The trouble is, our habit is to tend to imagine those things in grandiose, Cecil B. DeMille terms. The more likely possibility is that they exist in the tiny, mundane things of our existence. Are we open to being awake to that possibility?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

Love, lament and longing

by Martin L. Smith

Fundamental to all the great wisdom traditions of the world, including our own Christian spirituality, is the core insight that human beings are hard wired for self-deception. We are constantly finding plausible reasons for behaviors that in fact are motivated by quite different impulses largely hidden from consciousness. Modern brain science has found ways of demonstrating this hard wiring in action. There have been remarkable experiments with people who have had their right brain disconnected from their left brain through a drastic surgical procedure to relieve severe epilepsy. In one of these, the experimenter met with a boy who had had this operation in a trailer outside his home, and used picture cards to indicate that the boy was to go into his house and then come back. When the boy returned, the experimenter asked him why he had gone. Of course this verbal instruction was processed by the other side of the brain than the one that had processed the original signing. He instantly replied, "to get a Coke." It appears that the brain cannot tolerate gaps in the story we are weaving about what we are up to, and has an active 'department of inventiveness' responsible for fabricating fake reasons.

Authentic spirituality is always marked by a gentle but probing skepticism about the reasons we come up with for acting or failing to act in certain ways in our relationship with the Holy One. Take our difficulties in getting down to prayer. The faithful practice of prayer has now become largely an optional extra for many Christians, something most of us never actually get round to, and the reasons we tend to give for this point to our hectic lifestyle, pressure on our time, difficulties in finding the right place, problems we have with focusing. All perfectly true, of course. It was also true that the little boy in the experiment liked Coke. It just wasn't the real reason for going into the house. The real reasons for our avoidance of prayer might be concealed from our awareness. Spirituality addresses the task of allowing these hidden real reasons to break through our inner censorship.

Perhaps the real reason we find prayer so difficult to get around to is because it really demands today a level of emotional honesty most of us are unsure we can risk. Previous generations may have just prayed. Maybe it was the thing to do. But now prayer has become peculiarly psychologically demanding. Even the most basic prayer presents us with three challenges to our emotional life that can only be met from the place in us inside that is committed to maturity and honesty. I call them the three Ls.

Prayer asks that we Love with the brakes off, that we Lament, and that we Long. Loving, lamenting and longing ask a lot of us. Is it any wonder we find excuses to avoid prayer?

Since our faith is centered on the radical permission to identify ourselves as lovers of God, to "love God with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our soul and with all our strength," prayer must be about experimenting with expressions of love for God so that we declare that love. And prayer is the place for "taking the brakes off" so that our expressions of love for God aren't paltry and stilted, but generous, risk-taking and even passionate. These experiments are what is meant by praise and adoration. It isn't easy to let go. It takes practice.

Then there's Lament. It is impossible to express love for God without facing the shadow side of our relationship with God. The more we express love for God, the more painfully we become aware of how inadequate and precarious that love is, and how mixed up it is with our projections of fear and resentment, and our reluctance to forgive. We have to lament our own daily follies and tepidity and inconsistency, and lament the havoc and pain loose in the world because of our human disconnection from the Creator. Praying takes us to a place of grieving. Pain can't be avoided. Is it any wonder we find other things to do than pray?

And there is Longing. Prayer demands that we let desire out. We let loose with our longing to change, and for things to change, and the world to be changed. The bible ends with words that remind us that without the awakening of desire, nothing happens: "Let the one who desires take the water of life freely." But to identify oneself as a person of desire is very risky. We have surrendered our desire mainly to consumption: everything around us screams that things for sale are the true objects of desire and we have given in. To pray is to rebel, to take back our desire and let it loose on God and the world of possibilities Jesus called the realm of God.

Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba's, D.C., this first appeared in Washington Windows

Will you invite someone to church?

by Robert Warren Cromey

Spiritual and formerly religious people are the church’s best bet for new members and growth.

Many people today proclaim that they are spiritual but not religious. Others attend church from time to time and struggle with concepts of God, spirit, the Bible, Jesus, homosexuality, abortion, church and traditional beliefs in general. Some attended church as children and left after confirmation or when their family moved to another town, city, state or country. A remarkable number of young people today have never been to a church even for a wedding or funeral much less Sunday School or worship. Yet some say they are spiritual. I believe them.

SBNR equals I’m “Spiritual but not Religious.” When people are asked what they mean by being spiritual, the answers include:

I have a sense of awe and wonder, a sense of God as transcendent.
I want a sense of holiness and the divine in my life.
I want more love and forgiveness in my life.
We should have a better world. Food for the starving, homes for the homeless and justice for all.
I want a sense of family and community in my life.
I pray meditate, do yoga and appreciate nature.
I want peace in the world.

One of the biggest obstacles to joining a church is helping unlearn what people have learned in conservative, fundamentalist or Roman Catholic churches. They now call these teachings into question. The Bible is the big one. How could anyone believe in the Bible when it taught the world was created in seven days? Mary was a virgin and Jesus’ body was alive after he died? What does the word of God mean?

One woman said in frustration to her priest, “Just tell me what to believe.”

The priest replied, “I can’t do that, Linda. I can give you a way to look at what the churches have taught down through the centuries, then you have to decide what you believe.”

She said, “I don’t think I can do that.”

The priest said. “I see my religious belief as a work in progress. It has changed and developed over the years. It probably will refine as I get older. Belief is a journey.”

Linda joined the church, seeing it as a community of seekers.

Linda is like many people who have a sense that life is more than money, marriage, babies and accumulating. It was a vague awareness that her life’s meaning and purpose lay beyond the traditional values she had been taught in her fundamentalist church. She was taught about God, the Bible and Jesus. But it wasn’t enough. Her church gave her all the answers but did not minister to her spiritual needs. Her church also did not nurture her intellectual development and did not respond to the questions she asked about the meaning of the Bible, worship and sexuality.

At San Francisco Airport recently I got talking with a woman in her early thirties, a journalist, unmarried and pregnant. She said she was one of a growing new group Americans. She believed in some power above and beyond herself and this world. As a journalist she was most interested in the environment and thus she had a spiritual as well as political concern for the environment. Since she was pregnant she was aware of the mystical and awesome process of having a baby. She believed in love and concern for others. But she has always been skeptical of everything and did not like dogma handed down to her. Her family is Syrian Orthodox. We did not talk about that, but I assume that church has long boring liturgies in a foreign tongue. The doctrines and dogmas are set for her to believe without question.

The recovering fundamentalists and Roman Catholics and the SBNRs, those who say they are spiritual and not religious, are the seeking, searching people to whom our churches may look for new members.

The Rev. Robert Warren Cromey is a priest of the Episcopal Church, retired and living in San Francisco.

Embracing Advent

by Marshall Scott

I am deep these days in the process of transition. The circumstances are good: I’ve taken a new position within the health care system in which I’ve served for a long time. I’m excited and scared, and certainly honored with the opportunity.

At the same time, I don’t like transition. My dislike is sufficient that I’ve found it hard to write about – or even to write at all.

It’s not that I don’t like change. In general I do. I like new restaurants and new food. I have a history, when I have some time, to wander down a new street, whether in the car or on foot, just to see what’s down there.

But, what I like is, having been in the old place, to feel settled in the new place. I like being here or there. I just don’t like being in the middle.

After all, the middle feels uncertain, insecure. I have left one office, and am not yet settled in another. I have confidence in the skills that brought me to this place. I’m just not sure yet of the skills I will need to do the new position justice. I have a learning curve for the new job, and some loose ends to settle from the old one. I trust, by God’s grace, that in due time I will feel as comfortable in the job I have taken as I did in the job I left. I trust – but I’m not there yet.

I don’t like transition, and I live among a people who don’t like transition. You might think we would become accustomed to it. We are a culture that seems always to embrace the new. We herald the innovators and the “early adopters.” Our Buddhist siblings have noted one thing that we all experience: change is a basic truth of life. We call our society “fast paced” and “forward thinking.” Of all people we ought to be used to change.

And yet we don’t. We don’t like that sense of unsettledness, of uncertainty. We don’t like having to acknowledge a sense of incompetence or uneasiness or unreadiness. We talk about embracing change, but many of us want to be one place or another. We don’t like transition, that place in between.

Perhaps that explains our society’s leap to over Advent to get to Christmas. We have long noted how all around us our society starts embracing the Nativity before the kids have recovered from the indigestion of Halloween. Indeed, a few stores and a few radio stations started their references to Christmas before Halloween. Now, we can be realistic about the importance of the holiday season for retail sales. We can bemoan the loss of religiosity in our wider society. I wonder, though, if it isn’t in some part about discomfort with transition.

After all, Advent is all about transition. After spending the better part of a year moving from the Nativity to the feast of Christ the King, in Advent we seem to reverse that process in four weeks. We return in our lessons to the unsettled time into which John the Baptizer strode, a time when the crowds sought hope in the midst of uncertainty. We focus in our proclamation on preparation, highlighting our own sense of a “learning curve” in being ready for Christ’s kingdom. We step toward the end into perhaps the most mysterious transition of all: the pregnancy of a young woman. Obviously, I’ve never been pregnant; but I’ve been involved in two, and have observed many more. I can’t imagine a time of transition more profound, and yet more uncertain and anxious. The new parents I’ve known – the new parent I’ve been! – have all imagined life with a new baby, rather than the day to day changes that are part and parcel of pregnancy. Is it any surprise that our society, shaped by a Christian history that is denied but not entirely dissolved, should also want to jump over the transition to look at the baby?

Which is all the more reason that we people of faith need to slow down and embrace Advent. If our preparation for the Kingdom, and for the Nativity with which it begins, is to be meaningful, it must include learning and training, and even unease. Any other important endeavor in our lives requires this. Our goals, whether personal or professional, athletic or artistic or economic, require exercise, discipline, and education. Can our preparation for the Kingdom require anything less?

I don’t enjoy transition, and yet if I’m to do well my new job, I need the steps and stages and discovery that transition is made of. We might rather celebrate the Reign of Christ, and then jump straight to the birth of Christ who will reign. We still need the time and the training and the discoveries that Advent is made of. We might find it uncomfortable. Some might at first find it pointless, a series of distracting details while they wait for the really important events. We know better: that it is the details and the stories and the discoveries of Advent that help us understand the Kingdom we seek, and help us welcome the King who will be born.

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.

Occupy Wall Street and The Episcopal Church: a crisis of legitimation, or a movement of transformation?

By P. Joshua Griffin

Before I went to seminary my discernment committee gave me an assignment. I was relatively new to the Episcopal Church and they thought it would be a good idea if I interviewed several priests from different walks of life about their calling to ordained ministry. One of the priests I met with told me this: “I was committed to the Black Power movement. I had a full scholarship to law school and also to seminary. In the end, it seemed that my call was to the priesthood. It was the best way I could support the legitimate the grievances of the Black Power struggle—and to the extent that the Church was willing to accept that struggle as its own, legitimate the Church.”

Today our churches are facing a similar crisis of legitimacy. With our roots in an established State-church, whenever ‘power’ is in crisis, the Episcopal Church will be in crisis. Though we are concerned for ‘the oppressed,’ many parts of the Body enjoy a tremendous amount of privilege, remaining insulated from the lived experience of oppression, injustice, and violence. As an institution we enjoy a good deal of ‘spatial privilege.’ We have a lot of buildings where we worship and freely spread Christ’s Gospel of Love. We are often generous with what we have and we love to ‘speak out,’ but we are slow to take action toward those institutions that create the conditions we decry—poverty, injustice, and oppression. We focus a good deal on charity, but far less on addressing the power imbalances that render anemic the continued possibility of democracy in this fragile Republic.

The Occupy Movement is a radical-democratic movement, grounded in the principles of truth and justice, and direct action. It is the kind of movement that we venerate in history, yet many people who live comfortably fear it in the present. For my entire life, the last 30 years, our collective striving “for justice and peace among all people” has been modest because it has been divided. One church group works on racism, one on economic justice, one on climate change, one on immigration, one on Native-American wellbeing, and another one works against war—yet the struggle for justice is one. We have written letters, we have lobbied, we have voted. Ultimately we placed our faith in politicians above the Kingdom of God, and we were wrong.

Occupy is no mere ‘protest.’ The brilliance of the movement is its refusal to be reduced to specific policy demands. Occupy remains an insatiable movement of liberating creativity, an irreducible process for generating justice. Yet paradoxically, Occupy is also at it's best when it momentarily coheres into concrete demands—ie. liberating a particular foreclosed home for an unhoused family, reversing Citizens United, or closing the West Coast ports in solidarity with exploited port truckers. It is a replicable model for creating democratic space in a country and world dominated by unaccountable corporations.

We may remember from the Book of Genesis that creativity, to the uninitiated, may appear at times, as chaos. Occupy is not without its imperfections—but this is precisely why we as a church should embrace it and support it, as many have already done. Occupy Wall Street has presented Trinity Wall Street with a thoughtful, conscientious, and respectful blueprint for using a small parcel of property in order to reestablish their visible, public presence in the heart of global finance. The symbolic, or sacramental, importance of such a space cannot be overstated.

This movement is too important to be shunned to the periphery, or rendered invisible—especially with Congress’ alarming attempts this week to suppress political dissent through the National Defense Authorization Act. As Christians we have a responsibility to protect demonstrators from our governments’ reckless use of militarized policing—as evidenced by the brutal beating off a Methodist pastor in Seattle on Monday. Furthermore, it is only by embracing and engaging that we can help ensure Occupy’s commitment to nonviolence, as well as contribute our share of the spiritual resources needed for this transformational long-term struggle for justice. And finally, by providing safe-haven we can help insure participation from those communities who are so often terrorized by law enforcement—especially African-American youth and Latino/a immigrants.

Trinity Wall Street has a long history of supporting progressive dialog through its annual conference series. Over the years Trinity has used its extravagant wealth to support mission projects that serve the most vulnerable around the world. Charlotte’s Place has been a refuge for the Occcupiers even as they organize a campaign to compel Trinity to open its property to them! But let’s be honest. Like most of us, Trinity Wall Street is deeply dependent on the system that Occupy Wall Street is seeking to transform. To allow an encampment to be established on Trinity property may unfortunately require a greater depth of self-examination than the parish is willing to undertake.

This Advent, we remember a struggling migrant family who was turned away from the Inn, and a homeless infant King who was born in a stable. With Archbishop Tutu I invite Trinity to reexamine its position—there is far too much at stake. After he was ruthlessly beaten by Seattle Police on Monday evening, the Rev. John Helmiere, a chaplain at Occupy Seattle, had this message: listen deeply, get upset, and generate Love. The Episcopal Church is very good at listening, and pretty good at loving. Our ironic misfortune is that we may not have experienced enough suffering to always know when and how to get upset. Let there be peace among us, and may we not be instruments of our own, or anyone else’s oppression.

The Rev. P. Joshua Griffin is priest associate at St. David of Wales Episcopal Church in Portland, OR, and a Ph.D. student integrating environmental anthropology and religious studies at the University of Washington.

Room by Room

by Heidi Shott

After dropping my son off at school this morning, I stop for coffee at the bookstore in downtown Damariscotta. Sometimes I see friends or acquaintances there and stop for a bit to catch up, sometimes I splurge on a double latte, but today, with just a dollar in my pocket, I get a to-go cup and am out the door in a minute. As I stop to turn right on Main Street and head home, I look to my left and see a woman coming out of the Waltz’s Drugstore. She’s someone I worked with at the local newspaper 15 years ago, and I know a small portion of her story: her husband is an alcoholic, she wanted a baby but never got one, she stops each morning at a half dozen different places around town to buy lottery tickets. She often drinks coffee with the local guys at the soda fountain at Waltz’s.

“How are those boys?” she’ll call out when she sees me come in for a prescription or a greeting card.

“Great!” I chime. “How’re you doing?”

“Great!” she replies.

It’s easier now, but years ago when I’d be out and about with the our twin boys, our fertility drug babies, she would make a big deal of them. And I felt bad for the heartache seeing those boys must have caused her. I got two and she got zero, as though God cared which way our names are spelled, as people say around here.

With no cars barring my way, I turn right and see a man walking down the opposite sidewalk, head down, hands in coat pockets. My husband knows him better than I do, but I know him well enough to make small talk at parties. I know that last year he lost a wonderful and promising son in a car accident in Asia, and I can’t imagine such a loss.

As I make my turn and cross the bridge from Damariscotta into Newcastle, I pass a gas station and see a man at the pump. I remember ten years ago or so when his free-spirited wife left him and their young children for a biker. “You gotta be kidding me?” was the general response around town to that development. I remember getting my car inspected at the garage not long after and seeing his daughter sitting in the garage office watching a small TV with a powdered doughnut in hand. She smiled at me with her white mustache.

If I were to drive around town or go into Reny’s (small town Maine’s answer to Walmart) or stop at Yellowfront Market, I would no doubt see, in a matter of minutes, a dozen other people whose stories I know in part either first-hand or second. But there are many more people I pass around town whose faces I may recognize but whose stories I don’t know at all. How full God’s heart must be with all of our stories.

Each afternoon my favorite thing to do is to switch on the little lights we put in each window at this time of year. In our little part of town there are many 18th century colonials and capes clustered together and most of us do the “lights in the window” thing in December. It’s very lovely to look out and see the old houses twinkle. Our neighbors must be less cheap than I am because they’ve obviously invested in the lights that turn on automatically at dusk. Our little lights with the rotary switches that slide with a snap between your thumb and forefinger refuse to give up, so I can’t justify buying the new and improved variety.

But I like going from room to room and turning on the lights in this one season of the year where light, candlelight and pale lamplight, is imbued with wonder and meaning.

As I move from room to room I sometimes imagine what it must look like to someone walking along the road toward our house. First the lower right comes on, then the lower left, then a pause before the upstairs bedrooms and the little room that connects the house to the upper part of the garage. These little candles don’t shed sufficient light to see everything inside our home but they give the passer-by, or the driver who turns to look, a glimpse into the face of our world.

What these lights don’t show is what’s happening at the back of the house: a disheveled child grumbling over homework at the kitchen table, a woman unloading the dishwasher and wishing she were the type of person who always knew ahead of time what they were going to have for dinner, a man in an upstairs office playing a few decompressionary games of solitaire while sipping a shot of frozen lemon vodka, a blond-haired boy on the porch off the kitchen cocking his head to a jazz CD and working to match the notes on his saxophone.

The homework child says, “Would you knock it off, I’m trying to work here!”

The saxophone child says, “Idiot, I was here first!”

The woman says, “Would you guys please be nice to one another.”

Who would know what is true about the back of this house unless they knocked on the door and asked?

In his song “Laughter” Bruce Cockburn, sings, “I laugh for the dogs barking at our heels, they don’t know where we’ve been. I laugh for the dirty window panes, hiding the love within.”

Who can know? Who can know about anyone?

Perhaps this season of light, with its sense of expectation that even the most jaded among us feel, is one of the few times of year we’re granted the warrant to penetrate the darkness of unknowing that surrounds us on every side. Maybe it’s the time to knock on doors and ask, “How are you doing?”



As both an interviewer or a friend I've found that when asked, most people will answer. The desire to be known is so deeply found in each of us, because we know that to be truly known is to be loved. This season of light is about God caring about the details of our lives enough to enter into our midst and do something. Now we’re asked to be the face of God to one another: to walk down the road and knock on our neighbor’s door.

And it helps us to be brave when a light is on to greet us.

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

'tis the season on Facebook

by Kristin Fontaine

'Tis the Season on Facebook™ for those "Keep CHRIST in Christmas" memes. These type of copy/paste postings annoy me for two reasons: the inevitable 'repost if you are not ashamed' or '96% of people won't repost' passive-aggressive guilt-tripping that is tagged onto the end of the message; and the lack of thought it takes to re-post them. If a person feels strongly about a topic, I would much rather hear about it in their own words with specific examples from their life than read a canned message that someone didn't even bother to proofread.

In that spirit I was inspired to think about why the "Keep CHRIST in Christmas message" provoked such a strong reaction in me. It was so strong I started writing a fairly rant-laden response to the person who posted originally. I thought better of that and posted my rant to my own Facebook page. A few hours later I was surprised to find that a number of people had responded in the comments—apparently I wasn't alone in my reaction to the "Keep CHRIST in Christmas" message.

Here is what I wrote (edited for clarity):

"Personally I think the best thing is to live Christmas while at the same time being respectful of other religions. Having a winter holiday celebration is not unique to Christianity and in many cases we (the Christian religion) poached a local religion's holy day when Christianity moved into certain areas.

The Christmas season has become a cultural holiday and many family traditions remain associated with it. I'm not ashamed of being a Christian but the best way I can show that is not by trying to 'defend' Christmas but to live in the way that Christ taught, 365 days a year. I also respect the choices friends and family have made to be atheists, taoists, agnostic, christian, and pagan. Many of them live in ways that are closer to Christ than what I see of 'Christians' in the media. "Christmas" is a holiday (and holy day) that humans made up. We don't know exactly when Christ was born, so now he is 'born' during the darkest time of the year (in the northern hemisphere) when the sun is just about to return.

Christmas is a creation of people and should not be the center of Christian worship. The season has been a secular tradition for a long time now. We co-opted other religions holy days and 'saints,' now it's our turn to have our holy days co-opted by the secular majority. It is perhaps an good exercise in eating humble pie and being reminded of how the first Christians started out with just bread, wine, and the word."

This still sums up my feels on the matter. Since the time I wrote this response there have been other, more pithy and more humorous takes on the situation. Jon Stewart riffed on it (and on what religious freedom really means) on the Dec 6th edition of the Daily Show and counter-memes have sprung up on Facebook.

I love Christmas. I set up my nativities starting the first Sunday of Advent (and move the holy family, shepherds, and wise men around as the events of Christmas play out in the readings). This year I'm breaking into my son's legos to make a protestant nativity. This is my way of living into the story of Christ. My pagan housemate loves setting up our 'Christmas' tree every year. She picks the tree, lights it, and pick the color scheme for our holiday decorations (she is a designer and it comes through in everything she does). I would never tell her she couldn't set up a tree and enjoy the holiday because she is not a Christian. Not only would it be the height of rudeness, but it does not do anything to share the message of Christ.

Back in 2005, I went to Norway to visit my relatives and practice my Norwegian (which I had spent the previous 3 years learning). I knew going in that they were religious and that the branch of the family I would be staying with were active missionaries. I was thrilled to have the chance to stay with them, but also nervous that they would not find me 'Christian' enough and would try to convert me to their specific dogma. Within the first 24 hours of my visit, I was relieved of that fear completely. They were religious, but they lived it rather than tried to tell me what to believe. We did have some discussions about religion but they were interesting and stimulating, not off-putting or conversion-oriented. I still remember a conversation about grace that their college-age daughter and I had, partly because it was in Norwegian and I was so pleased that I mostly understood a complex discussion that taxed the limits of my vocabulary. The visit was wonderful and they were lovely hosts and very supportive of me and my attempts to keep conversing in Norwegian even when I was struggling.

A year or so later, they were in Seattle for a day at the end of a visit to the US and I got to take them around and show off a bit of my home to them. I took them to the last day of Folklife (a huge, free, festival at Seattle Center). We toured around, listening to music and watching some dancing, before we stumbled across a Christian protest group. I don't remember what they were on about, but they had signs and were of the 'you're all going to hell if you don't convert' variety. Intrigued, my relatives went over to talk to them. I hung back and watched. A fairly animated conversation ensued (my relatives are fluent English speakers). When we got back together, my relative shook his head and said that he had explained to the leader of the group that their methods would likely not be an effective way to spread the gospel.

I found it fascinating—particularly since I had originally thought that my relatives would be much more like the protestors than they turned out to be.

From this encounter I learned the difference between living the gospel, and shouting about it. My calm, quiet, faithful family caused me think about Christ much more than any protestor every has (or will). My little nativity scenes (or Christian action figures) allow me to show the story of the birth of Christ to anyone who is interested. My son and I have had more conversations about religion as a result of him asking about why I hide the baby Jesus until December 25th, than from any sermon he has heard at church.

Sharing the story of Christ is something that should happen every day in the way a Christian lives. Telling people they 'should' do something in order to be saved, in order to celebrate a season 'correctly', or in order not to go to hell is never going to be as effective as living a Christian life in the open and letting others see Christ in you 365 days a year.

Kristin Fontaine blogs at Ceramic Episcopalian.

Biblical Justice in Light of Occupy Wall Street Part 3

by Bill Carroll

Part 3: Christ the King (November 20, 2011)
The lessons appointed are here.

Two weeks ago, on All Saints’ Day, we heard the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry with this programmatic statement of its meaning and purpose. Think of it as his first inaugural address. Luke has a version of this as well in the sermon Jesus preaches in his hometown synagogue in chapter 4. In that sermon, Jesus proclaims the jubilee year, in which debts are cancelled, captives released, and the oppressed set free. Here in Matthew, as Jesus pronounces the joyful blessings of the Beatitudes, he is also showing us the kind of kingdom he came to bring. In God’s Kingdom, the poor, the merciful, and the pure in heart, to name but a few, find themselves blessed with the divine abundance. They find themselves with pride of place. That’s something for us to ponder today, as we celebrate Christ the King.

But, on this occasion, I’d like to draw our attention to the fourth beatitude: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

That reminds me of something we read this morning, though it was written some six hundred years before the Advent of Christ. The words of the prophet Ezekiel were in fact written during the exile of the children of Israel in Babylon. Ezekiel is a priest, one with particularly strong loyalties to the House of David and the Temple. And yet he finds himself carried off into a strange land by invading armies.

Like other prophets before him, Ezekiel discerns God’s judgment in historical events. Again and again in Scripture, prophets confront the idolatry of Israel’s kings, as well as their society’s exploitation of the poor, particularly widows and orphans. Again and again, they remind the children of Israel that they were slaves in Egypt and that freedom, life, and land came to them as the gift of God. In God’s Name, the prophets call the People to repent and keep God’s commandments. They remind them of the requirement to be holy, just as God in the midst of them is holy.

And yet, in the end, even a prophet like Ezekiel, for all his profound sense of the holiness of Zion and its sacred places, finds himself far, far away, longing for the courts of the Lord. He finds himself in exile, trying to be faithful to God in a new situation.
But he doesn’t give up hope. Rather than giving in to cynicism or despair, he preaches a message of hope. He hears and proclaims a promise to sustain the People in their exile. In his bones, Ezekiel knows that God is about to act. “For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep…I will rescue them from the places where they have been scattered…I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep…I will seek the lost and bring back the strayed. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak.”
And—here comes the part that recalls the fourth beatitude—“I will feed my sheep with justice,” says the Lord.

I thought about these words last week at our diocesan convention, when I heard Bishop Breidenthal preach to us. He spoke with great pride about the many ways that our local congregations reach out to those in need, including here at Good Shepherd. But the bishop didn’t stop there. It would have been easy for him to stop, but he didn’t. The bishop went on to say that although “we must never slow down this outreach or step away from it…the task that now lies before us is to move from outreach to systemic change.”

“For example,” he said, “how do we move from providing school supplies to needy children every fall.” (as many of our churches do) “to combining our voices and our collective political clout to addressing Ohio’s failure to support public schools?” It was a very brave thing for him to say. And, in an aside, he noted that Cincinnati had just failed to pass a levy—a badly needed levy. We might think about this in more detail here in this parish. We might also ask ourselves how our many efforts to feed hungry people connect with the struggle to remove the root causes of hunger and poverty, or how our prison ministries connect with efforts to reduce recidivism or reform conditions within the prisons and for those who are seeking to reenter society.

“I will feed my sheep with justice,” says the Lord. How often do we really think about that, here in this parish church named for Christ the Good Shepherd? In the Scriptures, shepherd is a royal image. To shepherd the flock means to rule God’s People. And the Good Shepherd, who “lays down his life for the sheep,” is unlike the idolatrous and unjust rulers who came before—and many since. Jesus is the King, the Son of David, in whose Name the prophets spoke, condemning injustice and announcing the coming day of the Lord. In Jesus the Messiah, in God’s anointed King, God has drawn near to us in love, to seek the lost and strengthen the weak. And he will feed all those who hunger and thirst for justice.

In Ezekiel’s vision, the shepherd judges “between sheep and sheep,” strengthening the weak but destroying the strong. It’s not hard to see how this image lies behind the vision of the last judgment that Christ presents in today’s Gospel. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory,” Jesus says, “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates sheep from goats.”

The basis of this judgment? It’s how we respond to the needs of the least of these—to those who are hungry or thirsty, to immigrants and strangers, to prisoners and sick people, to those who lack clothing and their daily bread. For we are to seek and serve Christ in all persons, especially those who have no other helper. And we will find Christ here, in these brothers and sisters—or not at all.

And, though we may hope in the mercies of God, which are wider than this stark vision of judgment suggests, we dare not ever presume that this is so. How dare we presume the blessings of the Kingdom will be ours, if we do not follow the King? We who drive away those whom God would gather, who harm those God would heal and starve those God would feed, or who turn a blind eye to any form of suffering will have to answer to Christ the Lord when we stand before his judgment seat. The very thought of it makes me tremble. For we all fall short by his righteous standard. Every political party. Every candidate. Every platform, manifesto, and plan. And every last one of us—ALL of us. The gate is indeed narrow that leads to life. Thank God the mercy of Christ has opened it.

Some ninety years ago, in his closing address to the 1923 Anglo-Catholic Congress, Bishop Frank Weston gave a rousing sermon entitled “Our Present Duty.” I’d like to close with part of it today, because I think it points us to the implications of today’s Gospel in times like these, with hungry people everywhere and people taking to the streets. The final section, in particular, speaks to what it might mean for us to seek and serve Christ in all persons today.

If you say, Bishop Weston writes, that the [Christian] has a right to hold his peace while his fellow citizens are living in hovels below the level of the streets, this I say to you, that you do not yet know the Lord Jesus in his Sacrament. You have begun with the Christ of Bethlehem, you have gone on to know something of the Christ of Calvary -- but the Christ of the Sacrament, not yet…I am not talking economics, he said, I do not understand them. I am not talking politics, I do not understand them. I am talking the Gospel, and I say to you this: If you are Christians, then your Jesus is one and the same: Jesus on the Throne of his glory, Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus received into your hearts in Communion, Jesus with you mystically as you pray, and Jesus enthroned in the hearts and bodies of his brothers and sisters up and down this country. And it is folly -- it is madness -- to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the Throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children. It cannot be done.

There then, the bishop continued, as I conceive it, is your present duty; and I beg you, brethren, as you love the Lord Jesus, consider that it is at least possible that this is the new light that the Congress was to bring to us…Now go out into the highways and hedges…Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.

I speak to you in the Name of Christ, the King. Amen.

The Rev. Bill Carroll serves as Rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. His parish blog is at here

Biblical Justice in Light of Occupy Wall Street Part 2

by Bill Carroll

Part 2: The Sunday After All Saints’ Day (November 6, 2011)
The lessons appointed are here

When he was here with us last Sunday for a workshop, Donald Schell alluded to something controversial that our Presiding Bishop said a couple of years ago As often happens, her words were taken by detractors and used out of context. It caused quite a stir at the time.

And, as I was thinking about today’s sermon for All Saints’ Day, I decided to look up her remarks and see what she actually said. I found that they were part of her opening address to the 2009 General Convention. The theme of that convention was Ubuntu, an ideal present in many African cultures, perhaps made famous by Desmond Tutu and other heroes of the struggle for liberation in South Africa. Ubuntu means that “I am, only because you are.” For the Ubuntu philosophy, the community is always prior to the individual.

And I think that’s what got our Presiding Bishop into trouble. Because in that sermon to the General Convention, she spoke about “the great Western heresy, namely “that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God.”

And she spoke with great passion about the implications of that heresy, which we see all around us. Implications for how we care for the earth and how we care for one another in a global economy rife with greed and violence and injustice. As we put ourselves and our desires at the center of the universe, without regard for our neighbors, the common good, or the purposes of God, we become guilty, she said, of a form of idolatry. We turn in on ourselves, so that our desires and our wants become our gods--the only objects of our worship, the things before which we would sacrifice all other values and persons.

It is a grim picture, one that points to an even grimmer reality. We see it all around us. We see it in lengthening breadlines, in overwhelming unemployment and foreclosures, in stagnant wages, and in desperate, hopeless people. We see it today in Europe, with the debt crisis giving way to general strikes and rioting in the streets. And we see it in a groaning creation stretched to the point of breaking by human overreach. We see it in growing cynicism that anything we can do will change the future or make a better life for our children.

Now, I’m here to tell you that our Presiding Bishop was right. On this All Saints’ Day, I am here to tell you that we are saved together--or not at all. When God calls someone, God always calls that person into a community. And, in the Bible, again and again, God is calling all of us into a universal community. Not just the privileged few. Not some. Not even the 99% that we’ve been hearing so much about. But ALL of us. Because all of us are made for community with one another, and we are redeemed as a People—set free by the living God.

And so today, as we celebrate the communion of saints—that great cloud of witnesses, living and dead, bound together in Christ. Today, as we celebrate those whose rest is won as well as those who still labor and struggle here on earth. Today, we are given hope, because we hear in the Scriptures that the final chapter of the human story has not yet been written. In the words of John the Apostle, it does not yet appear what we shall be. And so, we wait in hope for God’s future--with a militant patience. And we know that when Jesus is revealed in his glory, we will be like him. For we shall see him as he is. And each one of us, each in his or her own unique way, will be like him. Indeed, we are already on the way. For we have drawn near to Jesus in faith, and by his Spirit at work among us we are being made holy.

Brothers and sisters, the image of God into which we are reborn is SOCIAL. Like the Trinity, the communion of saints is one without destroying personal differences. In Christ, we are joined each to each in a community of equals, without ever becoming the same.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus points out some of the great obstacles to the unity of the human race. In the blessings he gives us, these obstacles are removed, one by one, as the poor, the merciful, the hungry, and the peacemakers find themselves sharing in God’s abundance.

As a result, we don’t have to live out of scarcity in a kind of Hobbesian war of all against all. Rather, we are brought to eternal peace by the blood of the Lamb. And we are caught up in a cosmic symphony of praise by a love that breaks down every wall that divides us from our neighbors. And so, with John we behold a great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.

They are here with us now—these holy ones. They are present at God’s Table, praying, singing praises, and giving thanks to God and to the Lamb. And neither poverty nor war nor death itself can stand before this victorious band of apostles, prophets, and martyrs. For, in them, Jesus and his love have triumphed. In us, they are about to triumph. He is our Shepherd, who brings us to the springs of the water of life. Who shelters us and feeds us with his own Body and Blood.

And we have been made into a community of brothers and sisters, children and heirs of his generous Father.

We are members of a single Body, a single blessed fellowship divine, with Christ himself as our Head.

Biblical Justice in Light of Occupy Wall Street Part 1

Three Sermons on Biblical Justice in Light of Occupy Wall Street
Part 1: Proper 23A (October 9, 2011)
by Bill Carroll

The lessons appointed are here.

How funny it is, in light of this day's Old Testament reading, that one of the iconic images of this week in history is that of some police officers standing guard over a bronze statue of a bull. The bull in question is on Wall Street, which, in case you haven't heard, is under attack. And the marauding hordes laying siege to capitalism's holy of holies are protestors acting in the name of what they term the ninety-nine percent. The call to "occupy" Wall Street made use of the very same statue: it had a picture of that golden calf with a dancer doing an arabesque on the top of it. But I sort of like the picture with the cops. If I had to give it a caption, it might read "These are your gods, which brought you out of Egypt."

And I have to wonder, really: How many children would we sacrifice to Molech, in order to get that bull charging forward again?

The rector of Trinity Church, Wall Street, a church that sits next to a park where many of the protestors have camped, issued a carefully worded statement, the kind of statement that only a rector could write. It reads in part: "Trinity Wall Street respects the rights of citizens to protest peacefully and supports the vigorous engagement of the concerns that form the core of the protests – economic disenfranchisement and failure of public trust."

Then comes the careful part. He goes on to say:

With its long history, Trinity is...a place where meaningful conversations between people with divergent viewpoints can happen... As the protest unfolds, I invite you to hold all those involved in your prayers: the protesters, neighborhood residents and business owners, the police, policy-makers, civic leaders, and those in the financial industry – ALL – and to consider the ways we might take steps in our own lives that improve the lives of others.

Not too bad a statement as these things go, and surprisingly sympathetic to the protestors. Though, as one might expect from that quintessential establishment church, the statement does lift up business owners, cops, politicians, and the financial industry as well. The Episcopal Church is, after all, the church of J. P. Morgan--and many of our nation's presidents and founding fathers, including John Jay, the First Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, writer of many Federalist Papers, and a one-time warden of Trinity Church. Jay is the one who wrote that "The people who own the country ought to govern it."

But the Episcopal Church is also the Church of Vida Scudder, whose feast day we celebrate tomorrow. Vida was an English professor at Wellesley, a labor activist, and a self-described "socialist Churchwoman." She once led a protest outside the General Convention, because it was filled with the likes of Morgan and Jay. In her book, The Church and the Hour, published in 1917, Scudder writes the following:

This is the hour of opportunity; this is the hour of the Church. In the last fifty years she has accomplished a great preparation, by her rediscovery of the purpose of Jesus. Few and hesitant, however, have been her attempts to realize that purpose, to strive boldly, through profound labors of readjustment and reconstruction, to establish the Kingdom of God, the kingdom of love, on earth. Perhaps one cause of her semi-paralysis has been her failure to recognize that the central incident in the process of establishing the kingdom must always be a Cross.

It must always be a Cross.

Now, if Good Shepherd is like most Episcopal churches, it includes people all over the political map, from John Jay to Vida Scudder and everything in between. Athens being Athens, I'm sure we tend to cluster toward one end of that spectrum, but that doesn't mean we all agree.

If I may, however, I'd like to draw our attention to one word in that statement from Fr. Cooper of Trinity Church. That one little word "All." All means all. It doesn't mean "some." And therein lies the radical power of the Gospel. Therein lies the radical power of love. In an era of "diminishing democracy" and unaccountable elites, the Church remembers that all means all.

And, as a result, we don't take our stand with one class or party. We don't support the agenda of property owners or some self-appointed revolutionary vanguard, either of whom may be certain of the rightness of their cause. As followers of Jesus, we take our stand with the one God of ALL reality. Not the golden calf of this or that tribe but the liberator God, who creates a world from nothing and sets people free.

And that's what's at stake in today's Gospel, isn't it? The king holds a wedding feast for his son. But it's not like the wedding feasts we see on the cover of the tabloids or some episode of "Real Housewives," is it? It isn't some fancy affair for the privileged few, the fabled one percent.

In fact, when the king holds a wedding banquet for his son, the in-crowd makes one excuse after another, refusing love's invitation. Until at long last, the king has to throw wide open the doors: "Go therefore into the main streets," he says, "and invite everyone you find there inside."

And so they go. And they invite them in--really, they break down the doors. They invite everyone--the good, the bad, and the ugly--until ALL alike take their seats at God's table.

There is that poor fellow who gets tossed out. What do we make of him? What is the wedding garment that he lacks? One traditional answer is charity. Or maybe it's that holiness without which we will not see the Lord. And the closer we get to love, the closer we get to God, and the more we are made holy. After all, it is love's banquet. But those of us who aspire to be one-percenters, who try to wall ourselves off from our neighbors (and, if need be, from God) may well find ourselves cast out.

All does mean ALL. We worship the God of the one lost sheep, as well as the ninety-nine who never left the fold.

And God really did give God's only Son for the life of the world.

This is his banquet. This is his feast. It is the feast of feasts. A feast not like any other.

And all are invited. Not some. Not a privileged few. But ALL.

So come. Come to his table. Come to his feast.

Come and eat. Come and drink, without condition or price.

Because all means all.

And God so loved the world.

The Rev. Bill Carroll serves as Rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. His parish blog is at here

Prepare ye the way

by Maria Evans

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” --Isaiah 40:3-5

Not long ago, one of the most exciting things for me in my rather sleepy rural northeast Missouri lifestyle was the opening of the new US Highway 63 bypass near Kirksville. As a child, one of my secret pleasures was getting to ride on a new road the day it was opened. It always seemed futuristic, full of opportunity and promise. New roads almost always cut through a rather sparsely inhabited area, and with no billboards up yet, it always had a rather pristine quality to it. It was like seeing an unlimited future of potential sprawled in front of me.

So it should not surprise anyone I thought about the new bypass a lot. Really, it was overdue for decades. Making a left turn on US 63 had become impossible in Kirksville at certain times of the day, and many stoplights on the road could easily be filled from traffic light to traffic light.

Unfortunately, it only took me about a day to get around how this new road was going to change things that had become my routine for eleven years. Every day, for eleven years, I drove to work by getting on US 63 and driving for about six miles, turned right on Potter St., turned left on Osteopathy St., and taking Osteopathy to the hospital complex. Every afternoon was the reverse--Osteopathy to Potter, to 63. Suddenly my routine was changed to US 63, including the new bypass, turn right at Route P, continuing on Route P (which changes names to Northtown Road,) and then turning left on Osteopathy.

I had no trouble making these changes going TO work--it was coming home FROM work that was the trouble. Every day, for weeks, instead of crossing Potter St. to get to Northtown Road, I would instinctively turn right onto Potter and then left on what is now the "old" 63, and without fail I would forget to turn right at Route P. I would get past the P turnoff, and invariably forget, and be heading north on "old" 63. Unfortunately, the northernmost access point to the bypass is not finished, and the "old" 63 temporarily dead-ends. So day after day I would realize I had gone too far, turned around, and headed back to get on the bypass the way I was supposed to. I was always thinking about some leftover from work, and miss my turn flat. I would then spend the rest of my trip home berating myself over my stupidity.

The Revised Common Lectionary readings for the second week in Advent often have the theme of "repentance." In Biblical Hebrew, the words used for repentance literally mean "to change" and "to feel sorrow"--in Biblical Greek, "to change one's consciousness." My nightly error became a regularly repeating reminder that changing one's consciousness is not as easy as one would expect.

Now, I like to think of myself as a fairly adaptable and flexible person, and quite frankly, a bit smarter than average. My chosen career rewards me for solving puzzles accurately and quickly (although not fast enough by some surgeons' standards, at times.) So this nightly gaffe became my latest exercise in sheer frustration. I would find myself cursing a blue streak at myself the moment I passed the P turnoff. Normally, my fifteen-to-twenty minute drive home is the treat of my day. It's a time I generally unwind and leave my work behind me and switch from the business of being the busy professional to the quirky hermit. Instead, I was ruining my evenings by fuming all the way home.

Then, one day, I remembered a frustration in my residency twenty years ago--learning to cut a frozen section. For the uninitiated, a frozen section is when the surgeon sends out a piece of fresh tissue from a surgical case and asks the pathologist, "What is it?" We freeze the tissue in a device called a cryostat, then cut the tissue in the cryostat on a device called a microtome, stain it, and render a diagnosis. The patient is asleep, and time matters. The answer may change the course of the surgery. In my residency, I remember how for ages I couldn't cut a slide to save my soul. I felt the weight of all the pressure of doing this in a timely fashion. Then one day, miraculously, I walked in and cut a frozen section like I had been doing it for decades. I simply had done it enough times that I could do it without thinking.

So, in like fashion, I quit putting pressure on myself. I decided that I'd simply laugh at my gaffe, turn around, and go home. Within a couple of days, my brain and body had made the switch. I was driving home the "new" way.

The problem with repentance is we have this tendency to think it's a one-time process, and that at the end of that one time we should have it all figured out, and we can move on. That's almost never the case. Our intent and our will is for it to be over and done with, and instead we find ourselves repeating the same misguided act or mentally dredging up what led us to repent in the first place...over and over...and over and over some more. We berate ourselves for our stupidity. We curse the darkness. We begin to place more and more pressure on ourselves to be "good," or tack an insanely short time frame goal for it to happen. Only until we accept our own humanity do we actually begin to repent, and only over time do we begin to take the new way home without thinking.

If only our Gospel accounts of John the Baptist had been written down--just once--with John saying, "Repent!...again...and again...and again some more...and don't plan on getting it right the first time." How much turmoil would we have saved from being schooled in this simple fact of the process of change?

Eucharistic Prayer C tells us that again and again God calls us to return. It only stands to reason that if we generally don't hear it the first time, we should not be surprised if we don't "get" it the first time when we respond to what we've heard--and the first part of "getting" it is being able to forgive ourselves and leave enough room to do it. If we do it enough times, something is bound to change. After all, we humans are creatures of habit.

When we prepare a highway for the Lord, we need to remember it wasn't built in a day--nor will we get used to it in a day.

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

Bible-Reading Episcopalian: Who Knew?

by Kathy Staudt

“Who knew that Episcopalians read the Bible”? Twice in the last month, someone has said exactly these words to me, in contexts that now have me wondering. Both conversation partners were people who have been excited to find that you can read the Bible faithfully without taking it literally (indeed, a new book by Christian Smith that I’ve just started reading has suggested that “Biblicism” as we know it in American Protestant tradition actually undermines the enterprise of Evangelism -- but that’s for another post). One was a young adult raised in a progressive, pluralistic household, who is curious about the Bible, and has become more interested in reading Scripture because conversations with an online Episcopalian friend. The other was a priest raised in a deeply conservative Evangelical tradition, who told me he was drawn to the Episcopal Church partly through a “Disciples of Christ in Community” (DOCC) class. “I was raised to think that Episcopalians knew nothing about the Bible, he said, and here were people animatedly engaged in learning about Scripture: Who knew that Episcopalians were readers of the Bible?”

I wonder now whether some of the efforts in the 1980’s and 90’s to promote Bible Study among the laity -- the development of DOCC and EFM, the teachings of people like Verna Dozier and the adult Bible studies she designed -- are actually beginning to “take” among a critical mass of Episcopalians. Certainly it is true to our tradition to take Scripture seriously -- part of the “three-legged stool” of Scripture, Reason and Tradition, but taking a place of priority in many ways. At the consecration of Bishop Mariann Budde I noticed again that one of the things every ordained person must say publicly (in addition to accepting the “doctrine, discipline and worship of Christ as this church has received them”) is “I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary for salvation” (BCP, 538). And the next morning, in church, we offered this collect -- which comes around every year just at the end of the long season of Pentecost:

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 Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. (Proper 28, BCP p. 236)

“For our learning,” Verna Dozier emphasized: We read Scripture, the record of how men and women experienced the work of God, as our way of learning who God is calling us to be, in our time and place and lives. And each generation is invited to this practice of reading, marking learning, taking in Scripture. When I read recent books by former evangelicals promoting “new ways of reading Scripture” I find that I recognize the way that I have been taught to read Scripture, first in a fairly liberal Presbyterian church in the 1960’s, but then beginning in the 70’s, in Bible studies and conversations with fellow Episcopalians. In our effort to distinguish ourselves from literalist and fundamentalist approaches to Scripture and doctrine, we may well have ceded too much ground in the public conversation about and use of Scripture to guide and inform our account of ourselves.

“Who knew?” What would it be like, if people knew Episcopalians as people who were faithful, creative, thoughtful and open-hearted readers of the Bible, and who do regard it as the Word of God for us, in each succeeding generation, using all the resources of reason and tradition to “hear read, mark learn and inwardly digest” what the Scriptures contain?

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.

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