Intercessory Prayer and
the Butterfly Effect

by Maria L. Evans

Almighty and eternal God, ruler of all things in heaven and earth: Mercifully accept the prayers of your people, and strengthen us to do your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
--Collect at the Prayers of the People, p. 394, Book of Common Prayer

This is going to sound a little strange, but I had to understand quantum physics a little better in order to believe in intercessory prayer.

Here's my sordid confession: When I returned to the institutional church after over two decades in the unchurched wilderness, I thought intercessory prayer was absolutely, completely bogus. I would just stand and grind my teeth during the Prayers of the People. In fact, it felt downright icky. In my mind at the time, it smelled of negotiating with God with all the schmooze of a Persian rug trader. "Hey, God, have I got a deal for you! I've got these friends here, and we're all gonna pray about this thing hear and surely the sheer numbers of folks I have rounded up on this will swing you over to seeing this my way." That just seemed to not work with why I thought I was back attending church.

I even avoided jumping in as a pinch-hit intercessor by fibbing to my priest at the time a bit. I claimed that I had "anxiety issues" about being an intercessor. Lector, no problem. I read what was in front of me at a lectern like teaching a class. I said I could do that, but I could not do the "stand in a middle of a group thing," doing the Prayers of the People from the pews. I poured it on thick. It worked for quite a while, actually. But the truth was, I did not want to admit to someone with a collar that I didn't believe in intercessory prayer. Over time, I stopped grinding my teeth, but I just more or less had come to a blank form of acceptance/non-acceptance that "Intercessory prayer is what we do in the liturgy and it doesn't last very long, and if I just don't think about it, it will be over soon enough." Eventually, I could at least pinch-hit on the intercessions--mostly by imagining someone else was doing it in my voice.

Switch gears to another end of my parallel universe. I was growing ever-more curious about the strange weather and the weird seasons we were experiencing. Huge snowstorms. Hurricanes that dumped inches and inches of water on northeast Missouri, turning it into a sea of mud. Days on end of 100 plus degree heat and (by my account) 120 percent humidity. Clouds of bugs I was not used to seeing at certain times of the year (a patio full of June bugs in March seemed just wrong, somehow.)

These odd weather phenomena got me to reading a lot of lay press about meteorology, which led me to something we now call "the butterfly effect." The short, highly distilled version is this: Meteorologists have been frustrated for decades that their most scientific methods still only allow the ability to predict the weather only a few days in advance with any significant reproducible accuracy. The phrase, coined by mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz, refers to the possibility that, in an atmospheric system, every single thing in the system and what it is doing has a very small effect on the initial conditions of that system. His catch phrase was "Does the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?"

Well, not exactly. The butterfly does not cause the tornado--but the butterfly flapping its wings is part of the initial conditions of the atmospheric state, and what it does, matters.

The idea that every single thing going on around me, matters, was a new concept. I've always felt so much of what I did in my life didn't matter much at all. Who cares what I ate for breakfast? What does it matter to you if I get five hours of sleep or seven? Then again, how do these things affect my "best" day behind the microscope versus one of my more disjointed days? How do the actions of other people hold me up on those disjointed days? I thought of all the times my office staff has reminded me of meetings, or reminded me a case was still pending.

This led me to read another book, "How God Changes Your Brain," by Andrew Newberg, M.D. It gave me pause. This guy was not some magic crystals and copper bracelets crackpot, he was (by my way of thinking,) a "real" neuroscientist with academic credentials that would be respectable in any large teaching hospital. He wasn't trying to "prove" God by means of science. He was only saying that people who devote a certain amount of thought to God, no matter what their religious tradition, experience neurobiological changes in their brains that are visible on PET scans.

This led me to one simple thought--"What if I pray in intercessory fashion, if only for the purpose of changing my own brain with relationship to my understanding of God? What if I don't even worry about whether I believe in it or not, but I merely concentrate on doing it?"

So I did. I did it in that way I learned to dribble a basketball with my off-hand or poke an outside pitch to the opposite field, or hit a golf ball out of a bunker. I just did it over and over and over with no thought to a single thing but to do it, do it repeatedly, and do it because I wanted to do it. (No obsessive-compulsive behavior in this house, nosiree Bob...) I would take the bulletin insert home from church on Sunday and pray that list of intercessions every day, sometimes two and three times a day, sometimes getting on one of those "light a virtual candle" sites and compulsively clicking on candle after candle and keying in name after name on the prayer list. Then I would go off about my business and not give it another thought.

Then one day, I heard the story of someone's experience with being the object of intercessory prayer, and for the first time, I actually listened to it. Then I realized what had not happened. I had not felt that twinge of irritation. I did not feel the urge to prevent my upper lip from curling into a sneer. I did not fight rolling my eyes. I listened, and felt calm and realized I had accepted what was said, with no sense of needing to challenge it, somehow. I backtracked my thoughts--did I just do that?--and then got smacked in the nose with another epiphany--I had actually started to look forward to doing the intercessions, in the previous week or so, and had actually started to feel odd if too much time elapsed between sessions!

One could say it was my own brush with a very personal Butterfly Effect--and perhaps that is where the real message lies.

Is it possible that every single thing we've ever experienced, good or bad, wonderful or awful, has the potential to bring us not just individually closer to God, but brings us microns closer to bringing in the Reign of Christ? We are told in various places and a variety of ways in the Gospels that God and the Kingdom are here, now, within us, and among us. Are we caterpillars, smack in the middle of a Butterfly Effect beyond our wildest imaginations? I can't answer for God, but it seems to me that quantum physics leaves that door wide open. All we have to do is choose to walk through it, believing or not believing--and let the butterflies do their thing.

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

Home church-ing

by Ann Fontaine

Undoubtedly you have heard of home schooling or as it is also called “unschooling.” Whether you have opinions for it, against it or mixed you can read all about how this movement has spread to all areas of the US among both evangelical fundamentalists who want to keep their children away for those who might teach something counter to their beliefs to parents who feel public school is not offering enough choice or providing enough challenge and variety to their children.

What I have noticed lately is a movement to what I call “home churching.” Parents who want their children to have faith and moral guidance and meaning for life, are teaching their children at home rather than sending them to Sunday school or taking them to church services.

Often a day is set apart without television or internet and time is made for family discussions or experiences of spiritual growth. Family meetings and open discussion of questions about life and meaning are held over a meal that is prepared together. Bible stories may be told. Children may work with art materials or other tactile objects.

I think the reasons for this movement are similar to reasons for home schooling. There is the desire to offer something to children that is not available elsewhere or seems deficient or is not nearby. Another factor may be that Sunday is the only day families are not committed to getting up and getting the kids off to school and parents off to work. Of course for home school-ers and parents who work from home there are other reasons that are similar to reasons for home schooling.

From an “unchurch” family:

We didn’t really know we were doing it until you commented on our practice. We tried going to various churches, but the Episcopal ones were too dusty and the UCC/Unitarian ones were too squishy. Our “unchurching” sort of just evolved organically. The no screens (no TV or computers for children and adults) thing came first. Then we started saying grace. So we always say grace at dinner, even when they are restaurants or at friends’ houses. We say dear lord and amen and even though I don’t particularly believe in the deity. There’s something nice and traditional about it, and it really works for the kids. What we usually say is something for which we are grateful or for something that we hope; typical prayer stuff. We also have a family meeting on Sunday. We sing a song, talk about various issues, like what we want to learn about that week, upcoming trips, and any family stuff like problems we had during the week. I guess the main thing is that we didn’t really say the church is not for us, let’s do something different. It was more just a natural outgrowth of our spirituality and experiences. Although church really doesn’t work for us, I’m not sure we think of ourselves as doing something alternative to it.

Since talking with this family I began notice organizations that offer materials to support parents and children who are “home churching.” Religious groups who support home schooling also provide materials about teaching the faith at home. Some churches offer handouts as take home materials. Many families develop their own way of sharing their spirituality with their children.

Candle Press offers resources for families. Godly Play can be adapted for use in homes. Sharon Pearson at Build Faith shares resources for sharing faith at home. She also gives ideas for creating a prayer space at home.

As with home schooling or unschooling – home churching or unchurching has many approaches. The one common element is a desire for a more holistic experience of faith – not one just relegated to an hour or less on Sunday morning.

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

Love is Listening::Listening is Love

Shortly after we welcomed Robert as a visitor to our fledgling congregation, he told me that we were welcoming him back to the Episcopal Church as well. It was early in San Francisco’s encounter with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Robert told me he’d spent some happy years in a Quaker Meeting, but when he’d gotten his diagnosis, felt he wanted more liturgy, holy words and action. And he felt hungry for sacrament.

Robert still looked well, but in the early 1980’s before anti-retroviral therapy, we learned to expect that friends who tested HIV positive would be in health crisis in months and likely dead months later.

When Robert first told me he was HIV positive, he asked that we not pray for him publicly, and he said he wasn’t ready for me to mention it to others in the congregation. He already knew that he’d be asking for public prayers and help later.

To begin Robert had simply come to his new pastor to say, “I need your help. My doctor tells me I’m facing a death sentence, and I can’t pray.” I asked him how his prayer used to feel before the diagnosis. “I had a strong sense of God’s presence. I’d speak and feel God listening, and sometimes I’d sense God speaking to me.”

I’d learned as a spiritual director to listen for anger when people said their praying felt suddenly dry or flat. Feeling Robert’s urgency to recover a voice and heart for prayer, I simply asked him, “are you angry with God?” Robert looked startled and maybe chagrined. “What right have I got to be angry with God? God gets to do whatever God wants, I guess.”

“Robert, I’m not talking about blame or asking how you might try imagine ‘God’s will’ in this, but if I were you, I’m pretty sure I’d be feeling a lot of anger including a lot of anger at God.” We talked some about the feelings he felt free to admit, an undirected mix helplessness and anger, until he asked me, “What difference would it make for me to toss that mess back to God?”

“If it’s all you’ve got to say to God, praying your anger might give you back a voice and ear for praying,” I replied. I gave him a copy of Pierre Wolff’s little book May I Hate God? Robert flinched as he took in the title, but then he grinned a conspiratorial grin. “You could be right.”

“Robert,” I told him, “it’s a quick read. Don’t pore over it, just keep reading, and keep and eye and ear to the weather. We’re about to get a big winter storm. When it blows in, whether you’re finished reading it or not, go out to Ocean Beach and pray your anger out loud. If you’re stuck for words, try shouting one of the angry psalms Wolff recommends, but I do mean shout. Pray the psalmist words in a voice so loud that the crashing surf won’t drown you out.”

I watched and wondered when the next big storm roared in from the Pacific. Next day Robert called me back. He had been to the beach to pray. He wanted to talk more.
He seemed different when I saw him, still speaking quietly as before, but he now knew where he was going and what he wanted to say.

Just as the storm passed over us, in the final downpour with the wind still raging, he’d driven out to the beach. At first he just sat in the car, staring as the raindrops pounding on his windshield blurred the huge waves crashing against the beach. He wondered why he was doing this, or even whether he really would. Then he got out of the car, walked down close enough that he could feel waves shaking the land and he started to pace back and forth, shouting the psalm. Before Robert had finished a dozen verses, he put the psalmist’s aside. Robert’s own words began to flow. He said things that astonished him, and his voice got bigger and his words more vehement, but he didn’t stop. He ranted and shouted his rage and accusation. He got louder and louder and louder and then…he paused as he told me this…”and then, I was done. I’d said it.”
“So what difference did it make?” I asked.

He waited before speaking, smiled a little, and shook his head. “I felt heard. And I knew I could say anything and it wouldn’t shake the love of that hearing. He paused. I felt known and loved. I had no idea. When the anger was all said, I was crying, grateful tears that I could pray again.

Musician and Sufi mystic W.A. Mathieu says “Listening is loving.” Joining Robert’s story to Mathieu’s wisdom tells me something I hope for when we pray together too. Throughout the liturgy, we’re saying things to God. Maybe what we most long for isn’t that God do something for us, but that we feel and sense God’s presence with us, with our whole selves, even the parts of ourselves that frighten us or that we disapprove of. As we pray, we’re listening or feeling to know whether we’re heard.

Robert’s breakthrough liturgy was alone at the beach. God had listened to him and walked with him by the surf. So he let his new congregation listen and pray and walk with him. From that beginning he prayed through quitting his job and going on disability, through letting the congregation cook imaginatively for him as he faced more and more severe diet restrictions and became housebound, and he invited us to pray his name and offer his doctor’s specific concerns Sunday by Sunday. He prayed until he was ready to go home to die.

How can all our prayer, alone and together become as honest, unedited, and whole-hearted as Robert was shouting the psalm over the roar of the waves? What loving, listening silence could our prayer discover if we learned to forgive ourselves and simply pray the feelings we dislike and of which we disapprove?

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

On being left-handed

O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his
disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith,
that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives
and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God,
now and for ever. Amen.

--Collect for Wednesday of Easter Week, Book of Common Prayer, p. 223

Although Easter Week still seems light years away, I had a recent experience with my contractors that brought this collect to mind, and opened my eyes about the way we open doors to behold the glories of God's realm.

I have spent the last ten months of my life living in the middle of a major remodeling project that can best be described as happening in fits and starts, mostly because I'm trying to keep it as a "Pay as you go" process. One of the surest marks of middle age is probably best expressed in the fact that the room I most desire to be perfect is the master bathroom. (I think when one cares more about the bathroom than the living room, kitchen, and yes, the bedroom, it's a sure fire sign one has moved into the second half of one's life.) I came home to discover that the contractors had installed the shower stall door with no consideration of my "minority status."

You see, I'm left-handed.

The door handle on the shower stall was as far right as it could be, with the splash panel on the left. A left-hander opening it would have to turn right 90 degrees, facing the wall, open the door, walk around the door, avoiding the linen cabinet, while turning 180 degrees back to the left--and then would be facing backwards in the stall.

Right-handers have no idea how many things we southpaws have to adjust to in the world. (Try fanning playing cards in the natural direction left-handers would to hold a hand of cards, and see how many of the numbers in the corner show up. Pull the handle on the footrest of your recliner. Use a potato peeler in your left hand. Let me know how that works out for you.) Mostly, we grin and bear it. We learn to do some things with our right hand. We turn things upside down. We crook our hands like a "U" to see what we are writing and write more or less upside down. Sure, there are many left-handed implements out there, but they are not always available everywhere we go, and they are useless if we want to share a task with a righty.

We even have to endure a form of language discrimination that will probably be with us for millennia. The word sinister is derived from sinistral, from the Latin sinus, or pocket. Roman togas had their pocket on the left, the open flap tilted so one got in the pocket by reaching with the right hand in a "cross draw" fashion to retrieve the contents of the pocket. Hence, the left side became the "sinful" side. In many cultures, the right hand is used for eating and the left for butt-wiping, so that eating with the left hand becomes a gross insult to the host or cook. Even the language of the Bible, and Jesus' parables themselves, put the good things on the right and the wicked things on the left. In my grouchiest moments, I sometimes feel even Jesus stacked the deck against me.

As I stood there, fuming, recalling the amount this shower stall cost me, I also recognized I was not the only misaligned group that would have trouble with this configuration. Folks on the more portly side of life would probably not be appreciative, if they were house guests, doing contortionist moves in my bathroom. I knew that I would have to have a word with my contractors (after I finished snarling and stamping my feet.) When I caught up with them the next day, I explained (more calmly,) "You know, I really would like this so anyone who used my shower would find opening this door reasonably okay. There are so many things about this bathroom that are perfectly glorious, but when the first thing I do--open the shower door--hacks me off--it kind of ruins the rest of the experience, you know?"

The following Sunday, in church, as I looked at the Prayer Book, and the Hymnal, and the bulletin, I got to thinking about how visitors shuffle and fidget these items nervously while we the faithful, sometimes obliviously sing or speak on. I thought about how so many of our historic churches are small, with no sound system, and have no means to assist the hard of hearing. I thought about how I've never seen large print items in most of our churches I've attended. (They may well have some, but they are not usually where they are obvious, when I enter.) That can't be a very endearing first look at an Episcopal church for a first-time visitor.

I found myself grateful that we recently began seriously examining the first steps in hospitality and accessibility--both physical and spiritual--in my home parish, but the shower door incident really brought home to me how important these seemingly insignificant and invisible touches were, and how there is much to do for all of us.

Sometimes, the first look at an Episcopal church doesn't even involve church. Perhaps it's the Twelve Step group that meets in the undercroft, or the Scout troop, or the quilting group. How often do we leave the tools of quiet evangelism in plain sight--flyers and friendly tracts--in the undercroft, as well as the sanctuary? How effectively do we use the internet and social networking as another form of invitation?

The Shower Door Incident also reminded me that I hardly ever think about being left-handed unless something comes up that reminds me that I am NOT right-handed--and then my initial response is to feel put out at some level, maybe even angry. It reminded me of the various other forms of "minority" in my community--not just ethnic, racial, and gender orientation, but also the single, the special needs community, the wounded, the lonely, the recently incarcerated, those in recovery, and the displaced. If grappling over a shower door can make me feel excluded, in what ways am I unaware of how my community and I are making others inadvertently feel excluded? How is that projecting to others that God is excluding them?

Opening the eyes of our faith can be painful. It sometimes reveals glimpses of things about ourselves we'd rather not address. Yet one of the recurring themes of the Good News in Christ is that the God that calls us again and again to return is also the God of do-overs--and that our open eyes of faith have the power to open doors for others to view the glories of Heaven on earth.

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

Ministry of small things

by Linda Ryan

The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that an angel might come by and sit on it. ~Thomas Merton

Say “Shaker” to someone and, if they’re over the age of about 50, they’ll probably come back with “chair.” Shaker chairs were popular because their simple lines and beautifully finished wood. The Shakers produced chairs with planed and turned parts that were interchangeable to make a number of different styles: tall, short, wide, narrow, with or without arms, with or without rockers, with or without wheels, etc. No matter the style, though, each piece of each chair had the hallmark of a human being who cared about the piece he produced or the seat she wove or braided. It might have been a small part of the total chair, but it was their part and done as completely, beautifully and precisely as they could make it. Those chairs have withstood the test of time, becoming more and more valuable as the years have passed, becoming important pieces in museums and private collections. I have a doubt that a hundred years from now the the overstuffed recliners and pouffy chairs of today will be sought-after antiques. I wonder, too, would angels come and sit on them? We know that saints in the Body of Christ, the members of the Shaker church, sat on theirs.

Handmade items often have something special about them, most likely the attention to detail that may escape the notice of most but which an aficionado would spot immediately. For the true craftsman, there is nothing too small to be excused from perfection, not a wrinkle, tiny rough spot in a place that no hand would ever feel, spot of discoloration or rust on a tiny gear hidden deep inside a watch case or anything else. It is the mark of someone with passion for what they are doing, even to the level of the very small things.

Small things. Without small things, great things never happen. Small ideas and concepts can lead to great inventions and discoveries that change the world. One person’s passion can ignite a fire that circles the globe. Jesus himself used a mustard seed, not the smallest of seeds, to be sure, but still a small thing, to illustrate the power of a tiny bit of faith growing into a sizeable thing. I wonder what Jesus would have made of a sequoia seed?

When most people consider the word “ministry” they think of ordained preachers, ministers, rabbis and priests. Sure, those are probably the most visible of ministers, in a kind of spotlight when they lead worship, teach classes or model the virtues like visiting the sick and imprisoned, but ministry is more than that. There are ministry opportunities everywhere – the workplace, home, school, church, almost anywhere where two people can meet and interact. Come to think of it, though, there can be ministries that involve non-humans and even the environment that don’t attract a lot of attention but which are really needed. Not every ministry is high profile, but even the smallest of ministries is important, kingdom building-wise. They don’t have to be big things to be effective; the ministry of small things is just as important and, luckily, there are plenty of them to go around. It can be as simple as turning a piece of wood that will become part of a chair.

I’m a firm believer in the ministry of small things, the kind of ministry I know I can do. It would be great to be known as a great preacher, but maybe simply driving someone to the doctor’s office or grocery store, or hearing the words of a friend who needs someone to listen is, to me, a ministry of small things that, hopefully, will make the world even a miniscule amount better. I’d love to write a best-selling book, but perhaps writing essays and meditations is my niche, especially if even one person finds something in the words that gives them some insight or even just a smile.
The Dalai Lama once said, “If you think small things don’t make a difference, try spending a night in a room with a mosquito!” A lot of times mosquitoes get swatted, but they don’t give up being mosquitoes. A ministry of small things may not make a person rich, famous or even earn them brownie points in heaven, and they may get the person swatted sometimes, but sometimes the small things lead to big things that make heaven just a little bit closer.

Oh, and one more thing. Ministries of small things are not limited offers. A single person can do more than one, and there is no expiration date.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter

The Right Question

by Richard Helmer

Do you want to be made well? ~ John 5:6

When I first arrived at my present parish, one lay leader told me that many in the congregation felt “decapitated.” It was as violent an image as one could imagine after several turbulent interim years, and I was sorely tempted to try to find the rolling heads and reattach them – to “fix” the ailing parties all. It was equally tempting to spend hours and hours telling the good folk of a parish teetering on the edge of decline and running in the red how badly they’d been treated – and then bask in the imagined recognition of how much better I would be perceived than my predecessors.

Instead, thanks to a bit of grace, I started to hear her words as opportunity:

What if behind the sorrowful metaphor was a yearning to be unleashed for ministry? Rather than my trying to fix things, coddle, and hold hands, I started to ask questions of our members in as many ways as I could:

What do you think God wants to see happen here? Where do feel called by passion and prayer? How can I help support your living into that call?

Six years later, the place is thriving. Sure, we have the benefit of young demographics in an affluent community. Sure, we get a steady stream of Episcopalians moving in from other places. But we also live in one of the most militantly secular, skeptical, “spiritual but not religious” locales in the country, where the catch phrase spoken and unspoken is “You’re not the boss of me.” We further engage in ministry in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world, where financial resources of even the most affluent are stretched quite thin. I could bang my head against that wall 24/7, but I intentionally decided a few years back not to.

We do indeed challenge the surrounding culture, but not with insults, put-downs, or hand-wringing. Instead, we offer a passionate alternative of an engaging life of faith in Jesus Christ in community. A few years ago, word started to spread in the surrounding neighborhoods. It’s amazing these days to watch people come in the door for the first time and the expressions of wonder on their faces when they discover Church can be traditional yet engaging, familiar yet transformative, rooted yet relevant. Even more amazing is watching them then offer their hearts in prayer, their gifts in thanksgiving, and their hands in service.

There’s no magic to this, and we still have our challenges. I’ve learned, sometimes the hard way, that pretending I don’t have authority is just as bad as abusing it or taking it for granted. We don’t offer the most innovative or beautiful worship in our Diocese, but what we do, we do with authenticity and prayerful commitment. We struggle like everyone else does with volunteers stretched thin, facilities in need of constant attention, and tight budgets. Our key is that we have enough leadership committed to prayerful, healthy community: Christian community that identifies and serves the needs of its members and the needs of the wider world. We stubbornly refuse to succumb to the binary thinking that the two are mutually exclusive.

Fundamentally, we’re thriving because the people of God are engaged, empowered, and accountable. My job is to do everything I can to get the institution behind them in where the Spirit is calling them. I’m also fond of saying that my job is to stay both prayerfully engaged and, when necessary, to get the hell out of the way.

When I meet with our staff and lay leaders, we work to ask questions that empower and seek opportunity. Funny how that approach works. Even the most skeptical and cynical among us find something of value going on, and they step up. When problems arise, we endeavor to address them quickly. If the problems are intransigent, we work around them and watch for a solution to emerge (often we ultimately stumble across more than one), permitting God’s grace to resolve things in God’s time.

A growing, diverse, vibrant community, I’ve learned, adopts a “can do” attitude, and gloominess about decline is instinctively quarantined long before it can spread like the pathology that it is. When the occasional saboteurs attempt to rise, the community isolates the shenanigans early and loves the perpetrators back to health often.

It’s all because of this experience that I see the present narrow focus on institutional Church structures and resources as sometimes disheartening, and at times narrowly wrongheaded. With it, we who are about the business of Church governance are at great risk of looking irrelevant to the faithful who make up a huge portion of our Body, and potentially neglecting a vast share of our ministry.

Of course, it is in our genetic predisposition as a Church to debate polity, to question authority, to be suspicious of ideas from the top. These form a significant, perhaps indispensable part of the machinery of the legislative process, of our Episcopal way of grinding to a decision. Anyone who’s an effective leader these days understands all this and deals with it in good faith, and more than a bit of good humor.

As somewhat of an aside, I have a thought about the oft-articulated fears regarding the power of our bishops. My advice is this: Look to the Roman Catholic Church – and I mean the people, not the hierarchy. If we must assume the worst intentions of our leaders in the episcopate (I do not, but some do) we must never forget the power of the laity to discern a vibrant, free faith despite every destructive power grab and form of dissembling denial in the book. Yes, God is that powerful, despite the best and worst efforts of institutions and their leaders to undermine grace. Our bishops cannot completely ruin the Church, even if they try. And most of them, praise God, have much more built-in accountability in this Church to reckon with than do their Roman brethren.

What I really see at risk right now – as we institutionally wrestle with shrinking financial resources and as we no longer can lean, thank God, on our historical position as a denomination of elites – is our unintentionally disenfranchising ourselves from our most precious resource: the People of God... the People of God who listen for the needs of those around them and offer their gifts of all kinds in prayer, sacrament, and service... the People of God who answer Jesus’ constant question about wanting to be healed with an emphatic “Yes!” and then get to it with what they’ve received. Most of them are not all that concerned about what happens at General Convention this summer, especially when it comes to structural decisions. My main reason for going as an alternate deputy is to work so that they don’t have to be.

Do we truly want to be made well?

It is incredibly easy to stay stuck in the pathological patterns of destructive suspicion, blame, and condescension that we pick up from the wider American – if not globally Western – political discourse these days. It is also incredibly easy to see our institution – as fragile, compromised, declining, and inept as it might be right now – as a problem to be fixed rather than a resource to be pressed into service for the sake of Jesus’ vision amongst the people: the Kingdom, the Reign of God.

What is wrong with The Episcopal Church? Lots. But the question itself I find wrongheaded. “Fixing” a temporal institution for today will inevitably sow the seeds of different institutional problems needing to be fixed tomorrow. If we haven’t learned this yet from the great secular financial crisis, we need to take a closer look. While we rush perpetually around to fix and adjust, the world’s real needs for healing might escape our distracted notice.

Maybe we need to start asking the right questions, and those for me begin with what’s working. Asking those questions puts us in the right frame of mind to channel institutional resources, focus, and leadership towards our strengths. Asking those questions empowers us to see problems and obstacles as opportunities. Maybe it’s time to admit that our weaknesses, our ailments hold more keys to our future in the transformative hands of our God than we give them credit for. I don’t throw around accusations of heresy lightly, but when we behave as though we have problems we must resolve before we can be healed, we Episcopalians fall into a form of Pelagianism that is as familiar to us as it is dangerous. It is there that our vision can narrow rapidly into insularity and irrelevance.

So my thinking these days around General Conventions, special conventions, pending legislation, and political quarrels perceived and real, is less about which is the right answer to our woes.

Rather, I am pondering this more:

Which is the right question?

The Rev. Br. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, CA, and a novice in the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory. He is an alternate deputy to General Convention and secretary of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of California. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs occasionally at Caught by the Light.

Reflections on Renewal - restructuring the church

by Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

What follows is a short section from my State of the Religious Life, itself a collection of articles and reflections published in various places in the late 1980s, eventually woven into a monograph published in 1991, and recently made available in a 20th anniversary edition online. It seems to me that many of the issues that face us in restructuring, and much of the talk in the restructuring conversations, reflect this phase in the life cycle of a community — or a church. This section is based in part on the work of Lawrence Cada, et al, in Shaping the Coming Age of Religious Life. (NY: Crossroad, 1979).

The four phases of doubt

There are four stages to the breakdown of a community, each characterized by a form of doubt: Mechanical, Conceptual, Moral, and Total.

Mechanical doubt: Are we doing things the right way?

Mechanical doubt is often the first response to problems in an organization, which has come to be seen not as a spirit-filled (or vision-inspired) community of people, but as a mechanism that needs adjustment. Changes at this point are usually superficial: changing the habit, trying out new liturgies. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with either of these things, if they grow out of a living spirit — and if they are responses to the real problems. But if they are last minute efforts to pump life into a comatose body, it is too late for such medications to be effective. In an organization which does not constantly seek renewal, these superficial changes are usually too late to do any good.

Conceptual doubt: Are we doing the right things?

At this stage it isn’t the manner of working that comes under doubt, but the work itself. Should we stop teaching, close down the school? These questions are more fundamental than the mechanical concerns described in the previous stage. If approached with a lack of insight, actions at this stage can lead to disaster. A rebound effect can occur at this point, and a siege mentality develop on the part of some of the members, or the community as a whole. Any change becomes a fundamental threat not just to the ethos of the community, but to some even larger principle: the Faith, the Nation, the Cause. Such polarization can render productive renewal nearly impossible.

Moral doubt: Am I doing the right thing?

At this level of doubt the misgivings and apprehensions that have troubled the organization begin to be internalized by the individual members. Accommodations begin to be made by individuals who no longer accept the driving myth of the organization, or who have reached a point of cynicism. They begin to wonder whether they need to observe the rule with quite the rigor that it is suggested they should; in celibate communities this is a stage at which sexual immaturities can emerge. In the minds of more conservative members, change and renewal can come to be seen as personal threats to their well-being and identity, with a concomitant decline in self-worth.

Total doubt: Why am I / are we doing this at all?

At this stage personal and communal despondency and despair emerge full force, and the doubt shifts almost to an existential level. Organizations which have descended this far into doubt are unlikely to survive; though even here it is possible to rediscover the core ideal which drove the community.

The Rev. Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG blogs at In a Godward directions and Reasonable and Holy. He is the Rector at St James Fordham, a member of the Brotherhood of St Gregory and Clergy Deputy to General Convention 2012 from the Diocese of New York, Chair of the House of Deputies Study Committee on Church Governance and Polity.

Lenten disciplines: spiritual exercises or ego trip

By Maria L. Evans

So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed

--From "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front," by Wendell Berry

Last Lent, I did something that many of my friends thought absolutely, positively did not compute as a Lenten spiritual discipline--I fasted from my personal e-mail and Facebook for "a meal a day"--the eight hours between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m., with Sundays off as feast days, of course, and one exception--I would work on the parish weekly e-newsletter every Thursday night.

Several of my friends and connections in the social networking and blogosphere thought I went absolutely, positively, stark raving mad. They know me (and rightly so) as a bit of a staple in those spheres. But it was such a successful Lenten practice I am repeating it for 2012.

Now, I admit, once upon a time I was all about "penitence" in Lent--and I still think penitence is an important aspect of Lent--but it's now merely an aspect rather than the aspect. I have come to discover, through the various Lenten practices I've engaged in over the years, that feelings of penitence--as well as feelings of awareness, openness to change, recognition of the sufferings of others, and a whole host of other feelings are supposed to evolve as a result of doing Lenten spiritual disciplines.

In my younger days--even when I was estranged from the institutional church--I still "gave up something for Lent." It was one of the threads I never seemed to cut from my two decades in the unchurched wilderness. In fact, I was doing it all wrong--I was using it as an ego thing. I would pat myself on the back for giving up things and being as Spartan as an Airborne Ranger about it, and pride myself for being more disciplined than "church people." It was part of the "Me and God and Jesus and I don't need anyone else" attitude I cultivated in those years.

When I returned to the church, this strange evolution began--the notion that my Lenten discipline ought to be equal parts of "empty" and "full." I would pick a spiritual discipline that had a sacrificial quality to it, but I would also pick its counterpart discipline, one that would add to my spiritual life.

So last year, I took a deep breath and announced I was going to be absent from my personal e-mail and social networking from 2 p.m. until 10 p.m. on a regular basis, and instead I was going to work on more time connecting with my friends face to face locally, and over the phone for my more distant ones. My time in front of the computer started being replaced with walks and dinners with friends, and phone calls, and various loving gestures towards my friends. The responses were interesting. Some of my friends argued with me that it was impractical--that I had lived near my Amish neighbors too long. "Why don't you just shut the electricity off for 8 hours? It's just as dumb," one remarked. Some of my connections complained of their own social withdrawal--that I was isolating myself from them. I saw some of their own insecurities come out. A few even suggested I was suffering from depression.

As it turned out, though, there was also a small group that started postulating these and other ways to fast from technology...and a tiny cluster tried some variant of it themselves. I can't speak for what they learned, I can only speak for what I learned from my practice. I tend to be a bit of a loner anyway, so the "aloneness" of being unplugged for eight hours was not as big a thing for me as I thought it might be. Oh, I suffered a few twinges of "is anybody out there?" but it wasn't bothersome. What I discovered was it wasn't what I was without that changed me, as much as the things that I had never bothered to notice when I was regularly interrupting myself to answer an e-mail or comment on someone's status.

I found myself listening more and talking less with my friends on meals or walks. I caught myself focusing on the words in books I was reading without my self-interruption of looking up at my screen to see if anyone had sent an e-mail. I embarrassed a friend at dinner by saying, "Please don't think I'm sucking up to you, or coming on to you, but you know, I've never noticed what marvelous eyes you have. You have absolutely joyful eyes, and I am sorry I never noticed it until just now. I was wrong not to notice that." I learned that there were things in my yard I had never bothered to notice. I had thought I was actively practicing a "fast" at first, but instead uncovered the converse--that my attention to the cyber-world was causing me to fast from the small joys in life at times. More than once I found myself moved to tears over something mundane, or shouting with enthusiasm into the sky at how there really are fleeting moments of perfection in this broken world.

In short I discovered the last two words in the Wendell Berry poem I quoted above--"practice resurrection."

In that upside down, backwards and sideways path living the Gospel takes us, the real spiritual practice that cries out to be uncovered by our Lenten spiritual discipline, is that we are actually practicing resurrection. Resurrection demands stripping off layers of the varnish and polyurethane we've heaped upon ourselves over time, and exposing our natural grain. Resurrection insists on having us dig our own graves, crawl inside them, and look out at the sky a while, smelling the wet humus surrounding us, in the hopes that when we are lifted out, the light we've been exposed to all along, looks somehow just a little different. Resurrection gets in our faces during Lent like a red-faced baseball manager and an umpire, nose to nose, never laying a hand on us, but kicking dirt on our shoes. We strive to live in the stillness of Lent, to hear the thunder of Resurrection.

What are you doing this Lenten season, that does not compute, but yet helps you feel Resurrection burrowing beneath your feet?

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

Is the clergy deployment system broken?

by Donald J. Muller

I want to suggest that one of the reasons for the decline and continued decline of our Episcopal Church is a broken clergy deployment system. I think our church needs to examine this system. I want to pose this because I don’t hear anything about it in the discussions around the decline in membership of the Episcopal Church. Let me name some of the issues that I see:

The prohibition of an incumbent rector/vicar being involved in the profile and/or search process;
The lengthy interim periods between rectors;

The necessity of calling an interim priest/rector and the things they do;

No one to advise the clergy who are in the calling process;

The lack of clarity in the transfer of pastoral care and leadership to the new rector

I have been a priest for 29 years, a curate for two of those, and rector of four churches for the remaining years. I believe that no one knows a parish better than the current rector (if they have been there for at least three years - maybe five). The bishop may have been in that parish once or less a year, and rarely has a Diocesan staff person been on site. Parochial reports which tell some of the story of a congregation and almost never examined in detail. The Vestry members rotate on and off. I am now serving my fourth parish as Rector over the 29 years of my ordained ministry. Each of the parishes I‘ve served has had an interim period between my predecessor and myself of 18 months to over two years. Twice I’ve followed long term Rectors who have retired and twice I’ve followed priests who have gone on to other parishes. The interim period between them seems to be no different. In all four cases, my predecessor had absolutely nothing to do with the transition. Yet, those four priests knew the parishes better than anyone in the Diocesan office, or even in the parish itself. None of the Vestry members currently serving were in that position when I was called five and a half years ago. I am now the one who knows this parish best, my knowledge should at least be used in the process of putting a profile of the parish together.

Over the course of my ministry I had observed first hand and second hand the lengthy interim periods between Rectors. In some cases the long time between rectors was intentional by the Diocesan Office because of the long tenure of the previous rector. At other times the process just takes too long. I think this is a detriment to the forward movement in ministry for the congregation and for their overall self worth. Sunday worship attendance shrinks and doesn’t seem to recover. I know from my work in evangelism that when people start disappearing on Sundays mornings unless they are recovered very quickly they drift away and do not come back. I’ve heard that the length of the interim is proportional to the time the last rector was in place, that congregations need to grieve the death of that pastoral relationship. My experience as a pastor, over 29 years, tells me that the grief process has no certain time line. It matters not whether a person dies suddenly or over a long period of time - each individual family member grieves in their own time and in their own way. This is true in congregations, as well. If a congregation is healthy why not get a new rector/vicar in place as soon as possible so that the ministry trajectory remains forward? There will be parishioners who will leave because the new rector is not the old one. There will be those who leave because they were very attached to the old one. But most are more likely to stay around and see what the new priest will be like, if the time period is short.

I understand that there are various understandings about what interim priests do (rectors - I don’t like that term, because interims do not have the Canonical authority of Instituted Rectors). Some believe they should expose the congregation to the great breadth of the Episcopal tradition that they are not now experiencing. Some believe they should continue the ways things have been going and give most of their attention to pastoral care. There are interims who delve into every system that exists in the church to expose its faults and fix them; to remove persons in charge of ministries; to challenge the way “things have always been done.” My experience has shown me that real change happens with people we trust. A quick fix on the surface might be accomplished, but not a lasting deep down kind of change. Why not have Sunday supply priests who might also be on call for pastoral care or give one or two days a week for that purpose? The congregation then doesn’t invest in that priest.

Most Dioceses are very good at giving the vacant congregation advice in the calling process. Some have consultants, either paid for by the Diocese or the congregation, that give advice throughout the process. The consultants have extensive knowledge about the calling process and the particular process of that Diocese. Unfortunately, they don’t know the parish except as presented by the parishioners they interact with, and they don’t know the clergy who will be seeking a call. The clergy seeking another call have no one to advise them or care for them in the process. They are not experts in the process themselves. Perhaps they have been to CREDO and have had their CDO and resume shaped with expertise there, or the Diocesan Deployment Officer of their Diocese has helped them. But in the process itself, no one talks to them about the process; no one asks how they are doing; no one tells them anything until they get a letter saying they are out of the process or continuing, or that they have been called. This is frustrating for clergy, can lead to self doubt, loss of self worth, etc. It is also very hard for clergy to participate in a search process while still investing themselves fully in their present position and yet trying to be responsive to the parish that they are interested in or that is interested in them.

When a new Rector is called, the official investing of them with the powers and authority of the office of Rector (Institution) generally doesn’t happen for several weeks or even months. Some Dioceses don’t even schedule it until a priest has been in place quite a while because of such bad experiences in the calling of new rectors. The interim priest was there the week before and now there is a new priest. But other than the introducing of the new rector to the congregation by the warden or vestry member there is nothing official shown to the congregation. Almost twenty years ago I was asked to serve as the chaplain at a “Change of Command” of a Coast Guard based in Beach Haven, NJ. It was an interesting experience watching one Commanding Officer hand over all authority to another with the entire base bearing witness to the change. Would it make sense for us to have the incumbent hand over the keys (or the other symbols of the office) to the new Rector in person? It would make it very clear who the new Rector was. Would it make sense for the Institution (Celebration of New Ministry) to be the first worship the new Rector was at with the Bishop, Archdeacon, Dean, etc. presiding and preaching? It almost seems an afterthought for it to happen months down the road.

Perhaps it time to have some evaluation of how we do things now, to examine congregations from two years before a vacancy through two years after the call of the new priest. I wonder what we would find in terms of congregational strength and vitality, Average Sunday Attendance, financial health, etc.

The Rev. Canon Donald J. Muller, D. Min

Praying them home

by Maria L. Evans

May God the Father bless you, God the Son heal you, God the Holy Spirit give you strength. May God the holy and undivided Trinity guard your body, save your soul, and bring you safely to his heavenly country; where he lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen. ~Blessing for Health and Body of Soul, Book of Common Prayer, p. 460

One of the lifelong oddities of my life has been my penchant for stumbling into the middle of "other peoples' crises" and suddenly being their "go-to girl." (In fact, just now, as I am drafting this reflection, I just got a text message from a friend who wants to talk to me about her dog's emergency surgery. Seems her dog has been eating roofing nails and other metal debris...I rest my case.)

Not long ago, all I did was show up at one of my "country hospitals" for my regularly scheduled visit, which is normally a rather staid and boring half hour or so of signing my name on the various pieces of lab quality control data, and visiting with the laboratory supervisor over coffee about issues in the hospital lab. I knew it wasn't going to be one of those visits when the laboratory supervisor met me in the hallway, hugging me and crying.

The short version was this: One of the employees in the lab had, three days prior, been handed a very serious diagnosis which required immediate treatment if there was any hope of survival. Rather than initiate treatment, he had chosen to return to his home country for treatment--an 18 hour total flight time and probably more like a little over a day's journey, total, and the flight did not leave for another day--putting about five days total between the moment of his diagnosis and his potential arrival home. My supervisor's plea was to "talk some sense into him."

Believe me, I related every single medical reason I could think of--most of them involving the various permutations of how he could die in his untreated state in a five day span--as well as difficulties entering and exiting the various countries en route, the fact that his choices potentially affected the lives of others on the trip, and for the final push, that he could be "too ill to treat" when he arrived, possibly delaying life-saving treatment and putting him further at risk. But he would hear none of it. He was going home and that was that.

All of us have times in our lives where despite our best efforts, our good intentions, and our fears for those we love, they will make their choices and we are left with no other tasks but to let them go, and "pray them home." I realized I had tried my best, and did what I could. As I left to go back to my office, I told him, "God be with you. I mean that."

Over the next several hours, my mind kept being drawn to the prayer cited above. I have found when I am out of words, or my words seem insufficient, the Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer has words enough for me in my times of inarticulate-ness. But as I read it, I started wondering, "Who was I asking to be blessed? Him, or me?" I recognized the answer probably was, "both," and everyone else who was fearing for him on his journey. I then enlisted the help of other friends as co-pray-ers. I've come to realize that co-praying is key to our spiritual health. Let me make it clear that I don't sign on to the notion that sheer numbers of pray-ers have any influence on God, whatsoever--but I do believe they have influence on us and our own faithfulness in prayer. It's easier for me to focus on my own prayers when I can see others praying with me, in my mind's eye.

As time unfolded, so did an image in my mind's eye--the image of a flock of geese, traveling thousands of miles, called by voices in nature that our human brains have somehow become blunted in their recognition. I thought about how every goose in a "V" of geese flies along without question, trusting only in the sense of the lead goose, and with the only view of the trip being the rear end of the goose directly ahead of it. Our gravely ill traveler was responding to the same kind of pull that the lead goose is called to obey, and I was simply a goose in the formation, staring at the tail feathers of the goose ahead of me, irritated I could not see a Google Maps overview of this trip. I had started this journey thinking I was supposed to play the role of lead goose, and in reality my role was just "one of the flock."

Our lead goose in this story did, indeed, find his way home. I may or may not ever learn the ultimate outcome with his diagnosis--but I have to let that one go, too. I imagine geese don't always take the trip North or South with the same flock, and have one-time companions on the trip, from year to year, as well as familiar ones. Such is the nature of pilgrimage.

When we embark on pilgrimages of prayer, we are being invited into an intimate space within "the cloud of unknowing." We fly in formation with familiar faces, new faces, one-time faces, and faces we will never know in this world. We are powerless, not only to the outcome, but to the choices of companions--flocks of geese flying to a home we've never seen. To never be bold enough to fly at all, I believe, is the greater loss.

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

Tweeting our business

by Michael Russell @FrMike

We are hearing a lot of high level discussion about the need to restructure the Church to make it more nimble in the emerging world around us. This week a lively discussion erupted among Deputies and their representatives on the Executive Council (EC) about a bit of communications restructuring that occurred without any high level discussion. Several EC members “tweeted” from the EC (#ECMtg) during the course of their meeting. The discussion of whether or not that was appropriate broadened out into a discussion about openness in meetings, live communications from them and then live communications from General Convention. At the moment it has all gone into mill and we have no clue quite how it might grind out.

In the midst of all that a curiosity arose about Tweeting and Twitter and I offered some clarifying input and was asked to repeat it here at Daily Episcopalian. For those of you who are not yet Tweeps here is a short course on why it is emerging as an important avenue of communication.

Think of tweets as a form of mass distribution of text messages. They are 140 characters long because that is the length of phone text messages. If you are not yet texting on your cell phone, learning to do that would be a good first step. If you are, then you are almost to the twitterdise.

Tweets instead of going to just one person go to many. When you set up a Twitter account you choose how many people or organizations you will get Tweets from automatically. This is called following. In turn, people who follow you get all your tweets. People you follow have all their tweets appear in your main window. So you can follow Episcopal News Service, Episcopal Café, and the One Campaign, really any of a zillion people or organizations out there. You will get news from them as they write it. They, or your circle of Tweep friends, can then follow you.

But you can also get tweets to people who are not following you. That is accomplished with the @ sign in front of a username. I am @FrMike which means that if you put that in any tweet you send anywhere, even if I am not following you, I will get it. If you want to send a message to the official Episcopal Church site you would type in @iamepiscopalian. If you want to see what their twitter stream looks like pop over to In all of the Twitter programs there is a search box and you can type just about anything into it and find a list of @ addresses.

There is a second way of getting messages out and looking for things to read. In this mode you are following ideas or discussions based on their subject. To look at a topic you use what is called a “hashtag” “#” put in front of a subject. #GC12 will get you to a discussion of General Convention 2012 and if you type a tweet with #GC12 in a message then everyone who looks at this discussion will see your comment. To find nearly any subject in the world you just type it into search and it will give you ideas of #’s to look at. Unlike following people # discussions will not automatically flow into your time stream (and if that can be done I do not yet know how!) I just keep them in my list of favorites and drop in to see what is going on.

All that said, what the heck use is Twitter? It is, in my opinion, an incredible tool for receiving real-time reports on things you care about. Last year when the Egyptian Spring occurred I would check in on #tahirsquare or #jan25 and there was an ongoing, immediate and unfiltered account of what was happening right there! When the English General Synod was meeting to discuss women bishops I followed their hashtag #GenSynod and followed the debate in real time. Last week I was one of about 150 people invited to the White House’s Executive Office Building to live tweet the President’s State of the Union address #SOTU. People from all over tuned in to #SOTU or #WHCHAT or #WHTweetup and received the stream of tweets from us tweeporters. During that hour’s speech more than 760,000 tweets occurred around the country.

Imagine everyone Anglican in the world having the capability of following, as they happen, the deliberations of the House of Deputies or “shiver” the House of Bishops. Imagine that you could follow the debate on the Anglican Covenant, Same Sex Blessings, the Budget Committee hearings, or any of the hundreds of hearings that will take place in real time. But even better, imagine that you can contribute in real time to the conversation with Deputies or Bishops sharing your insights as they streamed across their screen. Best of all this vast sea of communication will not cost TEC one thin dime.

I would suggest too that Deputies and Bishops can be twitterspondents without actually being distracted from business. GC does not move fast, nor do its hearings, so reporting as we listen is not that serious a challenge or disruption.

Tweeps-to-be out there, you have plenty of time to sign up for a free account and play with it some before July arrives. And then @FrMike and other deputies, I am sure, will be ready to keep our meetings open for your edification and if you choose, participation.

Technology has moved rapidly enough that I believe without any expense to the TEC budget we might also offer some live streaming of hearings or deliberations using iPads and streaming applications like UStream. As long as I have a signal and the bandwidth I can put live images on my UStream channel. Our capacity to have an open General Convention is now spectacular, so take the plunge!


Ideas for hash tags for #GC2012
#Nat&IntCon. (my committee, I am on one after all)

The Rev. Michael Russell is rector of All Souls', Point Loma, in the Diocese of San Diego. He is the author of Hooker's Blueprint: An Essence Outline of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, is a third time Deputy to General Convention, early adopter of technologies and blogs at Anglican Minimalist.

Encourage People to Read the Bible? Maybe not

by George Clifford

For years, I, like most clergy, frequently and indiscriminately exhorted Christians to pick up a Bible and read it. No more. I have realized that this advice, although well intentioned, is usually counterproductive, causing more disaffection from Christianity and guilt than spiritual growth.

The Bible, written over a period of more than one thousand years, contains multiple diverse worldviews, all of them foreign to twenty-first century life in the United States. The person who genuinely wants to understand the biblical text benefits by beginning with good introductions to both the Old Testament and New Testament. These provide overviews of important historical, linguistic, textual, and literary issues. Commentaries and Bible dictionaries offer more specific assistance related to particular passages.

In other words, to read the Bible with even a moderate level of informed comprehension, a reader needs to invest substantial time and effort in acquiring the knowledge and skills that seminarians generally learn in their first year or two of biblical studies. In contrast to the pseudo-scholars with their interlinear versions, developing the linguistic knowledge to appreciate and ponder the text in Hebrew or Greek requires even more years of work.

Beginning when I was in seminary over three decades ago, I have frequently heard seminarians lament the alienation and disaffection that they experienced as they began their biblical studies. Devotional reading of the Bible had nurtured their faith and often played an instrumental role in the spiritual journey that led them to seminary en route to seeking ordination. Now their academic studies challenged, if not actually contradicted, what they believed was the Word of God they had previously heard in their devotional reading of beloved texts.

Devotional reading of the Bible naively presumes that a person, by reading the text, will hear God speak. Meaning depends upon the reader’s modern worldview, the plain sense of the English text, and the reader’s existing theological biases.

Devotional reading was the pervasive approach among Bible reading Protestants – whether mainline Church members, evangelicals, or fundamentalists – to whom I ministered in the Navy. These good people considered themselves Christians in spite of both their theological ignorance and (being kind) eccentricities. They invariably and insistently assured me that the Holy Spirit guided their reading of Scripture, leading them into the truth and the correct understanding of Scripture. They almost universally believed that consulting scholarly resources such as commentaries and Bible dictionaries disadvantageously increased the distance between the believer and God.

Yet the sad truth is that a straightforward, uneducated reading of the text, even with a supposed assist from the Holy Spirit, presents most readers with an unfortunate choice.

On the one hand, the reader may uncritically accept the text as authoritative and adopt an unscientific (creation in seven days; people walking on water), unhistorical (hundreds of thousands of slaves exiting Egypt; the slaughter of innocents), and theologically bogus (God ordering mass slaughter; women subservient to men) reading.

Thoughtful readers find this choice uncomfortable, even unacceptable. It jars with the rest of what they have learned. But their faith is important to them. So they divorce their faith from other aspects of life, naively privileging Scripture as true. These readers may believe that God moved differently in Bible times than God does today. Alternatively, they may accept the dissonance between their faith and the rest of life, adopting one worldview in Church and another outside of Church, without reconciling the two. These readers tend to focus on the parts of the Bible that appear most readily understood and most congruent with the world (e.g., people generally read and study the gospels and Pauline epistles more than the prophets or Leviticus).

On the other hand, the reader may set the text aside as incomprehensible. Some who choose this option will abandon religion as anachronistic in the modern era, implicitly characterizing the chasm that separates them from the biblical text and worldviews as impassable. Other readers will cling to their faith in spite of the Bible, rarely read it, and feel guilty about both not reading the Bible and not finding it more inspiring when they do read it.

Unfortunately, the Episcopal Church is complicit in giving people this unfortunate choice. In sermons, confirmation classes, and other venues – most recently, a campaign to get people to read the Bible through in a year – we regularly encourage people to pick up the Bible and read it. Bible studies typically consist of the blind leading the blind: well-meaning, devout believers telling one another what God is saying to them through a particular text. Lectio divina is similar: listen to the text and hear the Holy Spirit speak to you.

We have largely failed to offer the substantive religious education programs that would empower people to read the Bible informed by the benefits of modern scholarship. (The four-year Education for Ministry program from the University of the South is a notable exception to this generalization.)

If we really believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God and contain all things necessary to salvation (Book of Common Prayer, 513, 526, 538), then the Church needs to get serious about Bible study. Classes for youths and adults could offer the substantive introduction to the Old and the New Testaments similar to those in seminaries but appropriately geared to level of academic achievement.

Ironically, encouraging devotional reading of the Bible, with its implicit promise of relatively effortless access to God, devalues Scripture and insultingly presumes that people lack the intellectual ability and spiritual commitment to engage in serious Bible study. As a constructive alternative, the Church could develop and promote a resource that presents the text alongside outstanding scholarship. William Barclay in his popular, although flawed, Daily Study Bible attempted such a project. Better yet, groups of Christians, after completing introductory studies, might gather for Bible study with commentaries, Bible dictionaries, historical references, and other resources.

Reading the Bible with understanding is hard work; perceiving God's light is even more difficult. Dumbing down the process demeans God's people, alienates many, and forms a dead church in the image of biblical literalism rather than the living God.

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.

Magnanimity as a Christian Virtue

by Deirdre Good

My grandparents’ lives (what I know of them) were remarkably stable when it came to marriage and family. On my father’s side, my grandfather was ordained in the Church of Ireland, married in church, and he and my grandmother had children who grew up and repeated the pattern. The same was true on my mother’s side. My grandparents were all church-going Christians. There were no divorces and remarriages. People didn’t talk about cancer or mental illness and we had examples of both in the family.

Most of my parents’ generation were church-going Anglicans. Some were ordained and quite a few were missionaries. Several did get divorced and remarried. True, it was unusual but it was known amongst us. And we also knew that my uncle became a paranoid schizophrenic as an adult. He came to stay with us regularly. We also used the C word when people were diagnosed, and we knew who had died from what sort of cancer.

When family members in my parent’s generation divorced and remarried, tensions within the family arose that were sometimes compounded by religious opinions. Some family members like my parents attended second marriages of their relatives, embracing the new relatives as family. Others refused to attend such weddings because they disapproved of divorce and remarriage on religious grounds, or because they felt X should not be marrying “that person” and should simply stay divorced. These people effectively terminated ongoing relations with family members whose second (and perhaps third) weddings they shunned. Later on, however, they changed their minds about exclusion, and degrees of harmony were restored.

Through it all, my parents’ attitude was one of generosity: they attended remarriages of their relatives when others in the family didn’t, they welcomed new family members into the family, and maintained relationships with divorced spouses, inviting them to their own family celebrations. At their 50th Wedding Anniversary, for example, I sat next to the second ex-wife of my mother’s cousin at lunch whilst the cousin and his third wife sat nearby.

My parents’ reasoning was straightforward: they prayed about it, and they read Scripture. They didn’t publicize their attitudes but decided to give family members the benefit of the doubt over responsibility for divorce, and were equally forgiving regardless of who argued the other party was more wronged. They were sympathetic listeners but refused to judge, saying instead, “Who are we to apportion blame? Every situation has more than one side. And our lives are not those of stained-glass window saints.”

Since they were able to invite any and all to family celebrations regardless of their status as divorced, remarried or single, responsibility for attending fell on the invited guests. It was not my parents who disinvited the second wife on the grounds that his adult children disapproved of the marriage. Nor was it my parents who excluded the excluders. People made their own choices whether or not to attend since they knew that all were invited. On one family occasion, a member of the family turned back from entering the reception because he realized he’d have to meet people he had refused --for many years--to meet inside. His loss, and ours.

You might say that my parents practiced a magnanimous Christian charity. While I don’t know what Scripture they read or how they read it, I can say that that reading the New Testament not only bears out their assessment but that this assessment opens up a space in which old and new personal realities can unfold.

Take marriage and family relations. Paul's letters, affected by notions of imminent apocalypse commend “staying as you are” whether single or married. Marriage is containment and second-best. To “brothers (and sisters)” in various communities, Paul commends humility, patient affection, and competition in honoring each person as the body of Christ. After Paul, the authors of the “household codes” in Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastoral Epistles of 1&2 Timothy and Titus counsel wives, children, and slaves to be obedient to their husbands, fathers and masters.

But Jesus, according to gospel writers, conveys different views. In heaven there will be no marriage, he stipulates. In Mark, when pressed, Jesus prohibits divorce, but in Matthew’s gospel Jesus allows divorce under a single circumstance – adultery. In Matthew, certain disciples make themselves “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom” in single-minded devotion to God. Married disciples in Matthew, Mark and Luke have left wives, families, professions and households to follow Jesus. Sometimes Jesus insists that followers repudiate family, wealth and property for the sake of the kingdom; on other occasions, Jesus commands individuals to return to family and community.

If the New Testament portrays a variety of ways in which the early believers became followers of Jesus in the differing circumstances of single, married, and community life, who are we to commend one practice over another? Is it not the whole text that has authority, taken together, rather than any few isolated words? Paul’s celebration of diversity in the body of Christ warrants recognition of various communities and individual patterns. Similarly, the authority of the Gospel is self-limiting and self-defining through the very fact that the church has canonized four distinct, different, and equally authoritative Gospel witnesses.

In practice this might be a congregation of different worshippers around the table of the Last Supper sharing salvation through Jesus Christ. Side by side at the altar with someone whose construction of family looks radically different from mine, we kneel as an attempt to open up a physical space for encountering a different person and as a witness to a God whose generosity and creativity cannot be limited by our tiny hearts and minds.

We may be wrong. But we are consoled by the parable in which weeds and wheat are to be left side by side until the end. So when it comes to families, let us recognize our limited and provisional judgments and err boldly on the side of generosity and magnanimity, counting on God’s forgiveness both in this life and the next.

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.

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