Living Lenten Wisdom in the Greening Time: Fasting

by W. Christopher Evans

To hear the praises of Orcas, we may have to sail silently;

To smell the incense of Redwoods,
we may have to build without beams;

To see the majesty of Mountains,
we may have to relearn habits of sleep;

To taste the goodness of Salmon,
we may have to unstopper streams.

To touch the glory of Earthworms,
we may have to garden green.

To live as priests amid this world,
we may have to trust our dying—
alongside them.

Soon Pentecost will fall upon us again. And then a Sunday later, we will celebrate the ongoing work of the Holy Trinity to gather all things into communion to be followed by what Anglicans once called The Season after Trinity. And yet, I am still stuck on my insights about Lent.

I have a confession to make: Lent has been one of my least favorite seasons of the Church for a very long time. While words and images of the Crucified God, Jesus Christ, move my heart and mind and all my being, the practices of response to this One associated with Lent always filtered themselves through my own brokenness.

You see, I am prone to the disease we call perfectionism. Perfectionism is a disease, a brokenness, a sin that cannot deal with our mutability and vulnerability. Perfectionism is a profession of never measuring up, and trying to measure up anyway by means of oneself. At heart, perfectionism is about being God for oneself or earning God for oneself.

The irony is that the disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, intended to lead us deeper into God and deeper into life and designed to lead us out of ourselves toward God and for others, have tended to turn me in upon myself—what the mystic of the Theologia Germanica and Martin Luther define as sin or the self turned in upon the self. Lent became hell—where hell is our being completely turned in upon ourselves to the exclusion of God and all else. So I stopped doing Lent in all things but rite.

Something changed this year. I entered this Lent pre-nourished by the Psalms, gardening, poetry, and daily birdsong. I began putting together final chapters of a small work on the Psalms that included brief offices for morning and evening. And I began test-praying these Christocentric-Trinitiarian creation-oriented prayers.

Somewhere along the way of these practices, our being dust has become good news for me. Our being dust is profession of our need for God in each and every moment. And it is a profound profession of God’s love for human beings and all living beings of earth in all of our incompleteness and vulnerability—for we are given and share the breath of life.

To profess we are dust is to acknowledge our relatedness to and solidarity with all created beings—elemental, living, sentient, as fellow creatures created in and by and for Christ. To profess we are dust is, to paraphrase F.D. Maurice, to make praise of God’s relatedness to us and solidarity with us in the Incarnation, Jesus Christ. To profess we are dust is to remember our Baptism, our being freed in Christ to live and love as human creatures.

So to hear this news spoken to me and to have this news inscribed on my forehead with ashes and oil in the mark of the cross gave me pause. This mark, first given us in Baptism, is a reminder of our absolute dependence on God, of which death is the most final reminder. To be marked on the forehead by the cross in ashes and oil shifted how I think about and experience repentance and conversion.

At the heart of repentance is not a mere confession of these and those sins. Rather in confessing these and those sins, we find ourselves professing our need for and lack of God.
And in absolution, we are turned around to a world bathed in God’s love and embrace. To confess our sins is to confess our lack and need is to confess our utter dependence is to confess our being beloved. My Lent began on this insight into that form of praise we call confession.

I say form of praise because confession is its own profession of faith or trust in the God Who Is this way with us as revealed in Jesus Christ, namely steadfast love toward us—even unto death, death on a cross at human hands. God’s steadfast love and our trust are the movement of the Psalms be they praise, thanksgiving, confession, imprecatory, or lament.

To acknowledge our utter dependence on God has the paradoxical effect of opening our eyes to the needs of others and to our reliance on others to live. This effect pertains to how we are in our human social worlds as well as to how we are among all creatures and the whole of creation. We enter ecstasy, the going out of ourselves to be with and for others. And that leads us to embrace ourselves with humor and humility as creatures of clay. We can go with others and be for others because in Christ even death is become a sign of God’s faithfulness to us and a daily means of our being more fully alive, our being with and for others.

An old lens fell away, and I acquired a new Lenten lens this year that looks out through the purple, violet, pinkish hues to see shades of life in green.

But what does it mean to live Lent the rest of the year? After all, St. Benedict instructs us in his Rule to live all of life as Lent. I have always balked at his instruction given my proclivity to perfectionism. This year, I read his words afresh.

The Rule of Saint Benedict could just as easily be called A Small Catechism on Discipleship or A Manual of Christian Communal Wisdom. Rule in this case is closer to what our Jewish kin understand of Torah or Instruction. Rule is a Way of Living in response to God’s goodness and gifting. In my lectures on indigenous Christianities, I have noted time and again that communal ascetical practices are aimed toward our living and growing in harmony with God, one another, and creation. They are whole-making and life-giving responses to the God Who makes a gift of Godself to us as Jesus Christ. William Temple puts it this way,

Man is a part of the system of nature, whatever else he may be beside. He must study the ways of nature and follow them, for he is utterly dependent on the natural world. Consequently, he must not think of natural resources as there for him to exploit to his own immediate advantage, but must rather co-operate with the natural process and so, in the long run, gain a far greater advantage. This is of primary importance in relation to man’s treatment of the soil. Nature is man’s partner rather than his servant; he is dependent on it for the means of life. For the Christian this is recognized as a pact of creatureship. The treatment of the earth by man the exploiter is not only imprudent but sacrilegious. We are not likely to correct our hideous mistakes in this realm unless we recover the mystical sense of our one-ness with nature. I labour this precisely because many people think it fantastic; I think it is fundamental to sanity (Temple, The Hope of a New World, 67).
In this sense, discipleship and wisdom are two different ways of writing about a way of living in response to Christ. Somehow, I had not applied my own observations to St. Benedict’s instruction or to the Season of Lent. Now I do.

Wisdom is a peculiar social science. An openness exists in wisdom to be vulnerable, to learn from failures, to discover new things, to even learn from sins. Wisdom has a trial and error quality about it that over the long run becomes tradition, the accumulated learning of the community about the way, the store of life-giving and whole-making patterned responses to the Gospel, Jesus Christ.

Wisdom can be revisited, adapted, revised as new times call for new interpretations of instructions or even development of new practices. And in each age, distinct practices and interpretations of received wisdom will emerge to make Jesus known in this time and place and culture while always drawing up in themselves that which has been passed on to us from faithful ancestors.

And for our age, living Lenten wisdom in the greening time, the season devoted to the work of the Life-giving Spirit among us and the age in which the pilgrim Church finds ourselves, cannot avoid considering ecology and creation.

Take our patterns of consumption.

The practice that considers our patterns of consumption has a traditional term, “fasting.” And how quickly at Easter we throw aside any Lenten wisdom practice of this sort, no matter how meager our discipline, rather than reinvigorate it in light of the Resurrection, Ascension, and Sending of the Spirit. We moan about giving up chocolate or meat and rejoice when we can indulge incessantly again.

But fasting is about balance, harmony, and life. If we peel away the layers of this practice, century after century what emerges is not a body-hating, pleasure-hating orientation, but a concern for vulnerable others’ having life in a world of limited and finite capacities.

Limited and finite and vulnerable are dirty words for us in the overdeveloped world. We believe that growth and more and security are inevitable. This is the language of our economy. We like to hear about the abundance of God in Christ and translate that into attitudes and practices of abundance on the level of creatures that do not take into account the fullness of the Incarnation.

After all, the Second Person made himself limited and finite and vulnerable for us, not shirking our estate, but entering fully into our condition even to the point of being pinned to a tree like an insect. As St. Paul warns the Church in Corinth, Christ does not burst forth from this finitude in the Resurrection, so that we might fly or flee the bonds of earth. Christ bursts forth to lead us more deeply into embrace of and care for creaturehood. That is, embrace of and care for limits, finitude, and the vulnerable.

We do not want to hear about what limited and finite and vulnerability imply, namely, the possibility of scarcity because we do not experience scarcity. Yet, many on this earth do experience scarcity and our words of abundance to us and to them cannot mask that we as a society are living for ourselves and beyond the capacities of earth—even to the point of perverting the Gospel to justify our overuse.

But, we cannot escape facing our creaturehood. Even the capacity of the soil is limited and finite for the production of grains and vegetables and fruits. And we are poisoning and overworking the soil. The capacity for rivers to support salmon and trout and frogs is vulnerable. And we are poisoning and diverting the rivers. I could go on.

No, a truly Christian practice of the abundance of God’s Resurrection grace in a limited and finite and vulnerable world is not a practice of growth and more and security in the language of American economics, but a practice of enough and sharing, and yes, abstinence in the language of God’s Economy revealed in the Incarnation.

Fasting in every season is a way of living oriented toward our not taking more than need and a way of considering the needs of others. Such a practice considers the needs of other human beings as well as those of other elemental, living, and sentient beings. Unlike the practices of American economics, such a practice considers not only enough and sharing and abstinence, but also fragility, uniqueness, and beauty in any economic calculus precisely because the Creator became a creature in Christ Jesus. As William Temple reminds us,

Within human society we must aim at establishing that relation of the various functions or activities to one another which corresponds to their contribution to the general well-being. Thus a land-owner must not be allowed to develop his land for his own profit in a way which destroys its capacity to produce wealth or otherwise minister to the general good for generations to come. In this connexion, let us remember that natural beauty is a spiritual treasure; to convert it into ugliness for personal economic gain is wicked. (Temple, The Hope of a New World, 67).

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

Is it Communion Without or Communion Before Baptism?

by Jeffrey L. Shy

In a recent thread in The Lead section of The Episcopal Café, another extended discussion in the comments began and continued to over 80 posts on the subject of "open" communion, known by some under the acronym of CWOB or "Communion WithOut Baptism." This will be one of many issues to be considered at the upcoming General Convention this summer, and if the exchanges on The Café are any predictor of what is likely to ensue there, the debate may be long and probably contentious. Although I had previously read former discussions and initially even this recent post with somewhat of a "ho hum" attitude, it was for the first time in the comments thread that I had somewhat of a "lightbulb" moment and began to consider the question both seriously and from what was, for me, a new perspective, and I was asked afterwards to consider contributing a brief essay on the issue to The Daily Episcopalian.

Just as in the preface to my briefer comment on that thread, I should probably and immediately be open and be honest about just who and what I am – a theologically and socially very liberal but liturgically pretty conservative (or probably better, very "high church") Episcopalian. As one of many "refugees" to come to The Episcopal Church (TEC) in the last 20-30 years, I was drawn (long before reasons related to sexuality) to TEC by its liturgical traditions, musical heritage and practice and its prayerbook, and this, of necessity, included developing a certain point of view and understanding with regard to the sacraments of the church. Having never witnessed a single adult baptism in church as a youth and growing up in a tradition where one simply did not "take communion" until after (the Presbyterian equivalent of) confirmation, I never previously gave much thought to the issue of the propriety of CWOB. My first experience in TEC of child communions struck me first as a bit "odd" but, on reflection, I had to conclude that there seemed to be no convincing reason that we should exclude our baptized children from this central act of Christian worship and community. In more recent years, when the question of CWOB began to percolate, it seemed at first to me that the argument about "welcome" as a reason for CWOB was a little bit of a stretch. Of course "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!" We put it on signs outside of all of our churches, don't we? We just went to the mat on the issue of LGBT inclusion, didn't we? The church where I currently assist as interim organist has on its website that it "welcomes everyone," particularly those who may have "felt unwelcome in other churches." I myself, as an early-middle-aged, 24-years-same-sex-partnered, non-theist, former-Presbyterian, former-Lutheran, organist, neurologist, am a veritable poster child for the kind of "odd ball" who gets routinely "welcomed" in TEC today.

Imagine my surprise, however, when it occurred to me that maybe I needed to rethink this issue of CWOB with some level of care. In medicine, particularly specialty medicine such as neurology in which I practice, it is often necessary to discard previous diagnoses or assumptions by and about persons who come for consultation and treatment in order to make any progress. At first, radical changes may be greeted with great skepticism or even anger, but with time, as the fruits of the "change" begin to be felt, resistance fades and falls away, hopefully to beneficial effect. This cannot happen, however, without approaching the case with an initial broad open-mindedness. My "lightbulb" moment in the midst of our recent CWOB discussion recently came when I began to think that, perhaps, we might be framing the question in a slightly off-kilter manner. We should perhaps not be talking about communion "without" baptism, but communion "before" baptism. This may not be about marginalizing the sacrament of baptism or conversely devaluing the sacrament the Lord's supper, but simply changing the order in which persons first experience these sacraments to meet better the spiritual and religious needs of a changing world. Placed in this new light, a host of thoughts began to percolate as to why do we think that it is necessary that baptism must or should precede communion rather than follow it other than the arguments that, in the end, might boil down to evolved customs and post-hoc theological rationalizations that provide "explanations" for what we are already doing in the first place? What, after all, is so critical about the order in which sacraments are received?

Once I had experienced this breakthrough "Aha!" moment, I began to envision all sorts of cases in which the sacraments might come "out of order" particularly in a world where "straight arrow" cradle Episcopalians or even cradle Christians are a rapidly fading memory. How about someone whose first sacramental experience is of the visitation and anointing of the sick? Could not the rite of healing be the first sacrament that we receive as "the outward and visible sign" of the "inward and spiritual grace" and our gateway into a religious life? Lots of precedent for that – Jesus himself was a first "big offender" there. There's lots of indiscriminate healing going on in the Gospels. What about the sacrament of penance? Could not someone come first to the church plagued by guilt and in need of counseling and forgiveness first experience that "inward and spiritual grace" through the rite of confession and reconciliation of a penitent? Uh oh, Jesus again a big offender. Is it easier to say "your sins are forgiven" than "get up and walk?" – out of order again. Ok, I know, some will point out that these are the "lesser" sacraments, not the "big two" of baptism and communion. But, how about those big two? We believe that Jesus received the baptism of John. We have no written record of the later baptism of any of his first disciples, although some were perhaps former Johanine disciples. Jesus never is recorded as baptizing anyone, but he certainly "gave communion" to a group of somewhat unruly, rebellious, fickle, oafish and very-possibly unbaptized disciples. Even the "great commission" conclusions to our Gospels charging us to "baptize" and "make disciples" may now be seen to be likely "post hoc" anachronisms grafted onto the original events, and in some cases like our earliest Gospel of Mark, literally pasted into the original text.

At this point, it is probably best that I leave most of the new-testamentizing, early-churchizing, sacramental-theologizing to those who are experts those fields, something that I most unequivocally am not. But think, just for a moment, about someone coming really fresh into an Episcopal church on a typical Sunday morning. I am never before baptized, never before saw a Eucharistic liturgy, heck, never even darkened the door of a church before, but somehow, some way, I was curious enough to waste a perfectly good weekend morning by "going to church." From the first, I hear strange stuff, not about "God-Blessed-America" but about this other country, "God's Kingdom." The next thing you know I am singing "Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth." Just when I thought I was in safe territory sitting and listening to bible readings (Isn't that the main thing Christians do, read the Bible and then argue about it?), suddenly everyone is standing up and singing "Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia…" as a big gold-covered book gets carried down from the altar surrounded by candles, smoked with puffs of incense and is suddenly not read or debated but sung to me! "Come unto me, all you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest…." Before you know it, we are on our feet yet again and claiming to sing along with "angels and archangels and all the company of heaven," "Holy, holy, holy… heaven and earth are full of your glory." Then more curious still, most are on their knees on these little fold down things in the benches and there are more words: "In your infinite love you made us for yourself…you sent Jesus…to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us… He stretched out his arms upon the cross and offered himself… took bread…gave it to his disciples…'This is my body'… took the cup of wine… 'This is my blood'… the holy food of new and unending life… the joy of your eternal kingdom…the gifts of God for the people of God, take them…" Then everyone is going up to the railing around the altar and standing or kneeling. They get a little cracker, a sip of wine out of the same cup. Uh oh, a nice usher is smiling at me and gesturing for me to get up too. Best not to look out of place, so I shuffle up and stand (that seems OK) and get the little cracker and take a sip of the sweet port (relieved to see that they are wiping off the edge after each one drinks) and sidle back to my more safe personal space in the seat and have a look around at everyone else. There is something just a bit different about their facial expressions, the way afterwards that they stand, move and walk. They just look different. Do I look different? Do I feel different? I'm not sure if what it is, but there seems to be something… But it's all over quickly after that, and several nice people welcome me, ask polite questions about me, invite me to the parish hall for a coffee or a sherry and a bit of food. They say they were glad that I came. They hope to see me again. Maybe I'll come back and see if that something is there again, or perhaps I just imagined it…? And there you have it. Before you know it, someone comes in totally unprepared, gets caught up in what we sometimes zombie-like do every Sunday, takes the words seriously and literally and breaks all the unpublished rules. The Gentile is suddenly "in the Spirit" and we have to "deal with it." Uh oh, quick, get the font warmed up… Aren't we supposed to get baptized first? Isn't that how the "economy of salvation" works? Hmm…do I really believe that it must be so?

And yes, I know, we could have "noticed" the stranger and "headed him off at the pass." There could have been an explanation in the bulletin or some sort of announcement. The priest could catch on after a few more visits and curbside her to explain how it's "supposed" to be done. He might then get diverted off to "Episcopal 101" and learn the "right way," and until he is baptized go up with "arms crossed for a blessing." But would that be a good thing? Why not this order first? Did her receiving communion before baptism demean this first virginal experience? Would he later regret that he had not "saved himself" for after baptism? Was there ominous thunder? Did she come down with a mysterious illness and die? Doesn't God love and welcome everyone, baptized or not? Whose meal is this, anyways? Jesus didn't say "All you who have been baptized and had the classes and understand exactly what this special meal is about (the disciples most certainly did not at first)" come and eat and drink," or did a page drop out of my copy of the NT? For those of us who still are convinced that he was not "properly prepared," are we really most concerned for him or perhaps it is more true that we are (unconsciously) resentful of the degradation of our own "insider" privileges? Am I the guy who went to work early in the vineyard and who ends up resentful that the one who showed up at the last minute got the same wages that I did but without all the work?

Obviously, there remain lots of questions and lots of assumptions that need to be considered, reviewed and reaccepted or rejected, and after all this initial review, I am still not sure what we should "officially" do. I have often felt that the Anglican tradition, at its best, sometimes understands that it might be better not to ask too many questions with definite yes/no answers or to make too many rules, at least at first. Maybe sometimes it is OK initially to just leave things a bit "unclear" and "poorly defined." Maybe it is best not to pretend that we already have all this already worked out and let a diversity of practice continue for now. Maybe we need to "listen to the Spirit" and "look for the fruits" of those wild seeds of consecrated wafers scattered around indiscriminately. Maybe we need to let experience change and guide explanation rather than the other way around. Maybe we should ask those who have experienced communion before baptism, "How was it for you?" Maybe the old diagnosis and treatment plan is wrong and needs to be reviewed and revised and reconsidered, perhaps radically. Maybe, just maybe….


Jeffrey Shy is a neurologist in clinical practice in the east valley of the Phoenix metro area where he lives with his life partner, Philip, and an undisclosed number of feline companions.

The mockingbird is the Pentecost bird.

by Sam Candler

At Pentecost, when the Christian Church remembers the day on which the disciples “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2:4), I think of the mockingbird.

I have heard mockingbirds all my life, chortling in the morning dawn, in the heat of mid- day, and late into the night. The mockingbird song greets me everywhere, and what a song it is. Most of you have heard it, even if you cannot identify it. The mockingbird is the source of that incessant chattering, more chattering than the most obnoxious human gossip you know.

In fact, however, the mockingbird loves to imitate other songs. He sings what he hears. Some say that mature mockingbirds know over five hundred songs. He is not mocking those songs; he is just imitating them. He is miming; mimus polygottus is his biological name. The Spanish language has the bird named right: “centzontle,” they call it, “the bird of four hundred songs.”

I talked with a shop owner once who said that a mockingbird outside his store had learned to imitate the sound of the UPS truck backing up. Then, the bird learned to imitate all the various rings on people’s cell phones. Surely in the American south, there is no bird heard more incessantly and frequently. It is the state bird of Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee, Texas, and Mississippi. Just like the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Cretans, and Arabs, on the Feast of Pentecost.

What a pity that the mockingbird is named for mocking, for I believe the melody that winds its way through song after song is a song of praise. I believe the mockingbird is essentially a joyful bird (except maybe for that obnoxious crooner at night, looking for a mate). So, on Pentecost Sunday in the Church, I want to re-name the mockingbird, the Pentecost Bird.

The mockingbird is the Pentecost Bird. Not because of its colors (it wears no flaming wings of fire), but because of its song, its one song that is really a collection of songs. Listen to it wag this way, and then that. The mockingbird’s songs are the collected songs of the entire earth. They are babbling songs from Babel. Those collected songs are the voices, the languages, of everyone.

Imagine that you could hear, in one moment, all the incredible sounds occurring right now, on earth. It would sound much like the opening seconds of that tremendous movie, The Matrix. Even if you have not watched the entire movie, listen to those first seconds of The Matrix, when the sounds occurring all over the earth are heard at once. The cacophony is overwhelming, but also exhilarating. It is the glorious collected babble of ancient Babel.

Much of what happens in the church sounds like cacophony. Listen to all the voices that the church collects. Sobs wail out along with laughter. Praise and glory sing right alongside complaint and anxiety. Inquiry and wonder provide harmony to dogma and creed.

Ah! The church! It is the sound of the mockingbird at nine o’clock in the morning. To the outside ear, perhaps the untrained ear, the song sounds like a drunken chorus; the singers must be filled with new wine. Even if it were nine o’clock in the evening, the song would sound like some sort of intricate jazz number, with melodies and improvisations ricocheting all around us.

The miracle of Pentecost occurs when these sounds do not sound chaotic, but lovely. It is as if the rushing wind of a new morning has brought another listening chamber to us, perhaps another sanctuary, where all these voices and songs do not clatter and clash with one another; rather they dance together in a new reality. The miracle of Pentecost is the reversal of Babel. The miracle of Pentecost is the miracle that holds the church together; no matter what the language, we hear the power and grace of God.

We hear in the book of Acts that the folks on the outside sneered at the disciples. But the Greek word is not “sneered.” The King James Version of the bible gets the translation right; the outsiders were “mocking” the Christians. “They are drunk with new wine!” they mocked.

Oh, would that the church was drunk with new wine, chattering wildly about the praises of God. Not mocking. Mocking occurs when one does not trust the Spirit. To mock means to not believe the power of God’s Spirit. We are meant to be not the mockers, but the singers. We are meant to be not mockingbirds, but Pentecost Birds, singing wildly and jauntily.

Pentecost people are meant to imitate the songs of people praising God, no matter what language they may be speaking. For, ultimately, our baptism is about imitation; we are meant to be imitators of Christ. Will we imitate the songs of praise and glory? Or will we just imitate the clanging anxiety of a truck backing up? When we ring someone up on our cell phone, do we have something blessed to say?

On the Day of Pentecost, I want to sing good songs, songs that come from every language and voice and tradition of the world, but which say one thing: God is praised. God is blessed in all of creation. That is what the mockingbird sings every day. That is what Pentecost Birds sing every day. Let us join them.


The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta. His sermons and reflections on “Good Faith and Common Good” can be found on the Cathedral web site.

Abundance

by Maria Evans

"In this Easter season I would encourage you to look at where you are finding new life and resurrection, where life abundant and love incarnate are springing up in your lives and the lives of your communities. There is indeed greenness, whatever the season."
--from Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori's 2012 Easter Message

You know, it's amazing what a 600 million dollar jackpot and a dollar can do.

Let me be clear that generally speaking, I am not hot on gambling. I think it's one of those things in this world that has an adrenalin potential for many people, and often that means an addiction potential. But I think in and of itself, there's nothing wrong with the occasional golf bet, or the March Madness pool in the office, or tossing a buck in now and then when the lottery jackpot gets up there in that "crazy high" range.

When a recent multi-state lottery topped 600 million dollars, I coughed up a buck like everyone else in my office, simply to join in the fun. But what I found amazing was that for the whole day, even though we had the usual stresses in the office and the usual hassles about Fridays (namely, everyone wants their surgical pathology reports before the weekend so they don't have to make their patients wait over the weekend for results,) all of us were more cheerful than usual. Many people who walked in the office started their conversation with "Got your ticket yet?" I lost count of the number of times people fantasized out loud about what they would do with all that money.

What struck me was that every person I met that day, when they related their fantasies, included at least one very philanthropic and generous action. Oh, sure--there were also the typical answers about not ever going to work again, telling off the boss, etc., but the one that made people's eyes light up was envisioning the grand and magnanimous things they'd do. They'd put the kids/grandkids/nieces/nephews through college. They'd start funds to help people get microloans. They'd help out the poor, the homeless, the unemployed in a variety of real ways, not just throw money at it. They'd pay off the debts of loved ones in addition to themselves. They'd give big money to church, to their favorite charity, or make grand anonymous gifts of cash/cars/houses to people who they knew were struggling.

In short, everyone saw themselves in that situation of being so filled with abundance that they could afford to give it away with very little worry about themselves and their own security. Imagining this fantasy abundance made people more cheerful, more tolerant, and more detached from the need for a direct personal emotional payoff from other people. The knowledge of their security in abundance was enough.

The other interesting thing is that no one saw anyone else's fantasies as competing with their own. Because everyone who had bought a ticket had the same ridiculously long odds as anyone else, there was abundant room to dream and let all the dreams sit among each other, with no pressure to think someone else's dream was a threat to one's own dream.

It got me to wondering. What would life on this planet be like if everyone could feel that abundance-filled on a regular basis? How would it change what we chose to give, when it came to our time, our money, our emotional energy, and our temper?

How would each of us be transformed if each of us could really understand God's grace in the way we understand the value of a winning lottery ticket? What would happen to the state of the world if we could accept each others' hopes and dreams in our faith and worship communities with the same level of acceptance a community created out of a buck, six random numbers and a fantasy can create?

We have completed our forty days in the desert of Lent--forty days where we reached inside of ourselves and placed names on the pangs of longing within us, and heard the the rumblings of our spiritual hunger. Now we are basking in the fifty days of Easter. In many parts of the Northern Hemisphere, we moved from the brown, muddy season, into an explosion of color, framed by green grass that often sprang up overnight. What do we now see in the green patches of our souls we never saw before? Where are the dormant seeds that slumber inside of us? How do we learn to trust that it will abundantly and lavishly bear fruit, just as surely as the green grass returns every spring, if only we make the effort to tend it?

Perhaps it starts with seeing those green spaces in ourselves and within our communities of faith, and committing to tend those green spaces. At any rate, we have all of what remains of the fifty days of Easter to find out.


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

Why Jesus exploded my burrito

by Amber Evans

On a recent Friday morning I walked into the coffee shop near the school where I’m the chaplain and I ordered a breakfast burrito. And I overheard the barista say to one of his customers, “Why doesn’t anybody get married in church anymore?”

I said, “Some people still do.”

He said, “Sure, but not as much. Now a days, everybody gets married on the beach in Hawaii or in a hotel ballroom.”

I said, “It’s probably because, now a days, fewer people go to church.”

He volunteered that he was raised in church and he doesn’t go. The other customer said, “I’m catholic, I was baptized, but now I only go for weddings and funerals.”

“You must go a lot,” the barista said. He knows I’m a priest.

“Not as much as you might think,” I replied sheepishly.

That was when he opened the microwave to find that my burrito had exploded and he said, “Jesus! Let me make you a new one.” Then, embarrassed, he said. “Oh, listen to me talking to Jesus over here.”

The Catholic guy said, “Jesus is over there? Did he explode her burrito?”

I said, “He must be mad at me for not going to church more.”

After that, the moment seemed just right to ask the kind of questions priests rarely get to ask.

“What would it take for you to go? What would church have to be like?”

The Catholic guy said, “I would need eight days in a week.”

I thought about my own life and knew that wouldn’t really work. “No. I think you’d just fill that day up too. You’d go now, if it were important to you. So, what would make it important?”

What would church have to be like for people to want to go more than stay in bed and read the paper, or go to their kid’s sports game, or work out, or have brunch with friends?

In some ways the answer itself is in church, with the people who still go. There is something for us there that we’ve decided is more important than those other important things. But for more and more people, it’s not. They worship at the church of rest, or family, or something else that they can’t get enough of. And since I am priest with a Monday through Friday job, I can relate. When I’m not at church on Sunday, I’m doing those things too.

The thing about the Gospel is that, while sometimes Jesus can sound rather exclusive, other times he tells us that ultimately, there will be only one flock, and nobody’s left out it.

That’s the only thing that makes sense to me, when I’m teaching world religions and my students want to know why there are so many. I tell them that we are all grasping at the same mystery of God, and only seeing our little sliver of that mystery, as it’s revealed by our particular religious traditions.

The problem is, sometimes the traditions get stale. People participate in them, but aren’t able to see past them to the mystery they’re really about. And the joy of family, or the sanctuary of rest, or the sacrament of a meal with friends turns out to be a more meaningful encounter with the mystery of God.

And not surprisingly, those two dudes drinking their coffee Friday morning couldn’t really answer the question for me-- what would it take to make church a priority? They hadn’t thought much about it before.

So I thought about what makes church meaningful to me at school, or at St. Gregory of Nyssa, where I serve as a non-stipendiary priest. I realized that it’s the blend of deep reflection and joy. And it’s something I’ve also felt when I officiate at the marriage of good friends who aren’t especially religious, but ask me to help them take seriously the mystical commitment they’re making.

And it’s something I feel at my house, when we host our annual Thanksgiving dinner because of my friend Damon Styer, who’s a member of St. Gregory’s. Years ago, instead of imposing a prayer on my spiritually diverse guests, I asked Damon to read a poem as a kind of blessing for the Thanksgiving meal. Damon has made it a tradition every year-- he always finds a brilliant poem, and he does a wonderfully dramatic reading, and he sets the tone for us to share. Dinner is rife with discussions about what we are thankful for, and our love as friends. And then there is food, and wine, and joy. And it is church.

So I told the guys at the coffee shop that if church was more like that kind of party, more people would probably come. And the microwave dinged, and my second breakfast burrito came out intact. And Mr. Barista told me I must be right, because Jesus wasn’t mad at me anymore.

I don’t worry as much as some people about the future of the church, because I believe Jesus. There will be one flock. And all of us silly sheep are fumbling our way into it. And that mysterious God who breaks into our lives here-- or wherever we spend Sunday morning-- that God is alive, and isn’t going anywhere without us. But, we can help Jesus by inviting everyone to the party.

The Rev. Amber Evans is the School Chaplain at St. Matthew's School, St. Mateo, California.

Ascension to the Right Hand of God? Where?

by Donald Schell

To my surprise, a couple of events in the past week had me thinking freshly about the Ascension. And to write about them coherently I need to make a couple of confessions.
First - I’m the kind of person who, once I’ve read far enough to know I care about a novel to finish it, will read the end (same for a mystery). Then knowing where it’s going, I go back to my bookmark and watch the storyteller at work. It turns all narrative into a kind of remembering that in life only comes with retrospection. More on that one after…

My Second Confession - when I was a college student seeking ordination and planning to go to seminary, I got invited to preach the Sunday after the Ascension and I preached a “challenge” to the congregation based on the premise that a progressive, open-hearted reading of the New Testament still had to acknowledge as FACTS, fragments of narrative like Luke/Acts account of the Ascension. I said something like, “We may not like it, but if we claim we’re Christian, we need to believe that God actually could and did lift Jesus heavenward from a hilltop in Israel and that he disappeared into the clouds like a rocket lifting off from Cape Canaveral.”

So, Ascension - why does this particular account from Luke trump the other three Gospels? Same for Annunciation and Pentecost? Why does Luke define our liturgical year so decisively? Luke’s birth story defines Christmas on the calendar. Matthew’s version gets squeezed in to Epiphany. Two Gospels choose to have no birth story. And why do we celebrate Pentecost fifty days after Easter (following Luke) instead of on Easter Day (following John)? Forty-five years of listening to colleagues preach Gospel narrative with grace have made me grateful that the one story of Jesus is emphatically NOT a coherent narrative, and I’m intrigued and moved to consider how oral tradition, preaching, teaching, and evangelism shaped the narratives we receive from the communities whose versions we’ve made canonical. But it’s a different story with the liturgical year. Ascension is a Lukan celebration, a story missing completely from the other Gospels and a prelude to Luke/Acts unique telling of the Pentecost.

Why is Luke given prominence in shaping our liturgical year?

I suspect the author’s declared purpose of creating a synthesis appeals to liberal literalists. Our church is full of liberal literalists, people (including clergy) whose hearts are in an open place pastorally, people who long for justice, people who listen to NPR, and people who read the Gospels as if they were an eyewitness accounts. I know we’re in trouble when I hear a preacher wonder what Jesus or Peter or someone in the narrative “must have felt when…”

Trial lawyers tell me that they know eyewitness testimony wins a case because juries believe eyewitness is as close to hearing the ‘the truth’ or ‘what really happened’ as you can get. And friends who are trial attorneys acknowledge research demonstrating that eyewitness is the least reliable form of evidence because it’s all based on memories patched together and reinterpreted to make sense of things. Luke admits he’s doing just that, collecting and synthesizing stories to make a whole. Luke declares to Theophilus (his real reader of an imagined “lover of God”) that he has deliberately gathered and compared the stories to create a coherent narrative. We have to surmise what case he’s arguing, but he means to offer us evidence and closing argument for a verdict. And his coherent narrative gives us our now assumed governing structure to think about all the stories and experience of the four Gospels and beyond, stories that entirely burst the boundaries of narrative. Luke’s imposed order encourages us (and the church year) to imagine we’re thinking or hearing ‘what really happened.’

To his credit, Luke also is very interested in the wild, unpredictable workings of the Holy Spirit, and the coherent narrative that he crafts repeatedly tells the story where the Spirit showing up changes everything. Luke’s distinctive ordering is genuinely graceful, and this reminder of the Spirit a note in scripture that I wish we valued more. But neither Luke nor the liturgical year offer us coherent historical narrative. And the other Gospels insistently remind us that there are other tellings of this mysterious story making the rounds of early communities.

So then, the next question – why does Luke come up with Jesus’ rocket-like ascent into the clouds?

Two of Luke’s problems crafting his coherent narrative push for the Ascension. First there’s the question of just where Jesus might be NOW. We’ve got the disciples (and Paul’s) experience of the Risen Jesus, and then this logical question – is he still around that way, how ever or whatever ‘that way’ or a visible, touchable risen Christ might have meant to any of these communities (or St. Paul)? And if we don’t see Jesus now, where is he? The other Gospels leave the question wholly unanswered. One mystery opens to another. But Luke comes up with an answer, pointing toward the clouds, Luke says – “He’s not here that way anymore. He’s up there. At the Right Hand of the Father.”

Conveniently “up there” helps with the second narrative problem. As the other Gospel-making communities seem to have done, at least sometimes, Luke partially reframes Jesus’ message of the radical presence of God’s reign NOW. The early communities, facing hardship and persecution, lay a future promise on top of Jesus’ urgent proclamation of the divine now. Whatever was less than God wanted and hoped for would be resolved when Jesus “came back from heaven.” The early communities supplied a Deus Ex Machina to make Jesus’ proclamation of radical blessing now work out. When I’m reading a mystery and skip ahead to find out “who done it,” I’m reading a finished book. Skipping to read life from “the end” doesn’t work because “the end” is hidden in darkness and the mystery of God’s unfolding creation.

We can actually only read our lives and the life of our community of faith as they unfold. But we seem to imagine that if we can promise ourselves an ending that will tie up all the loose ends, we can make more sense of the narrative we’re living. The earliest Christians took that apocalyptic impulse they’d inherited from one strand of first century Judaism, a bit like my reading the end of a mystery before finishing the book, and grafted it back into Jesus’ teaching. And Luke’s Ascension gives us a map of heaven and earth and imagines a second to the last chapter that together make Jesus’ return from heaven work.

Bishop Pike fretted that the 1967 Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper, the earliest liturgy in Trial Use that led to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer introduced ‘strange and erroneous doctrine’ with its non-Episcopalian emphasis on the second coming, what we have now in “Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again.” At the time I felt scornful of Pike for dismissing what was so evident in the Bible’s story, or thinking of Ascension in Acts and the angels’ reproach and promise in Acts 1, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” There it is, what goes up must come down, Luke’s schema for the Second Coming.

Over the years since reading Gospel scholars convinced me that Jesus was preaching a non-futurist re-visioning of the present action of God – a ‘kingdom of God’ that wasn’t just at hand (John the Baptist’s message) but here, now, among us.

Preaching that God’s power is fully present and realized among us now has all kinds of problems, and not just the problem of evil and suffering (consider how Luke fixes the problem of Jesus’ outrageous declaration of God’s blessing on the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, and those who mourn. But it’s not just evil, there’s also the problem of any future at all. If God’s new life, the infinite holy possibility of the present is already here, what’s tomorrow? Memory and anticipation look like a workable answer. But consider what do we do with memory.

Daniel Simons at St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Wall Street preached a sermon that touched on memory. Preaching the ultimate fallibility of memory at the church that has been the pilgrim destination for 9/11 requires a certain courage, or at least ruthless clarity. Daniel was talking about what lasts, about the transformative and enduring power of love, the very thing that seems most fragile and ephemeral. And he quoted a saying (probably from the Mexican Day of the Dead tradition) about our final death, which is not the moment our hearts stop or the moment we’re consigned to a crematorium or buried in the earth, but the last time our name is spoken on earth.

If love is truly stronger than death and sin, it’s also got to be stronger than memory, because, as the Whiffenpoof song brutally reminds us, eventually, “we’ll pass and be forgotten like the rest.”

At St. Paul’s, backing up to Ground Zero and the World Trade Center site, you see constant crowds lined up to visit our most recent ‘eternal memory’ destination. Walking along the Hudson River on the West Side of Manhattan, I paused to read another, lesser memorial. It’s not even a plaque, but a laminated photograph and text marking the dock where the Carpathia docked delivering 700 survivors from the Titanic disaster to safety.

What makes us say we’ll ‘never forget’ those who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or ‘never forget’ those who went down with the Titanic? What is our cultural investment in this lie of eternal remembering? I’m named for an uncle who died in World War II. I had a cousin who was killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I can tell you their names and some story, and my children can offer a smaller bit toward names and story, and what will their children know to tell?

Memory and forgetting, the power of love, and the power of death were all on my mind when I went through security at JFK’s terminal 2. I read the caption beneath a large American flag on the wall:

This Flag contains the names of those killed in the terrorist attacks of 9/11 Now and forever it will represent their immortality We shall never forget them.

Then I looked again and saw that the stars and stripes of the flag were all made of tiny print. The names of those killed, undoubtedly including my cousin’s name. It was a poignant reminder of a solidarity in death of a large, diverse group of people. The flag itself was moving. But the pious caption was simply and patently false.

Immortality? I recalled going to a reading and talk by Wallace Stegner with my daughter Maria. Stegner read and told stories and Maria leaned over to me and said, “Dad, it’s like listening to Mark Twain live.” I nodded. When Stegner invited questions from the audience, someone asked, “Mister Stegner, how does it feel to have earned a permanent place in the pantheon of American letters?” Wallace Stegner laughed. “I don’t think there is such a permanent pantheon. I love going to used bookstores and finding several copies of now forgotten treasures from ‘immortal’ writers fifty years back. We forget more than we remember. Finally we’ll all be forgotten. I hope I’ve contributed something to readers today. It would be wonderful if my books still speak in a generation, but who knows?”

The flag, like Luke’s Ascension story, hopes to shape our experience of the present, to project a memory (or a not forgetting) to a remote future and then read the narrative of our lives from knowing this is how the story will end. Gospel doesn’t offer that, it delivers us from it.

But the church calendar gives us the Ascension. Luke’s solution to where Jesus went and how he’ll come back gets celebrated every year, so what does commemorating the Ascension invite us to as preachers and lovers of Scripture?

In sacramental theology class, we learned that a distinction between Luther and Calvin’s understandings of Christ Presence in the Eucharist paralleled their two interpretations of the Ascension. Calvin didn’t, in fact, teach the Eucharistic was a ‘mere memorial.’ He insisted that Christ was SPIRITUALLY present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Present, because that was Christ’s promise and spiritual because Christ’s physical body and blood had ascended to the right hand of the father where he’d remain physically until the second coming. Luther, on the other hand, said that the Ascension taught us that the Risen Christ filled all creation, where else would you find the ‘the right hand of God.’ Not somewhere distant and above us, but inhering in all things, the presence and power that blessed all with life and possibility of holiness. So, we learned, Luther said taught knowing Christ present in the Eucharistic bread and wine we glimpsed the hidden fullness of Christ in everything. Here, now, and in all. For me that’s the Ascension worth celebrating.

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

Ascension's real message

Christian teachings about Jesus’ ascension are uncomfortably problematic.

First, the image of a king ascending to heaven, residing there as a god worshipped by his former subjects, is not unique to Christianity. Romans believed that Romulus (a boy and only later mythologized as a wolf), who with his brother Remus founded Rome, ascended at death to heaven and became the popular god Quirinus. Other ancient figures alleged to have ascended to heaven include Enoch and Elijah in the Old Testament, Hercules, Empedocles, and Alexander the Great. Was Jesus’ ascension historical fact or simply a well-intentioned attempt by Jesus’ first disciples to frame his story in language and metaphors widely known and understood in the first century? If the latter, the story has become a dated and generally misunderstood attempt to describe the intimacy with God that the disciples experienced in their relationship with Jesus.

Second, the image of Jesus ascending to heaven from Palestine, which several hundred years ago was a favorite subject of artists, today often evokes the continuing conflict between religion and science. The pervasive imagery, if taken literally, presupposes a flat earth, flat not because of globalization but because of a wrong view of the solar system. Thinking that heaven connotes a physical place – necessary if one believes in a physical resurrection - poses the additional difficulty of identifying that place’s locale, presumably somewhere in this physical cosmos.

Third, understanding the imagery subtly suggests that earth is at the center of creation, something ancient mapmakers who placed Jerusalem at the center of creation recognized. Nothing in the Bible requires this view; contemporary astronomers convincingly marshal evidence to the contrary. Earth is far from the cosmos’ center; humans are not necessarily the apogee of creation.

Fourth, spiritualizing the image of Jesus ascending to heaven, while avoiding the previous two problems, may imply that heaven is better than earth or that the future is preferable to the present. Yet God created heaven and earth. Valuing heaven more highly than earth requires considerable hubris: who are humans to assess God's handiwork? Admittedly, individual humans may reasonably prefer heaven to earth (e.g., the Apostle Paul, frequently persecuted for his beliefs and practices) or earth to heaven (e.g., people who believe that death is the end of existence). If, however, as the Church has long taught, God determines the number of a person’s days, then being where God wants one to be – earth or heaven – is best for that person at that moment.

Fifth, the New Testament repeatedly states that God is at work reconciling all creation to God's self. Unfortunately, widespread emphasis on heaven as the locus of life after death not only devalues the earth but also causes the Church and Christians largely to ignore the importance of caring for all creation. God calls humans to join God in the work of reconciling all creation (and not just fellow humans!) to God.

Finally, the New Testament and orthodox Christian theology incorporate a commonly unacknowledged contradiction. On the one hand, Jesus says that he must leave the disciples but promises the gift of the Spirit to his disciples as a guide and advocate in his absence. The Nicene Creed affirms Jesus’ absence – he sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven – and the Church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. On the other hand, much of the Church believes that Jesus is present in the Eucharist: this is my body; this is my blood. Whether understood in terms of transubstantiation, real presence, or spiritual presence, this affirmation is a prima facie contradiction of the premise that Jesus is now present in heaven rather than on earth. Furthermore, Christians for almost two millennia, notably including the Apostle Paul, claim to have encountered the risen Jesus on earth in spite of Jesus having ascended from earth into heaven.

So what can Christians meaningfully say about Jesus’ ascension?

First, Ascension reminds us to understand our theology metaphorically, to hold even the most cherished concepts gingerly, tentatively. Contradiction becomes paradox when we recognize that neither claim is ultimately true, that both claims at best represent partial truths, and that the claims’ incompatibility points to a mysterious otherness into which we can live but which we can never adequately articulate or describe. Like the early Christians, we do well to frame our experience of God in the language and metaphors of our time and culture, always cognizant that these are earthen vessels. After all, these earthen vessels are all that we have.

Second, struggling with Ascension’s problems offers a helpful antidote to our proclivities for hubris and anthropocentricity. Thinking about Ascension can remind us that although God created humans and crowned us with glory and honor, God's love has a breadth and depth that encompasses all life and the whole cosmos. Ascension, rightly understood, emphasizes God's reliance upon us as co-redeemers rather than passive participants of creation’s renewal. Jesus is not here; we are; therefore, God relies upon us to act.

Third and finally, Jesus’ ascension is a sign of hope. God remains involved with the cosmos. Whether conceived in terms of the activity of the Son or the Holy Spirit – thankfully, this post is about Ascension and not the Trinity so I, in good conscience, ignore that issue – God’s activity continues. God's reliance upon us to act is not an abdication of God's responsibility but an invitation to partner with God. We do not have to understand how that occurs, correctly identify which person of the Trinity acts, or even accurately discern what God is doing. We can know that our work of reconciliation will ultimately prevail because God works with us. This hope is Ascension’s real message.


George Clifford is a priest, writer, and ethicist who serves as 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.

The wrinkled soul

by Linda Ryan

One of the most important parts of our Education for Ministry (EfM) group is the TR, the Theological Reflection. We consider a word, a text, a picture, video, movie, experience or issue, form a metaphor encompassing what stands out for us from the topic or artifact (objects), and then consider the world of the metaphor through the lenses of tradition, culture, position and action. It's a way of teaching us to look for God, faith, meaning and opportunity for learning and ministry in everyday things. The discussion varies from week to week, sometimes very focused and sometimes, as we call it, like herding cats, but the beauty is that something comes out of it no matter how scattered or tightly focused the discussion. That something often goes with us through the week and makes us see things -- people and situations-- in new ways.

On this occasion the metaphor we were using involved considering a washing machine, how it worked, what it did, what could go wrong with it, what could put it right. We spoke of feeling the "thunkety-thunkety" of the unbalanced load, the noise of the spin cycle and other metaphors for life as a washing machine or the clothes in it. Then someone brought up that packing the washer too tightly resulted in wrinkled clothes. I hadn't really considered it in that light but it gave me something to think about, something that said any time something is crowded it often gets crumpled and not able to stretch and breathe. It gets unhealthy and, in the end, produces something wrinkled that doesn't look good or seem clean enough. Someone asked if those clothes got ironed and that's when the fun (and the "AHA!" moments) began. Some owned irons and used them, whether sparingly or frequently. One knew someone with an iron they could borrow if necessary but hadn't felt that need as of yet. I have an iron but am not precisely sure where it is.

I can see myself as a washing machine as well as the clothes in one, but when it comes to an iron and what happens when it is used, that's something else entirely. I'm one who ignores the wrinkles for the most part and just wants to get on with whatever has to get done. I snickered to a classmate that for me, ironing was like the doctrine of substitutionary atonement: I just didn't believe in it. Maybe that's a bit whimsical, but that's how I feel about it. That's just talking about the physical act of ironing --- like clothes, church linens and the like. The metaphorical ironing is a bit different.

I have a wrinkled soul. I know it, God knows it and quite a few people know it as well. Some can deal with it, some can't see how I can deal with it, and occasionally I wonder the same thing myself. In terms of a ministry, the wrinkles show up as wanting to do things but not being able to or not being willing to step out in faith and try. In terms of my personal life, it's in the relationship with different people. With God, however, I sort of look at it as God accepting that I'm wrinkled and ever so gently touching me up with an iron to smooth out the rough spots, but only when I notice and am uncomfortable enough with the wrinkle to really want it gone. God will do that for me, but only if I really want it to happen. I have to invest in it myself for it to have value, just as I have to invest in the right detergent and softener to get my clothes and things both clean and soft. Some wrinkles are unavoidable but most can be, if I care enough to do the things that will help prevent them.

I don't know what others came up with as insights, but for me, it was a change of perspective that I probably need to consider. That's one thing about this part of EfM that we call a TR: it makes me look at how I see things and begin to discern what works and what doesn't, what I need to learn and also to unlearn, what I think, what I believe, and what all those mean to me in my life. The trick now is to take that insight and actually do something with it, along with being glad God is there to help me get rid of the wrinkles.

Now to just remember not to overcrowd the washing machine or overcrowd my life with inconsequentialities. Oh, and I must learn to sort more carefully so the socks won't fade on something important. Come to think of it, black socks are like sin -- they kind of leave a stain, no matter how carefully I think I've sorted it out. I don't want my clothes coming out looking dirtier than when they went in, or more wrinkled than they need to be. Small wrinkles may be easily overlooked like small imperfections, but dingy or spotted clothes are a lot more obvious, like the sins I accumulate during a day or a lifetime.

Gotta love a device that allows me to put my feet (and my mind) in a different place with a different perspective. That's what TRs do for me.

Now if I could just use a TR to help me figure out how to always have socks that come out of the washer in pairs.


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

Do churches exist to support clergy?

by George Clifford

Is supporting their clergy the raison d’être for congregations to exist?

In 2010, half of the 6,794 congregations in The Episcopal Church (TEC) had an average Sunday attendance (ASA) of 65 or fewer people; 58% of TEC congregations had fewer than 200 active, baptized members and only 15% have more than 500 active, baptized members. Nevertheless, TEC congregations generally want to have the services of a full-time, paid clergyperson.

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click to enlarge (C. Kirk Hadaway, “Episcopal Congregations Overview: Findings from the 2008 Faith Communities Today Survey,” March 2009, available at here)

Having served small (ASA under 20) and large (ASA over 500) congregations, I find it impossible to imagine that small congregations (e.g., those with an ASA under 150 or fewer than 350 active baptized members) require the services of a full-time paid cleric.

The smallest congregation that I have served was a Royal Navy (RN) Church in London, England. Ministering to my active parishioners left me ample time to minister to the spiritual needs of my 2000 plus military parishioners and their families not active in the Church, to manage some local RN social service programs, and to design, obtain funding for, and oversee construction of, a new multi-purpose facility (church, pub, and theater). That experience confirmed the jaundiced suspicion with which I have long viewed the need for small congregations to have full-time paid clergy.

The bald truth is that small congregations spend a hugely disproportionate, even scandalous, percentage of their resources, especially financial resources, on clergy compensation. If the cleric receives a not very generous annual stipend of $50,000, healthcare insurance costing $12,000 and payments into the pension fund of $11,160, then the cleric’s total package costs the congregation $73,160. That represents 25 donors, each giving $2926 per year, or 50 donors, each giving $1463. To put those numbers in context, the average pledge in TEC today is approximately $1500. Thus, the 12% of congregations with an ASA of 25 or less who have full-time paid clergy either have exceptionally generous contributors or pay their bills from an endowment.

The Church does not exist to provide full-time employment for the clergy. The Church’s mission, broadly conceived by H. Richard Niebuhr, is the increase of the love of God and neighbor. As the author of I Timothy remarked, clergy, like all laborers, are rightly paid for their labor. However, clergy, like any laborer, should not expect full-time compensation for performing what are actually part-time duties.

Congregations and clergy share responsibility for this ugly form of clericalism. Few priests (or bishops or seminary faculty members!) question the prevailing ministry model with its strong presumption of at least one full-time paid cleric for every congregation. Their silence makes them complicit in sustaining a model that diverts resources from bringing new life to maintenance of the dying.

Similarly, few congregants vigorously, persistently, and effectively question congregational decision makers (bishop, clergy, vestry, bishop’s committee, wardens) whether the grossly skewed expenditure of funds on clergy compensation reflects the most prudential use of monies received as offerings to God. Our culture has a strongly normative belief that having a full-time, paid cleric on staff and owning a building are minimum essential hallmarks for a Christian congregation. In other words, this is not a problem unique to TEC>

Yet half of all Americans have incomes near or below the poverty level. Hunger in America is on the increase. And the plight of our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world makes most of the poor in the U.S. seem wealthy. The percentage of Americans who self-identify as Christians has declined from 86% in 1990 to 76% in 2009; during that same period, the percentage who identify as “no religious preference” has doubled. Is clergy compensation the best, the most prudential use of the gifts that God's people give?

If the Church does not exist to support the clergy, what can we do?

First, TEC and its clergy can establish a fuller, healthier mutual accountability for clergy and congregations. A relative handful of clergy who serve small congregations devote much of their time to managing mission endeavors the congregation sponsors. A smaller handful spend their time effectively growing the congregation (It’s true! TEC does have some small congregations that are growing numerically). Most underemployed clergy, however, lack the opportunity or skills for either of the foregoing. They, or perhaps their successor, should become bi-vocational, serve multiple congregations, or combine part-time in the small congregation with another part-time clergy position (e.g., chaplaincy, staff for an ecumenical group, diocesan staff, or assisting in a larger congregation). Regular and rigorously honest mutual ministry reviews that discuss how the clergy use their time represent an excellent opportunity to move toward institutionalizing a fuller, healthier accountability.

Second, TEC needs to make seminary education more affordable, so that graduates leave without debt. Consolidating our eleven seminaries is one possibility for achieving this (cf. A word on our seminaries: Consolidate!). Well-intentioned initiatives to provide clergy for small congregations that lower educational requirements risk creating an under-qualified, ill-equipped, second-rate set of clergy for small congregations. Leading a small congregation requires considerable expertise and as comprehensive a skill set as needed to lead a very large congregation. God's people deserve the best. TEC has no shortage of people who hear a call to ordination. Making seminary affordable represents a significant step toward solving TEC’s problem of a mal-distributed clergy, i.e., too many clergy need full-time salaries that too few congregations can, or should, pay.

Third, we can change our thinking about Church. The older form of clericalism identified ministry as the work of the clergy, isolated them on pedestals, and invested them with the responsibility of managing the Church (i.e., made them holy authority figures) is thankfully dying, a casualty of healthy changes in the last 50 years. The new form of clericalism tacitly presumes that the Church exists for the clergy, providing them full-time compensation in exchange for being a person of faith, saying the prayers others are too busy or too doubtful to say, and maintaining the Church. Sometimes the cleric literally maintains the building, arriving early to adjust the thermostat and to make coffee, and then leaving late, taking out the trash, and locking the doors after the last person has left. More often, the cleric is the lynchpin for ensuring the congregation’s organizational functionality.

Neither model of clericalism is faithful to the mutual ministry of all God's people. The four orders of ministry identify functional and not spiritual distinctions. Clergy bring certain gifts and authority to their ministry within a congregation, but those gifts and that authority (e.g., preaching and consecrating sacraments) are no better than the gifts and authority that lay people bring; indeed, without the gifts and authority of the laity, the Church reverts to the worst of the old form of clericalism.

If The Episcopal Church is to once again thrive as a vibrant, fully alive branch of the larger Church, then TEC congregations must cease existing to support their clergy and instead discover new patterns of mutual ministry to reach a world that is literally and spiritually hungry. The clergy’s raison d’être is to support the Church, not the other way around.


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.

Morels and resurrection

by Maria Evans

Almighty God, Author of the Universe, you imbued your creation with myriad seasonal joys. Through their brief temporal windows, open our hearts to a like-mindedness towards the fleeting moments when we can see Your heavenly realm on earth. Grant us the same eagerness to embrace these moments in humble service to You, as eagerly as we embrace the beauty of nature. All this we ask in the name of Jesus Christ, whose own short temporal window to this world gave us our salvation through the New Covenant. Amen.
--A Prayer for the Seasonal Beauty of Nature, ©Maria L. Evans, 2012

As a longtime resident of northeast Missouri, I have to admit one of my favorite things about my rural lifestyle is the roughly four-week window that the morel mushrooms are in season. (Yeah, I know, for any of you mycology purists out there, they are not a true "mushroom" but another kind of fungus...but "mushroom" is burned in the vernacular, so "mushrooms" they shall be.) In these parts, morel season has at least a rough correlation to Easter season, so the two kind of go hand in hand for me.

I've been hunting morels since I was five years old--first with my dad, then for many years as an adult, and just this year I had the pleasure of going full circle by hunting them with my cousin's youngest child, who is not yet six years old. There's something alluring about tromping about in gum boots around the woods near the river bottoms to find one of the last things on the planet that more or less defies cultivation and, in a world of near-year-round commercial produce, truly remains seasonal. (Oh, I know one can buy those "morel kits" on the Internet, but they are not the same kind of morel we have here, and for whatever reason, they just don't taste the same.)

Morel hunting has an egalitarian aspect to it--a ten year old can be just as successful a morel hunter as an adult--maybe even better as the ten year old is a little closer to the ground. There's definitely an intimacy with sharing a mushroom spot--we don't give our spots away to just anyone--and an intimacy with whom we share our bounty. The people who are not into mushroom hunting think we're stark raving mad, because for those few weeks it's all we think of, and riding in the car with us often results in several stops by the side of the road to peer into ditches and briefly wander around.

I can't think of a better metaphor for the Resurrection than the humble morel.

For starters, one never knows when one will see them. The emergence of morels starts when the overnight ground temperature consistently is over 50 degrees. They are as whimsical as the April weather patterns. The places one expects to see them, don't always yield results, and it changes from year to year, decade to decade. I think back to what used to be one of my best spots in my younger days. After the Great Flood of 1993, I haven't found squat in the way of mushrooms since--and I still try to go back to that spot every year.

Sometimes it involves days and days of faithfully going back to the same spot and looking around and coming up empty, day after day. Sometimes it results in an abundance, filling up several plastic grocery bags full, and sometimes the best we can do is a few handfuls after a couple of hours' worth of tromping around. They emerge out of nowhere, like magic--in the space of an hour, a barren spot can be walked by a second time and sport four or five morels. Even the act of consuming them is a bit of an exercise in acceptance--despite soaking them in salt water to get the hundreds of gnats out of their pores who made the morel their temporary home, a person has to accept that he or she will eat a few gnats along with this delicacy.

The parallels to living a faithful life as a practicing Christian astound me. How many times, once we've been exposed to the initial awe of the resurrected Christ, on a bright and joyful Easter Day, do we find ourselves weeks later in the humdrum of the Long Green Liturgical Season? How many times do we yearningly look for the Resurrection and not even catch a glimpse of it, but the next day when we are totally unaware, see it in all its grand glory? How many times have we insisted in tromping in the muck out of season, "because this is the time of year we've always done it," when in reality we were the ones out of season? How many times have we attempted to "cultivate" the awe-inspired Resurrection Moment, and discover it's just not the same as finding it by accident? How many times has a ten year old gotten the message of the Good News in Christ more fully than an adult?

The seasonal wonder of the lowly morel is a reminder that Resurrection simply is not of our making. We don't control it, we don't manage it, and it defies cultivation. All we can do is be faithful in our search for it, steward the places where we've seen it happen before, and enjoy it when it appears.


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

A Virtual and a Very Real Community

by Linda Ryan

I'm proud to be part of EfM, Education for Ministry. I've been a student and am now a co-mentor to two fine groups of intelligent, inquiring, contributing souls who meet weekly to worship, chat about goings-on in our lives, study and be involved in both theological reflection and a ministry of prayer. They are not much different than most EfM groups except that the folks in my groups have, for the most part, never laid physical eyes on other members of the group. My groups meet online and represent people from all over the country. Even if they are not at home, many fire up the laptops while they are traveling in order to join in the session. It's a unique and very great way of learning, interacting and preparing for ministry both inside and outside the church walls.

One question that often comes up when talking about EfM online is "How can you possibly be a community of you have never met anyone else in the group? How can it be a community when all you see are words on a screen with no body language, facial expression or tone of voice?" The answer is simple, "We can and we do."
What exactly is a community? It's a group of people with similar goals even when there are very different ideas of how to achieve those goals. It's a group where each person is important and where each person's talents and abilities are honored and their thoughts and beliefs, even if not shared by any or all in the group, are considered valid for that person and respected as such. Whether or not the group is all under one roof literally or figuratively is less important than that they all subscribe to a set of norms upon which they all agree. It is a place where confidentiality is respected and participants feel safe to express ideas, beliefs and concerns in a place where no conversation is complete until every voice is heard with respect and openness.

So how can this be achieved when even in places where people meet face-to-face have difficulty doing so? For one thing, groups online have to work a little harder since there are no visual or auditory cues to follow. One of the most important lessons is to assume good intent; what someone reads in a person's words might not be precisely the same thing that the speaker meant, so it behooves us to read generously. That might not be such a bad idea when reading the Bible as well, since what we try to read into it is far from what the original writer or speaker intended it to mean. For another, seeing the words rather than just hearing them enables us to go back and reread statements that we might have otherwise missed. But, like every group, community is achieved by the weekly reporting in of events of the week that are part of what we call the "onboard" question such as "If your week were a bookstore, which section best describes it?" or "Where was God present or absent in your week?" It is also built when prayers are sought for friends, loved ones, mere acquaintances, people impacted by tragedy, world events, illnesses, deaths, thanksgivings for the group or for blessings received. As we learn each other's stories, we form bonds that transcend distance. They truly do become a community, as real and as bonded as any face-to-face group can be.

Last week I had the pleasure of having dinner with two members of one of the groups I co-mentor. One was a lady whom I had met several times before, a delightful person and a fascinating person with whom to talk. The second person was someone whose writing I had read for some time before "meeting" her in class during her first year of EfM. The three of us sat down and the conversation flowed as if we had always met around a dinner table in person rather than being names, pictures and words on a computer screen. We simply picked up a conversation we might have just discontinued an hour, a day or even a week before. It was a testimony to the power of community that can be built in a virtual world.

EfM online offers a course of study in topics usually not covered in a local parish or in a place other than at a seminary or theological school. What it also offers is a place where one can attend class in pajamas or business suit, never miss a discussion or theological reflection, comment on a topic that was written several weeks ago, and feel a part of a community of others who care about one another and who are committed to bringing out the best in each other. So can a virtual study group become a community? Indeed it can -- and it does.


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

Part 3: Common Mind and the Mind of Christ

by Donald Schell

We’ve titled our new All Saints Company book of liturgical music and hymns, “One Heart and One Song,” a line from the 19th Century English hymn, “From glory to glory advancing we praise Thee, O God,” which in turn translates a prayer from the ancient Liturgy of St. James. One heart and one song. Human solidarity begins in our ancient ancestors’ ability to sing together. As recently as the American Civil Rights Movement, the anti-Viet Name War Movement, and South Africa’s ‘Revolution in Four-part Harmony,” we’ve seen music bind people together to face injustice the threat of violence. And then strangely, we silenced our songs. And perhaps not so strangely, church assemblies got grayer and quieter and fewer visitors stayed to sing. What songs do people have in common? A verse of “Amazing Grace,” “Happy Birthday to You,” a verse and a half of “The Star Spangled Banner,” and maybe “Auld Lang Syne.”

I’ve promised fellow neuroscience geeks some building blocks for a natural theology of community, human formation and some startling new hints of what God is doing in our singing. First I want to suggest that the two crucial formational issues (human formation and Christian formation alike) are:

what binds us together? and
how can we, born in community, be inspired to individual creativity, courage, and compassion?

In theological terms we’re asking:
what makes solidarity reconciliation or
what undoes the bondage and the killing solidarity of scapegoating violence

In this our music-making matters ultimately, and traditional, pre-literate ways of sharing music may help us notice what makes us warring tribes and what draws us together in one heart and one song.

Before we learned to read text and music (those of us who do), people learned by mirroring. And yes, mirroring can cement mindless solidarity against an enemy or a scapegoated other, but mirroring is also essential to positive communication, communion, fellow feeling, and so to compassion. St. Paul said, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ,” because we become Christ by imitation.

Imitation is the core of creativity and the source of our finding freedom to act as we need to. As jazz musician Clark Terry says, “Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate,” or as we used to say it in Music that Makes Community workshops, “Imitate, Repeat, Improvise.” Imitation births relationship to one another, and in the mind of Christ, the imitation that makes us not clones, but more uniquely ourselves, imitation can take us to that freedom we find in the Spirit of the Lord.

Either way – the ground of imitation is in our embodied sense of another person’s intention and presence, what Mario Iacaboni writes about in Mirroring People, the Science of Empathy and How We Connect With Others, Iacoboni, an M.D. and a pioneer neurological researcher at UCLA lays out the emerging brain research that identifies specific neurons and kinds of neurological connection we share with some other primates, with whales and with dolphins and elephants. These nerve paths (and the particular kind of nerves, mirror neurons) allow us to feel or sense directly in our own bodies the affective state of our fellows (and some other mammals). In wonderful, page-turning scientific argument, Iacoboni describes experiments that make very good sense, and guides us through the logic of what they prove. Iacoboni and Frans de Waal (below) are lead researchers in the emerging science of empathy/compassion.

As a pastoral theologian, I’m grateful that both are also realistic about how mirroring can lead to competition and sometimes violence. But both see in our ability to take the role of the other, to feel the other’s experience, an inborn (I’d say God-given, but that’s not their argument) basis for the kind of communication that makes community possible.

In The Age of Empathy, Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, Frans De Waal comes at connection and community formation of character as a primatologist, observing and experimenting behaviorally with our primate cousins. Like Iacoboni, English is de Waal’s second language and like Iacoboni, he writes elegant, clear English. The two books make an intriguing complementary pair. Iacoboni gives us a guided tour of the brain (ours and those other mammals). De Waal observes and describes behaviors (our own and other animals’) that our mirroring brains make possible. Like Charles Darwin (whom he quotes), de Waal argues that cooperation, collaboration and compassion contributed as much to our evolution as competition. Like Darwin and Iacoboni, he acknowledges the sometimes violent character of our primate cousins (and other mammals whose behavior is shaped by mirroring/imitation), but his work is a thorough corrective to earlier primatologists who argued that we were descended from purely, and unalterably violent primates.

In the previous essay, I mentioned Stephen Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals, The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body, which marshals evidence from neurology and paleontology, from cross-cultural studies in language development in infants, and from archaeology to argue that human language and community evolved from our ancestors’ ability to make primordial melody and gesture, that is that music and movement, fundamental building blocks of ritual, were essential in the formation of primal human communities. Gesture and melody allowed our earliest human ancestors to collaborate for survival. Mithen argues that human language came from music, sentences came from melodies, and finally articulated words emerge from sentences. Mithen’s evidence also invites us to notice that rationality is rooted in feeling. Whether we want to see that feeling is the vessel for articulated meaning, or (with Parker Palmer) to invite and encourage ‘thinking with the mind in the heart,’ Mithen’s evolutionary evidence makes it clear that rationality and logic rest on melody and feeling for the energy of their meanings.

In the last essay, I suggested that in Cognition in the Wild Edwin Hutchins offers scientific observation and (so good natural theology) to support Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori calling individual salvation “a heresy of our time.” How can science address a question of heresy? The PB is pointing to a theological heresy that contradicts good sense anthropology and neurology.

Over the last three hundred fifty years, the Enlightenment discovery of human rights and the essentially ‘thinking’ self of Enlightenment philosophers like Pascal and Descartes, has become something else - the triumph of individualism or me-ism. Hutchins helps us begin to see how the self or ‘I,’ of my thoughts and personal purpose emerges from our communication. Self comes to be in community. Thinking is interactive and conversational. The community that’s working together is essential to thought. For serious individual thought, we carry on a conversation with internalized voices of others to help us think.

Hutchins observes groups outside of a laboratory context making complex decisions, using seagoing navigation as his wild, non-lab environment. He sees ‘self’’ as a kind of local center, free but also born to and inseparable from a wider human system.
We have lots of new brain research on the areas of the brain and connections among them that we’re engaged in when we’re making music, working together, feeling compassion or affection. Oliver Sacks, Musicphilia and other recent books on the neurology of music-making and listening observe that music-making changes a musician’s brain. It makes so many more neural connections between the parts of the brain that together shape what we call ‘music’ that a pathologist doing an autopsy will recognize visually the brain of a music-maker. Meanwhile, in a parallel discovery, Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman in How God Changes your Brain, Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist tell us that praying to a judgmental, condemning God actually measurably decreases the richness of brain activity and makes us less creative, less flexible, and dumber while praying to a compassionate, forgiving God opens new neural pathways and makes us smarter, more creative, and more flexible in our thinking. How are these two observations connected? I’m hearing neurological and electro-encephalographic evidence that, on the way to compassion and one heart, whoever sings prays twice.

Two more remarkable books for anyone who has hung in to the end of this – David and Eric Clarke, editors, gathered the papers from the first International Conference on Music and Consciousness in 2006, in Music and Consciousness, Philosophical, Psychological, and Cultural Perspectives, and Daniel Siegel gave this neuroscience beginner a belated but very welcome guided tour in his Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology that includes a working description of ‘mind’ that he developed to bring together a forty person interdisciplinary team of neuroscientists, psychiatrists, anthropologists, organizational theorists, contemplative practitioners, parenting researchers and religious teachers. Siegel offers us this, “A core aspect of the mind can be defined as an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information.” “Embodied and Relational” jumped out at me right away.

And what Siegel rights about is the plasticity of the brain, the reshaping of how we remember and how we choose from seeing one another, being attuned to one another, making fresh choices.

Mind. Mine, yours, or ours? Of course it’s all three and “embodied and relational” points us to how WE have the “mind of Christ.”

See also Part 1 and Part 2.


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

Part 2: Thinking together

by Donald Schell

My older daughter and I were exiting the Imperial War Museum in Manchester (U.K.) where she lives. It was bright outside from the late afternoon sun playing on the network of deepwater canals that surround the museum. By the water people in and around a half dozen or so pubs were singing, all of them, singing - team songs, or “She’ll be coming round the mountain,” or hymns. By the colors they were wearing we could see that fans of Manchester United (Man. U.) and fans of Glasgow’s Celtic Football Club were singing at one another from full pub gatherings, a scene and song of dueling solidarities, pub and club gatherings trying to out-sing one another across the echoing canals. And then sometimes unexpectedly one group’s song would good-naturedly answer another which the first group would receive with a gale of laughter. But the air was so charged with energy that I asked a fisherman quietly casting into the canal whether he thought there’d be trouble after the game. “No,” he said, “it’s two Catholic teams. Today all this competition friendly.” It would have been otherwise with Man. City of the other Glasgow team playing.

We’d spent the day with another kind of conflict, compelling historical displays portrayed the war that had devastated Europe. I wouldn’t imagine myself to be a fan of a war museum, but my father, my daughter’s grandfather, flew a B-17 bomber in World War II. Dad returned from the war with a new vocational goal, to become a physician. When I was old enough to ask him about the war, he’d only say, “I came back wanting to save lives if I could.” Dad was in medical school when I was born, and then a physician until he died, and from the brief words I just quoted, I learned that the father I knew would only talk around the edges of the war – his love of flying or his decision to become a physician. Partly he guessed that my childish curiosity was eager for war stories and heroism. He’d seen horror and loss. But I also wanted something else. I knew I’d come from him, been born from the desire that he and my mom had held while she was in California and he was a continent and an ocean away flying daily through anti-aircraft fire. I wanted to know more parts of him because I carry them and him within me.

How within me? Within me like a feeling before thought that moved me to leap out of our car and run up the hill to break up a fight – three kids had set upon a fourth. They’d pinned him to the ground were banging his head against the concrete. I left my wife and child in a risk-taking folly that may have saved that fourth kid’s life. Where did it come from – my dad – both the pilot and the physician - breathed life into me in that moment. Where does our conscience come from? What gives us courage to act ?

My daughter and my visit to the museum moved us closer to hearing and feeling something of the startling experience of my dad’s learned competence, feeling and imagining a bit of how a twenty-three year old officer would fly a heavy bomber and be responsible for his plane and crew or how that very young man might have felt seeing friends’ planes torn from formation next him with anti-aircraft guns and flak to fall from the sky. We wanted to glimpse something important about someone we loved, something that he was reluctant to describe.

Two pairs of eyes and ears and our conversation responding to the displays made them real for us in another way.

I got another glimpse into my dad from Atul Gawande’s “The Checklist,” a New Yorker article about bomber pilots and ICU physicians and nurses

The article tells how effective a simple checklist was in reducing infections in the Intensive Care Unit, but it begins with the horrifying and enlightening story of the expert test pilot crashing the first completed B-17 bomber prototype early in America’s preparations for World War II. At the time, the big B-17 with its 4 supercharged engines and all sorts of other advances was the most complicated airplane ever built. The post-mortem on the wreck revealed that the expert pilot had skipped a step in the start-up procedures, a switch that needed to be switched on - just wasn’t. Whenever you see a movie of pilot and co-pilot going through a start-up checklist, your finding the solution the B-17 engineers found to consistently engage knowledge and procedures too complicated for any one person to hold dependably in mind. “Fuel pressure?” “Check.” “Right flaps?” “Check.” And so on.

Writers like Atul Gawande in “Checklist” and The Checklist Manifesto or like Edwin Hutchins in Cognition in the Wild offer us both experience and scientific thinking we can use to support our Presiding Bishop’s warning against “the great Western heresy –“

—that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God. . . That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of being.

Because beyond idolatry, the great Western heresy distorts the ultimate value God our creator really does place on every individual person. The heresy imagines a isolated individual freedom and agency that simply doesn’t exist. Human personhood is always born from community and grows and is nurtured in community. An ordinary human community or the miracle of the Body of Christ is no aggregation or sum total of separately existing people. When we’re talking about human nature (and so also about redeemed human nature), Nurture and Nature are inseparable, and, as Stephen Mithen argues compellingly in Singing Neanderthals, the communities that make humanity, that make collaboration, language and articulated thought even possible, begin with our capacity to read one another’ faces and bodies and come to common understanding in the simplest cultural and ritual building blocks – expressive melodic sound and gesture.

Solidarity and bonding together and even our hope in God’s work of reconciliation can go awry. Manchester United and Celtic pre-match singing won’t lead to a riot or war. Other pre-match singing might. But whether for good or ill, the bonding and collaborating that make us human begin in song and gesture - before we knew our mothers were different from ourselves, the gazer and the gazed on, the singer and the listener were one.

Human formation happens in nurturing community and so, of course, Christian formation does too. The rapidly emerging neuroscience of cognition and consciousness and new studies in anthropology and primatology have much to teach us about what we do together that brings us to common mind and to the possibilities of individual and personal discovery that come from our common mind.

In these first two parts of this series, I’ve sketched what may appear to be an air castle, some broad strokes to claim that we are together before we stand alone, that and pointing to research that singing and gesture birth language and the possibility of individual thoughts. In my final piece, I’ll tour some highlights of the scientific research that should inform our theology and practice of community and person going forward.


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

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