Evangelism and Fake Thanksgiving

by Derek Olsen

Episcopalians can do a lot of things well. Historically, evangelism was one of them. Anglican mission societies brought the faith to wherever British and Americans traveled; the breadth of the Anglican Communion is a signal of that success. But for modern Episcopalians, evangelism is not something that we’re known for. Indeed, not being “Evangelical” in a way yoked to the American political Right, not being missionally coercive in the way that some groups are, is one of the ways that we distinguish ourselves from other groups in the American religious marketplace.

And yet—we are called to proclaim the Gospel. “Evangelical” does have a long and proud history in Anglican circles, and we forget our heritage if we seek to cut it out of who we are. At the end of the day, a church that doesn’t want to share itself with others needs to take a long hard look at itself and consider what Good News it really has to share.

Now, I’m not pointing fingers here—I recognize that I’m part of the problem. We need to be thinking and talking about how we do evangelism. Maybe one of the ways to start is to drop the potentially contentious label and to think of it in a more basic way: how do I tell people the story of my life and do it in such a way that lets them know my God, my faith, my church, are an important part of how and why I do what I do? I’ve heard that in some churches, evangelism classes and faith-sharing workshops help ordinary people gain a sense of how to do this. I have no idea—I’ve never been to such a thing—but it’s probably not a bad idea for us to talk about how we talk and relate and share the good news of what God has done for us and is doing with us.
I offer here mission notes—nothing more. A few choice interactions that I had the other night that made me think about my story and how I tell it, about how I interact with people in relation to my faith. There’s no big pay-off at the end, there are no mass conversions—I’m just opening space to wonder aloud about what we say and how we say. It’s a starting place, not an ending place.

About a year ago, my neighbor across the street bought the old carriage house behind where we live. The fenced-in outside area became a set of lucrative parking spots on days when the Baltimore Ravens play at M & T Bank Stadium which stands at the foot of our street; the weathered brick interior has become a neighborhood hangout complete with pot-bellied wood stove, couches, a big TV, and a polished wood bar with brass footrails that a local drinking establishment was throwing away. On Ravens game days we hang out to grill hotdogs and drink beer, my girls play with the neighborhood boys, and several families gather to chat about their lives. In short—it’s a place where community and communion occur.

Since I work from home, this is an important site of my interactions with live people not connected to church or my girls’ school. As a result, in a de facto kind of way, it’s my “mission field.” It’s not a place to pressure people or force them to believe something, it’s not a place to spin high promises about what God will do for you if you invite him into your heart. No, this is simply the place to share my life with my friends and neighbors—and to express that God and my faith have an important place in my life. These people are not my “project” with some kind of conversion goal—they’re my friends! Not only that, I’m fully conscious that my witness here isn’t just in words alone. These are the people who see me dragging the garbage cans out in my pajamas, who hear what I say to my kids as we rush off to school or activities: it’s one thing to spout sanctimonious words in a religious discussion, it’s another say words you mean and then live like you mean them.

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, we gathered to give real thanks at Fake Thanksgiving. A few weeks ago we cooked up the crazy idea of a full-on Thanksgiving dinner before the actual date to test out and share our recipes, and to hang out together before we dispersed to the winds and our families of origin. It’s just like Thanksgiving—just without all the family drama. Too, it was a chance to provide a Thanksgiving for some in the community who wouldn’t get one otherwise, like the elderly widow—alone save for her dog—and the young underemployed guy rehabbing a house across the alley.

The girls and I went over first—I’d just finished cooking my green beans with bacon; M was filling her pumpkin pie and putting it in the oven. We met the usual suspects around the turkey fryer in the outside lot and I was introduced briefly to some new additions, a family who lived next to the house in rehab—young, with a new baby, whose names and accents revealed them to be recent immigrants but I couldn’t pin down from where—and a man who’d lived in the neighborhood for a while before moving down to Annapolis.

In a short time, all three turkeys were out of the fryer, the other food was warming away in chafing dishes, and the people were gathered. Dinner was about to commence! One of the hosts glanced over at us and said, “Derek or M, would one of you give us a blessing?” M nudged me and said, “Public spontaneous prayer is your thing—go for it…”

All right—there I was. Time for a “religion moment.” I feel like these sorts of things have to be managed well—something needs to be said, the intent of a “religion moment” needs to be honored, and it sets the tone for interactions with the people who don’t know me. I know that one of the families is mostly lapsed Catholic, another is not part of a faith tradition, and I had no idea of the tradition of the host who’s just asked me to pray. Something Protestant, I’d guess. The young immigrant couple? They could be Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, or nothing at all—and how would my prayer impact how they saw this group and whether it was a safe place for them?

In this kind of situation, I think there are two good approaches. The first is to claim your tradition and allow others to claim theirs too. In that case I’d say something like, “I know that we come from all sorts of faith traditions and maybe no tradition at all. We’re Episcopalians, and when Episcopalians get together for this kind of thing, this is a prayer that we use…” This allows me to pull out a nice classic prayer that mentions Jesus and the Trinity without feeling that I’m imposing my beliefs on others. At the same time, it recognizes that not everybody has to be on-board with Jesus and the Trinity to be included. Of course, I prefer this approach when I’ve got a good Anglican collect in mind! Not having one, I went for Plan B and punted.

The second approach is to pray a prayer that’s both open and sincere. For it to be open means being general enough that everybody can get behind it, whether they’re theists, non-theists, or atheists. That way they can choose to interpret it as they like and plug in their beliefs as fits. Hopefully, nobody feels compelled or coerced to sign on to something they don’t believe in. The trick is keeping such a prayer sincere—using it to actually say something, ask something, bless something while still remaining open. This is the direction I chose to go and came out with something like this: “We are so thankful for what we have here—thankful for family, for friends, for this community gathered here and for this food that we have brought. May we be blessed in sharing this food together, and may we be blessed by it so that we in turn may be a blessing for those who do not have family, friends, and food. Amen.” Not perfect, but it seemed to do the trick.

At dinner I found myself next to the fellow I didn’t know. We introduced ourselves and spoke briefly about where he lived. The discussion from across the table turned to the Arab Spring and to the tension between a democratic process and the rise of Islamicist political parties. The neighbor across the table asked me what I thought about all of it, and I began pontificating about the Enlightenment and the rise of Humanism as an important part of the process that prepared the West for a non-theocratic democratic process, the religious processes involved, and the degree to which that has or hasn’t happened in the Muslim world. I got an unusual look from the guy next to me and he said, “What is it that you do?” I replied that I worked with computers but that I had some degrees in religion and my wife was an Episcopal priest. The neighbor across the table said that I was a medievalist too and that talking religion with me was interesting because I was informed on things.

It was a moment. It was an opportunity to be available for someone with questions. Then my timer went off—I had to run around the corner to our house and check the progress of M’s pumpkin pie. I dutifully excused myself and the moment passed. When I came back something else was being discussed and religion didn’t come up again.
Was the interaction a waste? No—I don’t think so. I’ve decided that when I talk about my faith, the goal isn’t a conversion or full agreement or for the other person to embrace my convictions. Rather, it’s an opportunity to (hopefully) show that regular, normal people are also people of faith—that the tendency to stereotype or caricature “believers” isn’t true to reality. Too, I never know if it might provide an opportunity for a thoughtful discussion with him at some other time—or for him to have a similar discussion with some other person. If the goal is a “result” then I fear that we skew the process, moving towards a premature result, and push for something we don’t need. If the goal is share ourselves, than that happens much more easily and naturally.

Later in the evening, a few of us guys were standing around with drinks. I have no idea how we got into it, but P, my mostly lapsed Catholic neighbor, brought up the novena to St. Jude (patron saint of desperate and lost causes). “It works—it really works!” he insisted. “In the few times that I’ve really needed something, and I’ve gone and done it, it did happen!” A, the immigrant father, asked if he went to church a lot. P replied that he’d been some recently but that mostly it had just been funerals and weddings before. A said that he had also been raised Catholic but didn’t attend any more.

P said, “My dad wasn’t religious either until he was in the war. Like they say—there are no atheists in foxholes. He made a deal with God in the Argonne forest that if he got out of there, he’d go to church every Sunday. I wouldn’t say he was a religious person, but he was in church every Sunday. And he made all 7 of us come along with him. I went for a while but, you know—I like Bill Maher and saw Religulous, and a lot of it does just seem like superstition. But, you know…” C, the underemployed rehabber, was nodding along at the “superstition” part.

A chimed in that he didn’t go much but found that it sometimes helped him cope with things.

I felt that I had to say something—but what?

I said, “Well, yeah, there’s no doubt that there’s sometimes superstition mixed into religion. I see it as a continuum, though. There’s superstition, and there’s magic, and there’s religion. And sometimes they shade into one another. I think that anytime that we get too focused on God as the big vending machine in the sky, then we’re kind of heading towards the superstition direction. And yet, I still think that there’s religion for religion’s sake that’s different from superstition.”

P looked at me with curiosity: “I’m not really sure I know what you mean… What is that, religion for religion’s sake?” A and C looked at me expectantly.

Here it was—my moment. Time to refute Bill Maher and the New Atheists and to repair decades of off-putting religious experience with a coherent thirty-second sound bite… No pressure.

“Umm…” I eloquently began. Bernard of Clairvaux’s On Loving God flashed into my head. There’s an argument Bernard makes in there about how we grow to love God for God’s sake—rather than for the vending machine model—that I thought needed to be a part of my response. Something that communicated that there was a deeper and more profound way of understanding faith and being religious than asking for stuff then going along with it if the stuff was forthcoming. Then Evelyn Underhill’s Practical Mysticism flashed in. I admire the way that she opens that book. She makes a totally non-theistic argument about reality and about how as humans we are disconnected from it and that the point of mysticism and earnest religious practice is to reconnect with reality. Of course, she ultimately finds it in the Triune God, but she is able to present her argument in such a way that leaves her work open and accessible to seekers no matter what their faith stance. That was followed by James 1:27: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

“Well,” I finally said, “I’d say that religion for religion’s sake is about getting connected in to Ultimate Reality. It’s about plugging into something that’s bigger and deeper than myself and my own ideas and wants, and engaging with what’s really real. And that you know that you’ve gotten to it when that connection with Ultimate Reality makes you starting caring more about other people—that plugging into it makes you see the needs around you and help out.”

P slowly nodded. “Yeah, that makes sense. Like sometimes when I’m at the novena to St. Jude and I look around and see people who really are desperate and I say to myself, ‘I’m getting all worked up about my pilot’s license or my reputation? Really? These people are dealing with something way bigger than that—it makes my problems seem kind of petty…’”

I then told a story about M’s day—their food bank had given away over one hundred turkey dinners for Thanksgiving on Monday, but when M arrived at the parish there had been a line of people waiting to see if anything was left. She’d had to turn them away because the whole food pantry had been wiped out. One person in particular was there—a fellow who was a regular recipient who had seven mouths to feed, had just gotten out of the hospital, and whose car had recently broken down. Having the relationship, knowing his story, M knew that the parish was his only hope for a Thanksgiving at all. With a couple of phone calls, parishioners arrived fresh from the grocery store with arms full of supplies. “Now that’s religion for religion’s sake,” I said, “Something that really makes a difference.”

I wanted to say something about how we come into the world with nothing and we go back out with nothing and that what really matters is how we treat people along the way—but I couldn’t figure out how to word it right.

At that point, the discussion turned somewhere else. Was my answer satisfactory? Was it good enough? I’ll never know. But what I hope I did was to give them something to think about. For me, being religious isn’t about voting a party line, or about believing six impossible things before breakfast, or about judging people who don’t spend Sunday morning the way I do. And I hope I shared a sense of that.

I don’t believe in one-encounter evangelism. I just don’t think it works that way. Maybe sometimes—rarely—but I feel it’s more important to take a longer term approach. I hang out with my friends and neighbors. I call it like I see it. And if my faith makes me see something a certain way, I’ll let that be known. And if that leads me to an opportunity to invite them to church with me, I’ll take it. For me, that’s authentic Episcopal evangelism. It’s not coercive, it’s not manipulative, it’s a way of inviting people to experience something that I’ve found helpful and important in my life.
Now—what about you?

I know that there are better answers than the ones I gave. I know that there are common situations that we find ourselves in. How do you answer? What do you do? How do you share yourself and your story that will help people give the Gospel, the faith, the Episcopal Church, a second look?

Dr. Derek Olsen is a layperson in the Diocese of Maryland where his wife is a priest and his daughters are an acolyte and boat-bearer respectively. He serves as Theologian-in-Residence at Church of the Advent, Baltimore, and as the Secretary of the Standing Commission on Liturgy & Music. An IT specialist by day, Derek created and maintains the online Daily Office site The St. Bede's Breviary. His reflections on life, Anglo-Catholic identity, and liturgical spirituality appear at Haligweorc

Can a leopard change its spots?

by Nigel Taber-Hamilton

I left the Church of England for good on October 4, 1979, at about two o’clock in the afternoon.

That was when my British Airways flight from London touched down in San Francisco, and I returned to the place I had, only a year previously, spent a year as a World Council of Churches Ecumenical Fellow.

Born and bred in London until that first overseas trip at the age of 24, ordained a deacon in London’s Southwark Cathedral in 1978, I left Britain in 1979 for a complex of reasons that, I have come to realize, can be summed up by this short sentence: The Church of England is always a train-wreck waiting to happen.

This last week, at the C. of E.’s General Synod, the waiting ended.

But I’m getting ahead of myself! My first year in Berkeley CA – 1977, at the Episcopal Church’s west-coast seminary, C.D.S.P. – had introduced me to the first group of Episcopal women who knew without a doubt when they entered seminary that upon graduation they would be ordained deacons then priests.

The months after my return to London from California in August of 1978 proved to be a stark reminder that it would be a very long time before women were ordained priests in my homeland. I survived only a year in the Church of England’s class-conscious, paternalistic structures before throwing in the towel and returning to what I had come to recognize during that year in the United States as my spiritual home: the Episcopal Church.

The sad truth for women in England is that my adoptive province which ordained me a priest in the Church of God in 1982 (
and several times flirted with consecrating him a bishop, ~ed. note) ordained women as bishops five years before the English Church ordained women as priests.

No human institution is perfect; if it was then it would mean that Jesus had returned. But the Episcopal Church has two things going for it: We’re willing to make the hard decisions and stick with them; and we understand better than many the meaning of baptism and the importance in particular of embracing the ministry of the baptized as the fundamental ministry from which all other ministries receive their credibility and authority. As a priest I am, first and foremost, a member of the baptized – as is my bishop, Gregory H. Rickel and every other Episcopalian – every other Christian.
As a member of the baptized my responsibility is to serve others, including other members of the baptized – as is their responsibility toward me; we’re all servants or none of us is – there’s no in-between.

This seems to be a truth the Church of England has forgotten – if it ever really knew it. Mired in institutionalism, petty bickering, and the surrender of its integrity to extremists, the C. of E. is living in a fantasy world:

• Bishops think they can impose modifications to legislation passed by 96% of the dioceses and are surprised when many object;

• laity think that they have no responsibility to those they represent, voting any which way with no consequences, and are surprised by the outpouring of anger toward them;
• and the rest of the nation – long used to living with (or in spite of) the idiosyncrasies of the state Church – even they are shocked by the utter disarray of an institution that, commanded by its founder to be inclusive and compassionate, has so spectacularly failed in this core mission and identity to do either for at least half its members.


One wonders if there are any three English bishops out there with the guts to get together and do what the Bishop and the Bishop Coadjutor of Aberdeen and the Bishop of Ross and Caithness did for the Episcopal Church in consecrating Samuel Seabury (our first bishop) on November 14, 1784: consecrate a woman as a bishop in England.

Probably not.

It’s hard for a leopard to change its spots.

The Rev. Nigel Taber-Hamilton is rector of St. Augustine’s in-the-Woods Episcopal Church on Whidbey Island, WA. He is the Interfaith Officer of the Diocese of Olympia and a former Deputy to General Convention

The three trees and the end of the world

Crisis, Hope, and Imagination, The Blessings of Beginnings and Endings
by Donald Schell

I’m thinking our annual year-end collision of Thanksgiving and Advent’s apocalyptic, last judgment readings just might be a happy or blessed accident. Reflecting on our experience of beginnings and endings, praying to find God present in both, we can’t escape the territory of personal and human crisis, fearful and hopeful imagination, and our faithful practice when we see that things we’ve counted on will certainly pass away.

Talking recently with my twenty-five year old actor son, I asked whether he felt the broadly generalized cynicism I feel from many in his generation. (“Sarcastic” is what they seem to call it).

I know as well as you do that cynicism is far from universal among twenty- and thirty-somethings. And in fact I’m inspired by the splendid hope that my son and his friends invest in their acting work and the unwavering hope they show as they struggle to make lives for themselves in heart and soul intensive poorly paid artistic work. When clergy colleagues at or near retirement edge lament the state of the church, I insist that I see steady, faithful risk-taking ministry led by younger adults. And then through my wife’s work in international development, I’m privileged to know some very young committed health and development workers. Sincerity and whole-heartedness are by no means dead.

But my son knew what I was talking about, voices we both know that match the cultural snapshot, the media presentation, and the stories from parents and friends

-cynicism about relationships,
- a mistrust of any leader or artist who presumes a whole-hearted quest for compassion, truth, love, or beauty, and
- a fixation on amusements that seem calculated to numb with deliberate banality or adrenalin-driven intensity.

“It looks like a holding back,” I said to him, “Do you sense people are protecting themselves by anticipating disappointment? Are these people afraid to imagine or trust something good or hopeful?”

“Dad,” he said, “don’t forget that we’re the first generation in history to know that the world could literally end in our lifetimes.”

“Meaning?”

“Global warming. Losing the planet.” And to the threat of climate crisis, he added his memories of 9/11 when he was fourteen and in his first month of high school.

“With terminal threats around us,” he said, “I’m not surprised that some people don’t find much reason to hope,” he said.

“But you haven’t quit hoping,” I said.

“Yes,” he agreed, “I do hope, but sometimes I don’t understand why.”

Then he was surprised to hear that at his age, I and many of my friends expected our political leaders would blunder us into thermonuclear war. I didn’t expect to reach the age of 30. People our age who said, “Don’t trust anyone over 30” didn’t expect to live beyond that threshold themselves.

What keeps us hoping when we have good reason to believe the world as we know it might end? I notice that in neither my son’s case nor in mine did the end of the world itself seem like something to hope for. In the religious environment that I grew up in, I suppose that made me a bad fundamentalist. And yes, I did have one very scary “left behind” moment at about twelve when I woke up from a Saturday afternoon nap and couldn’t find anyone in the house.

Did first century Christians and Jews actually HOPE the world was about to end with a trumpet and apocalyptic destruction? Sometimes it seems they did, sometimes it seems they enjoyed imagining the collapse of any pretense of civil society as much as they believed the collapse would also prefigure or provoke a divine cataclysm. Was theirs an ironic or satirical vision? Did they look and pray for apocalypse to protect themselves from disappointment? Whether they enjoyed it or not, Jewish communities in Jesus time and early Christian communities that sprang from them had a taste for apocalyptic, lurid, hair-raising evocations of the end of the world.

My generation, born just after World War II’s Jewish holocaust and the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has little taste for apocalypse.

While writing this piece I came across Christy Wampole’s New York Times piece, “How to Live Without Irony.”

Wampole’s ironic hipster is just slightly older than my son. But she’s describing a related phenomenon and positing similar reasons; glimpses of apocalyptic destruction like 9/11 and our many hurricanes, despite the Advent readings, don’t add up as Good News. Church (and other value-shaping community organizations) aren’t speaking a trustworthy hope for people in their twenties and thirties.

My actor son was three in 1990 when we moved to the house he grew up in. Around the perimeter of 25x40’ city garden I planted twenty trees. Some grew tall and full (and some of them didn’t make it).

Two of the tall trees are out front. Our California live oak, literally grown from an acorn, is now big enough to support our gardener standing in its branches eight feet up to shape and trim it. The more delicate, feathery Norfolk Island Pine is as tall as the house.

Out back three redwood trees I planted by our back fence just shot up as redwood trees do – California’s giant and long-lived redwoods grow tall very, very fast for their first twenty or so years. When ours got to thirty feet, we started topping and thinning them, hoping the garden book was right, that by planting them close together and keeping them topped and thinned, we could cajole the giants tree into making us a tall hedge. As they got big, I planted a Cecil Brunner climbing rose in their shadow. It snaked up through the redwoods toward the sun and began blooming in their crown, shiny levels and radiant pink-white blossoms giving the trees a regal glory.

Topping and thinning the trees didn’t stop them from thickening their trunks. My wife feared we had a tiger by the tail, that, despite the gardening book’s assurance we could keep them a hedge, we were in danger of losing a battle with their wild nature. “They’re blocking the sun,” she said. “They’re determined to keep getting taller, and won’t they eventually drop a huge branch on someone’s head?”

I loved the intense dark green of the trees, their mysterious shadows, and the radiant glory of the roses that topped them, but eventually agreed that the three trees needed to come down.

It took a crew of three men and several days to get the trees down and out and to dig their massive roots out of the earth. In the process we learned that the middle tree’s roots were badly diseased. It was more than a big branch poised to fall in the wind.
We replanted with trees that wouldn’t aspire to such heights, and in the restored sunlight of our garden, we planted tomatoes, green beans, and lettuce.

I was showing our newly sunny garden to a guest one afternoon when our next-door neighbor - not the downstairs neighbor we knew, but the upstairs neighbor who’d never spoken - began shouting at me from his fourth floor deck, “How dare you take those trees down?!” I tried to offer a neighborly explanation, but he flat refused to believe that I’d planted the trees and dismissed our discovering the decaying roots. “They were beautiful,” he said. “You had no right.”

I told him we’d replanted with new trees that would do better in the limited space, trees that would stop growing at about the height we’d been forcing the redwoods to stop. “They’re gone and it will take a whole generation for anything new to grow up,” he insisted. “I cried to lose them.”

Sometimes I miss them too.

Another friend recently shared this poem from Brazilian liberation theologian Rubem Alvez -

What is Hope?
It is a presentiment that imagination is more real and reality less real than it looks.
It is a hunch
that the overwhelming brutality of facts
that oppress and repress is not the last word. It is a suspicion
that reality is more complex
than realism wants us to believe
and that the frontiers of the possible
are not determined by the limits of the actual
and that in a miraculous and unexpected way
life is preparing the creative events
which will open the way to freedom and resurrection...
The two, suffering and hope, live from each other.
Suffering without hope
produces resentment and despair,
hope without suffering
creates illusions, naiveté́, and drunkenness...
Let us plant dates
even though those who plant them will never eat them.
We must live by the love of what we will never see.
This is the secret discipline.
It is a refusal to let the creative act
be dissolved in immediate sense experience
and a stubborn commitment to the future of our grandchildren. Such disciplined love
is what has given prophets, revolutionaries and saints
the courage to die for the future they envisaged.
They make their own bodies
the seed of their highest hope.
―Rubem A. Alves, Tomorrow’s Child, 1972

Trees that threaten to fall. Global warming and mutually assured destruction in a thermonuclear war. Contemplating a possible end and making art. Founding a new church congregation when “the church is dying.” Might the seeming contradictions of this double season bridging Thanksgiving to Advent give us a hint for finding God’s work in the seeming contradictions of Thanksgiving and Advent’s apocalyptic readings? What lets people find creative tension and god-like hope from looking unflinchingly at destruction and still risk new creation?

By the way, Advent hasn’t always been “the beginning of the liturgical year.” An older tradition (still remembered in Elizabethan times) regarded the Annunciation to Mary (March 25) as Christian New Year. Ancient Christian tradition had fixed the Annunciation on the same calendar day as Good Friday (calculated from other calendar considerations). But calling Advent with its eschatological, end of time themes our beginning, the Christian New Year may be on to something tying all that destruction, stars falling from sky, earthquakes and portents, fire and brimstone to the birth of Jesus? T.S. Eliot in the “Journey of the Magi” has his wise man narrator ask that and observe,

“…were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.”

Maybe there’s a beginning of Good News there, a hint of how to get from apocalypse to steady hope. A friend wrote a brief haunting, tune on a simpler line from Eliot that points to the same paradox - “In our end is our beginning, in our beginning is our end.”


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

Boycotting Walmart. Because Christ is King

By Noah H. Evans

It all began at a Thanksgiving Day clergy family meet-up at the local playground in Medford, Massachusetts. We all talked--three Episcopal and two Unitarian Universalist clergy families--as our kids played. We talked about our congregations, families who were visiting for the holidays, and about the awful commercialism of the coming season. Rampant consumption has led to environmental crisis as well as massive income inequality, the cost of which is suffered by some of our society’s most vulnerable people. Someone finally said, “Hey, want to Occupy Walmart tomorrow?” With facebook and tweeting started at the playground, the movement continued and by the time we all had sat down to our various Thanksgiving dinners, we had recruited six cars full of people to join us. Our group will include four kindergarteners and two preschoolers—offering them a vision for a world in which they know how to make themselves heard.

This year on Black Friday, we are standing with Walmart workers who are picketing at over 1000 stores across the country. On Friday morning, at 9:00AM, my family and I will join Walmart workers in front of the North Reading, Massachusetts Walmart Store. We will stand in solidarity with their cause, and help to give their suffering a voice and honor the courage of picketing Walmart employees. We will give the luxury we have been blessed with of an extra day off to help give rights to the 1.4 million Walmart workers in the United States right now.

Walmart is our nation’s largest employer, bringing in more than $16 billion in profits last year, mostly going to its corporate shareholders. Walmart workers struggle with low wages, positions without benefits, and negligible job security. Walmart has fought against efforts to unionize and is now taking action against picketing workers across the country. Because of its size and market strength, what happens with Walmart has ramifications far beyond the company. It will affect workers at other retailers and in other sectors as well.

By the end of the day Walmart will have made millions in sales and profits, but many Walmart workers will not be able to make ends meet, and many will go without the basic necessities of food and clothing. The call to stand for justice and in solidarity with those without a voice is throughout our sacred stories. This coming Sunday, we will proclaim that Christ is King, not corporate interests or shareholder profits. We will stand in the Walmart parking lot in hope of the world were justice rolls down like waters, and were the dignity of every human being is recognized. And hopefully, our kids will learn their own power to speak up and make a difference in the world. That will be something to give thanks for!

The Rev. Noah H. Evans is rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Medford, Massachusetts. He is on twitter at @NHEvans827

Learning from our mistakes

by Maria L. Evans

“The question "Who am I?" really asks, "Where do I belong or fit?" We get the sense of that "direction" -- the sense of moving toward the place where we fit, or of shaping the place toward which we are moving so that it will fit us -- from hearing how others have handled or are attempting to handle similar (but never exactly the same) situations. We learn by listening to their stories, by hearing how they came (or failed) to belong or fit.”
Ernest Kurtz, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning

It's a reasonably safe bet I'll never mix up Ignatius of Antioch and Ignatius of Loyola again.

There I was, dutifully attending the 7:30 a.m. Morning Prayer service at my home parish on a beautiful October Wednesday morning, thinking the world was grand, and my priest matter-of-factly announces that today is the feast day of Ignatius of Antioch. Suddenly my prayerful brain ground to a metal-shearing and squealing halt, sparks flying, teeth peeling off the gears and smoke pouring out of my ears.

"ANTIOCH? Oh, CRAP! I did the Speaking to the Soul piece on Ignatius of LOYOLA!" (Well, I didn't actually think "crap." I thought of another word.)

Needless to say, Morning Prayer immediately turned into Morning Busted Play as I squirmed red-faced in my secret shame all through the rest of the service. Even my post-Morning Prayer silent time turned into texting-Ann-Fontaine-expounding-on-what-a-dweeb-I-was time. Her response: "Well, it was a good essay."

One of the blessings of Morning Prayer at my church is that the post-service chit-chat time in the sacristy among the small cadre of Wednesday Morning Worshipers lasts longer than the service. That day, we were minus one of the regulars as her husband was in St. Louis awaiting a replacement of his artificial heart valve. We missed her so much we called her on my cell phone and put her on speaker so she could at least be with us long distance. It melted the self-imposed shame of my national-level liturgical calendar gaffe into nothing. On the way to work I thought to myself, "Wow. I was worked up about that at the level that I would be worked up about something big, like a "never event." "Never events," in the language of hospital committee-speak, are those horrible indefensible patient safety errors that the deed speaks for itself--things like getting an incompatible unit of blood, or the patient falling and breaking a limb, or operating on the wrong limb. They are the things that the world places a 100% compliance rate on, and one realizes that no matter how well one checks and double checks and triple checks to reduce that rate, the rate will never be 100%. The best human beings can do is 99.999something percent, and woe betide the person responsible in a "never event." It will certainly result in the loss of one or more jobs. It will most likely result in a malpractice settlement check. It may result in the loss of licensure or institutional accreditation. Medical career leper-dom is a very real possibility.

Now, getting my Ignatiuses mixed up is not even remotely close to a "never event." But those of us schooled in the shame of "never events" don't have a very good thermostat about those delineations. Suffice it to say my anxiety shot straight to the "never event" level and only backed down AFTER we went to that awful emotional place and I could more rationally assess the situation. Sometimes it takes the non-realization of our worst fears to play out before we even believe it wasn't THAT awful. Yet many of us beat ourselves over the head with a concrete block over gaffes like going to the North Pizza Hut instead of the South Pizza Hut and wondering "Why hasn't anyone shown up yet?"

Medicine is not the only place we are schooled in "never events" and lose that thermostat of shame and anxiety. Anyone who grew up with substance abuse or violence in the household learns it. People who marry abusers learn it. LGBT people learn it. The bullied and oppressed learn it. Visionaries who are slapped down learn it. Anyone who has ever been shamed for being "different" learn it. There's no shortage of teaching ground for that, which is why it makes it very difficult for many of us to recognize that God has no list of "never events." God will always accept our approach for relationship.

Unfortunately, our human response to someone else's mistake is to jump on them with both feet or shun them for fear their cooties might rub off on us. I think back about pathologists I've known who have made horrible mistakes that are unforgivable in the scheme of the world--things like getting two names or surgical path numbers mixed up and giving two people the wrong diagnosis, or over-calling a breast cancer and setting the chain of events in play for an unnecessary mastectomy. I had prayers of gratitude it didn't happen to me. I became more compulsive about my own mistakes. But I did not approach those people in love. I simply thought, "Well, it sucks to be you," and kept my distance. I rationalized it by saying, "Oh, I don't want to make it worse for them by calling attention to it." I knew there were people out there that thought they were horrible and incompetent people, and in my heart I knew they were not. But I didn't get any closer than was absolutely necessary, either, when people were out there calling for their head.

The truth is, our fastest learning occurs when we make embarrassing mistakes, if we are willing to show up on God's doorstep in our vulnerable, mistaken state, as well as healing from the stories of other people. I have to admit that in the mistakes I've made in this life, the thing that has always gotten me over the hurdle has been the people who were unafraid to admit to me when they made the exact same mistake, and can tell it with that wonderful mixture of wisdom, pathos, and humor. It is a key component of why Twelve Step programs are successful. People come to Whatevers Anonymous, thinking they are the only person in the world who could possibly have borne this level of shame, and if they sit long enough in those rooms, discover that someone else is telling "their" story with different names attached to it.

For me, it's the beauty of the stories of the Bible, particularly the Hebrew Bible. It doesn't matter one iota to me whether those characters are factually historical, because I know those people. I see them in the street. I have worked with some of them. I am related to some of them. At times, I am them. They remind me, "God has no list of 'never events'."

What are the stories of the mistakes in your life that became elements of healing for the mistakes of others?

Hannah and the headline news

by Sam Candler

1 Samuel 1:4-20

This week, newspaper headlines are moving away from the coverage of a general’s extramarital affair, and moving towards the escalation of violence in Israel-Palestine. Both the stories are sad, and even tragic.

“How the mighty have fallen!” I might say. How the mighty have fallen. Like a lot of our ordinary wisdom, and ordinary common sense, this phrase is actually from the Bible. No matter how devastating or surprising or tragic is the news from our own day and time, our stories do not top the wisdom of the stories of the Bible. No matter what the incident, the Bible has seen it before!

“How the mighty have fallen” (2 Samuel 1:19). It was King David who first uttered those words, the same King David to whom another David has been compared this past week. Generation after generation, we watch people who are high and lifted up, but who nevertheless succumb, almost inevitably, to some weakness. The Greeks called it hubris, an overbearing pride that can lead to tragedy. It is part of being human, and we all share that tendency, in some measure. All of us do -- men and women alike.

And nations do, too. In a very real way, the same sort of danger now threatens the very land and people if Israel-Palestine. The more powerful a country is, the more risk it has of being brought low – if not literally, then certainly spiritually.

All these headline news stories point me to two truths. The first is that, ultimately, each of us needs mercy. No matter who we are, we need mercy. The second truth is this: it is only God who can restore mercy, and purpose, to our lives.

Today, we have another story. Today’s story from the Bible is one that we have not heard about in a while, the story of Hannah, the mother of Samuel. Samuel has been described as priest and prophet and judge and seer – almost everything. But his story is for another day. It is the story of Hannah that inspires us today. Her story, too, has all the elements of headline news: resentment and envy, deep prayer and restoration (which some might call karma), and even a sense of justice and balance.

Her story, and her song, “The Song of Hannah” ring throughout both human history and divine history. It starts with emptiness and sorrow. She cannot bear children, even though her husband, Elkanah, loves her very much. Elkanah actually had another wife, which, of course, was common in early Hebrew history. Some have said that the only reason Elkanah took another wife was so that he could have children and continue his heritage. Even though he had another wife bearing him children, Elkanah loved Hannah deeply, and gave her a double portion of all that he sacrificed.

The other wife, Peninnah, did not like this. In fact, she was resentful and downright mean about it. The Bible calls her a rival, saying that Peninnah “provoked and irritated Hannah, because the Lord had closed her womb” (1Samuel 1:6). One can imagine the sort of taunting and wicked talk that resentment might entail. If anonymous e-mails had existed in that time, Peninnah would have used them! The word for “irritate,” used here, can also mean “thunder,” or “thunder against.” Peninnah thundered against the barren Hannah.

But Hannah did not give up. Though she wept bitterly and would not eat, Hannah did pray. In fact, here is a curious thing: She prayed so earnestly and deeply that she did not use words. Well, she did have words, but they did not cross her lips. In those days, silent prayer was a bit uncommon, just as silent reading was.

In our day and time, we tend to take “reading to ourselves” for granted, and most of us here today know how to read silently. But in the history of civilization, that is a newer phenomenon. For instance, at the time of Augustine in the fifth century AD, most people read by saying the words aloud. Reading silently was unknown.

Apparently, the practice of prayer was similar. One prayed by saying something aloud. To pray without making a sound was something different. The priest, Eli, “observed [Hannah’s] mouth praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard” (1Samuel 1:12-13). Therefore, the priest, Eli, thought she was drunk.

When Hannah replied that she was not drunk, but, instead, deeply troubled and vexed, then Eli somehow knew the deep sincerity of Hannah’s prayer. And Eli blessed Hannah: “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him” (1 Samuel 1:17).

I believe that the prayer of Hannah is remarkable for being a new kind of prayer in civilization, a prayer so sincere and deep that it was deeper than sound. It was silent and penetrating. God heard her prayer.

Hannah went back to her husband, and she ate and drank with her husband. (A great lesson: Never ignore the power of prayer and eating and drinking with your husband! Or your wife!) “In due time, Hannah conceived and more a son. She named him Samuel…” (1 Samuel 1:20).

It is a beautiful story. But the story continues after the text assigned to us today. Hannah gives up her son, Samuel, when he is three years old, to minister with Eli in Shiloh. She gives him up! (though she later has three sons and two daughters). And then she sings a song. Her song, the Song of Hannah, is what rings through human history and divine history. It is a song of how the humble overcome the powerful, and how the poor become rich. Listen to it:

My heart exults in the LORD;
my strength is exalted in my God.

…3 Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the LORD is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.
4 The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
6 The LORD kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
7 The LORD makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
8 He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.

…10 The LORD! His adversaries shall be shattered;
the Most High will thunder in heaven. (1 Samuel 2: 1-10)

“The Most High will thunder in heaven,” Hannah said. I like that phrase “thunder,” because it is the same word that was used to describe how Peninnah irritated, or thundered against, Hannah! In the divine reversal of Godly justice, Peninnah’s thunderings are turned against her. That is the lesson of the Song of Hannah. God reverses the plight of the humble and the poor so that they are lifted up and become rich.

That is the original Song of Hannah, the one sung by Hannah herself. But it only started there. It continued! It got repeated in Psalm 113:

5 Who is like the LORD our God,
who is seated on high,
6 who looks far down
on the heavens and the earth?
7 He raises the poor from the dust,
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
8 to make them sit with princes,
with the princes of his people.
9 He gives the barren woman a home,
making her the joyous mother of children.
Praise the LORD! (Psalm 113: 5-9)

Now, it is commonly thought that King David himself wrote Psalm 113, and he certainly knew about divine reversal. He certainly knew both sides: how the Lord lifts up the lowly, but also how the Lord brings down the haughty. After Saul had died, and after his best friend, Jonathan had died , it was David who lamented, “How the mighty have fallen.” In fact, he seems to lament the actual weapons of war. “How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished” (2 Samuel 1:27).

King David lived longer. It is King David’s final speech, when he was about to die, that might provide for us the summary stanza of this process of divine reversal. His last words are known as “The Song of David,” and they are an answer to the age-old question: How does one say what the will of the Lord is, amidst a world of jealousy and envy, violence and power?

So David sings, to God:

26 With the loyal you show yourself loyal;
with the blameless you show yourself blameless;
27 with the pure you show yourself pure,
and with the crooked you show yourself perverse.
28 You deliver a humble people,
but your eyes are upon the haughty to bring them down. (2 Samuel 22:26-28)

“With the loyal, God shows himself loyal.” Those are beautiful words.

Almost a thousand years after King David, a legendary book was written, one which tried to describe where Mary, the mother of Jesus came from. It is called the Protoevangelium of James, from the second century A.D. See if it sounds familiar. It says that Mary’s elderly parents prayed for a child, saying that such a child would then be “a gift to the Lord my God.” Miraculously, Mary is born, as a response to faithful prayer. Then Mary, at the age of three, is presented to the priests in the temple of Jerusalem. Just like Samuel was born and at the age of three was delivered to the priest!

And who was Mary’s mother, according to this story? The mother of Mary was Anna, which is the same word as Hannah. The word, “Hannah” means “grace.” The Song of Hannah, then, means, always, The Song of Grace.

The mother of Mary was named Anna, or Hannah, or Grace. This is why, later, when she learned she would conceive miraculously, Mary would sing her own song, which would be still another stanza of Song of Hannah, a song of grace:

Mary said,

My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:46-53)

We know that song as the Magnificat today, and we sing it every Sunday at Evensong in this Cathedral. We will sing it during this upcoming season of Advent; it will be our version of the headline news. And from it, a Savior will be born.

What will be your song during this next season? What will be your Song of Hannah, Song of David, Song of Mary, Magnificat, Song of Grace?

Where does your life need reversal? Where does your life need to be lifted up? And, conversely, where might you need to learn humility?

The song of grace is the same, and it has been throughout divine history:

“God delivers a humble people” (2 Samuel 22:28)

“The Lord makes poor and makes rich,
He brings low, he also exults.” (1 Samuel 2:7)


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

Can this temple stand?

by Phil Brochard

Readings for November 11:
Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17; Ps. 127; Heb. 9:24-28, Mk. 12:38-44

Thank goodness Melissa Mercogliano was at home that July morning. You see, Melissa lives across the street from her cousin Jennifer Ryan-Voltaire in suburban Boston. And that July morning Melissa could not believe her eyes as she looked across the street and saw a crowd of about thirty strangers gathering on the front lawn of Jennifer’s home. Melissa ran over to find out what was happening. The person leading the group––it was an auctioneer––said that it was simple. Wells Fargo was foreclosing on the property and in a few moments the sale would commence. Neighbors came running. Panicked phone calls were made. Because of all the sudden chaos around the house, one by one the buyers began to leave. No one was willing to bid in the middle of the uncertainty. And so, instead of being sold at auction, the house was foreclosed, Wells Fargo took possession, but the family remained in their home for the time being.

Now here’s some more of the backstory that led to that day. The Voltaires had owned that home for about four years. And made their payments faithfully. Then Jennifer’s husband had his hours cut back. And their payments were now just out of reach. So they then did what many did, which was to apply to the Obama administration’s loan modification program, so that they could keep their home while making lower payments. They filled out the paperwork and sent it in, all the while making those lower payments during the trial period. Several times they faxed in to Wells Fargo the information required––proof of income, tax documents. But somehow the paperwork never seemed to make it where it was supposed to go. It was always lost in transit. And every time, Jennifer sent it again, phoning the call center to make sure that everything had arrived like the bank had asked.

But somehow, that fateful summer day, Wells Fargo still sent representatives, attempting to sell the house right from under the Voltaires. What the Voltaires were later told, is that it was all because of one missing tax document. That a Wells Fargo representative had confirmed receiving. By this point the Voltaires sought legal advice and found that they were not alone. Scores of homeowners had been denied legal loan modifications because of “lost paperwork.” From Wells Fargo’s perspective their hands were tied. “We were never able to obtain the documentation required and as a result, unfortunately, we needed to do a foreclosure sale,” a Wells Fargo spokesmanexplained.

This might seem familiar to Christina King of Neenah, Wisconsin. When the Kings bought their home the interest rate they received from Countrywide was over ten percent. Which was doable until her husband’s hours were cut back as well. Now through the Home Affordable Modification Program their interest rate would have dropped down to around four percent, making their monthly payments possible. Same principle, just lower rates, where the market was at the time. When she applied to the program through the Bank of America, though, her paperwork just kept getting lost.
Eventually, BofA foreclosed on her house because they said that she had missed payments during the trial period of the program. Even though she had copies of the cleared checks. Apparently there was nothing the bank could do, they changed the locks on the house and Christina King, her husband and their eight children were forced to move out, thankfully to their local church’s rectory. It was over a year later, after a Wisconsin winter that flooded the basement, ruined the furnace and destroyed much of the ground floor, that the King’s received a letter from BofA stating the following, “We told you that your loan was not eligible for this program because you missed a trial period plan payment. However this was incorrect. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you.” Inconvenience. Friends, these stories are not unusual, they are systemic. And by the way, Bank of America, because of tremendous losses in segments of their corporation, including legal services department, “eked” out an $85 million profit for the year while the King’s foreclosure process was ongoing. Wells Fargo exceeded expectations during the time the Voltaires were being foreclosed, making $3.9 billion in profit that quarter.

One of the recurring themes throughout the Law and the Prophets centers on the concern which God expresses for the widow, the orphan and the resident alien. Remember that the widow in the culture of Naomi and Ruth’s time was almost universally vulnerable. In a culture which placed near total importance on the pater familias, and the relationships that extended from it, a widow, separated from that relationship, had no support. They owned no property. They often did not have a way to make money. On occasion, her deceased husband's family would take pity on her and she could live with them, but this was not the standard practice. Often, widows were at the mercy of those around them for survival. The Greek word used to describe the poor widow in Mark’s Gospel is not the word for someone who is poor and doesn’t have a steady job. It is the word used for one who begs. It was for this reason that our sacred text is clear that it is paramount for the People of God to care for widows, those who are vulnerable.

Since this was the case, for those widows whose deceased husbands owned property, sometimes an arrangement was set up so that the estates of these widows could be managed. For in this context, an elderly woman, or women in general, couldn’t be entrusted to manage their own affairs right? So, who might you turn to in a situation like this? Who might society trust to act ethically and honestly? Those who have studied the Law since childhood, those with the long robes of authority and with seats of honor. Yes, the scribes. It was a practice known as scribal trusteeship and it existed into the 1st century. Now it may not come as a shock to hear that the scribes earned a percentage of the estate as compensation for their efforts. Someone has to be compensated. And, as you might imagine, without rigorous oversight even the most pious of individuals can be tempted. Contemporary scholars have found 1st century documents that show that there was, indeed, abuse of this system. The very funds that were meant to care for the most vulnerable often ended up in the hands of those in charge of the system. (Derrett, "'Eating up the Houses of Widows': Jesus' Comment on Lawyers?" NovTest, (1972) 14, pp. 1ff.)

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widow’s houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” (Mk. 12:38-40)

Our word hypocrisy comes from the Greek. Hypo, or under and krisis, or decision, judgement. Underdecided. Our colloquial usage, though, comes from the Greek stage. A hypokrites was an actor who plays one thing to our face, when in fact is doing another altogether. If you hadn’t guessed yet, Jesus has little patience for hypocrisy, especially when it comes to those who are vulnerable and on the margins.

To be clear, his judgment of the scribes is not universal, though it may seem that way. No, his judgment is reserved for those who like, who desire looking pious, respectable, honorific. Over time they have come to need the greetings of respect. When they come to the synagogue, they take the best seats, literally in the Greek, the first couches. At a banquet they seek the places of honor, of power, of prestige, as if entitled to them. These things are called trappings for a very good reason. It is to those scribes that this teaching is directed. Because they have failed to live up to the trust which was placed in them. Outward appearances to the contrary, these same used these places of honor and responsibility to systematically dominate and exploit the weak.

Why? Why did some of those scribes choose to oppress, to devour those whom they have been taught to protect? Why have some, though clearly not all, in positions of power in these enormous, too-big-to-fail banks, why have some engaged in this deceit and exploitation? Because they can. And because often those who are caught in these traps don’t have the resources, the connections, the where-with-all to challenge a multi-national corporation who repeatedly loses your paperwork. What is one person or one family against the aggregated might of a Wells Fargo or a Bank of America?

Friends, these structures were created to aid those who need to borrow in order purchasing a home (that’s most of us), lending to us even as they earn the interest. And yet this very system is actually serving to consume some of those it was designed to assist. For in the settlements that various individuals and governmental authorities have extracted from several of the national banks, especially Wells Fargo and the Bank of America, from these recent settlements we have learned of the reprehensible hypocrisy from which they operated. Even as these banks had been working with many homeowners like Jennifer Ryan-Voltaire and Christine King, indicating that they were agreeable to loan modifications and that their applications were being reviewed, (though somehow that paperwork never got here), at the very same time these same financial institutions were proceeding to foreclose on the homes. Friends this is a moral injustice. This temple, as it has been constructed, cannot stand.

All Souls Parish began our banking relationship with Wells Fargo Bank at least as far back as 1928. It is well possible that our relationship goes back further. But because of the participation of Wells Fargo in these deceitful and destructive practices, the Finance Committee and the Vestry of All Souls felt that we could no longer contribute or participate by being customers of this banking institution. Earlier this year, All Souls Parish ended our relationship with Wells Fargo and we moved our money, every penny of it, to a local, privately owned bank.

This fall, Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation began a national campaign called Move Your Money. It’s a simple campaign and one that nearly all of us can participate in. To end our complicity with this injustice––so much as we can––congregations, businesses, families and individuals across the United States are moving their money as a practical and theological statement. They are finding local banks or credit unions, interviewing them about their practices and then choosing where best to steward their resources. If you haven’t yet moved your money, please consider it. And if you have already, consider being a resource, a guide to those hoping to do the same. Many, including those in leadership here at All Souls have found this to be liberating. It may well be seen as small change amidst the billions, but acts like these just might be the way that change begins.

The Rev. Phil Brochard is a partner, parent and priest. He spends some of his waking hours as the Rector of All Souls Parish in Berkeley, California.

Speaking Faithfully: Telling a story people hunger to hear

The following is an excerpt from Speaking Faithfully: Communications as Evangelism in a Noisy World by Rebecca Wilson and Jim Naughton from Morehouse Publishing.

By Rebecca Wilson and Jim Naughton

Despite the examples of Jesus and Paul, or, for that matter John Wesley, Billy Sunday, or Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, the church has been agonizingly slow to realize that communications is a ministry in its own right, not simply a support for “real” ministry. When parishes, dioceses, and churches are economizing, they will often cut communications budgets first. Parishes that would never dream of having a volunteer organist are happy to turn their communications ministry over to volunteers with no background in communications, and no opportunity to receive training.

Any number of church leaders will tell you that they did not establish an online presence because they were too busy building the church or feeding the hungry or visiting the sick—as though somehow learning to speak about these things in a way that gets others involved detracts from and is less sacred than these activities. But it is not a small thing to be able to put the word of God and the activities of God’s people in front of people. The printing press helped make the Reformation possible. The radio supported the growth of the vast network of nondenominational megachurches across the country. We probably don’t need to tell you that certain evangelists have built careers and fortunes from broadcasting their sermons on television.

People have always been eager to tell the story of God in their own times. We see this in the ways that the image of Jesus has been placed in settings and cultures across two millennia—note how Italian Renaissance paintings set the nativity in the palaces of burghers—and in the ways prayers are written to express timeless truths to people far removed from first-century Palestine and possibly unversed in the traditions of the Western Church.

Back in the sixteenth century, having the Bible in your own language was thought to be such a dangerous thing that Thomas More wanted to kill William Tyndale for making it possible. Having the liturgy in one’s own language was a cause of great celebration for Roman Catholics after the Second Vatican Council. It is easy for us to appreciate when the word of God is made accessible to a culture we consider exotic.

Think of the words of the Masai Creed:

We believe that God made good his promise by sending his son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left his home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing that the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, he rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.

We can see that this is poetry, and that it is a skillful and devout attempt to reach new audiences and to articulate the distinctive way they understand the Christian faith. We understand the necessity of expressing Christianity in a way that speaks to the Masai, but too often we do not grasp the importance of expressing Christianity in a way that speaks to twenty-first-century Americans. …

Jesus said that no one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel basket (Matthew 5:15), but Jesus had never met any Episcopalians or other mainline Christians. As a rule, we have been reluctant to call attention to ourselves. We are more comfortable being the church invisible, the church inoffensive, the church optional, and the church afraid of being associated with intolerant and heavy-handed people who are also Christian.

We need to get over this, but we won’t do that by illuminating the interiors of bushel baskets. We won’t do it by speaking in inoffensive generalities about kindness and politeness. Nor will we do it by announcing that we’re having a potluck supper.

Rather, what is required of us are compelling accounts of what our faith means to us, clear explanations of the nature of our spiritual experiences, descriptions of our church communities as places where people are committed to working for justice and peace, and stories about the ways that God has changed our lives and the lives of people we know. These can be hard stories to tell, and hard institutional communications to produce for people who sometimes hold inoffensiveness as a high virtue. But it is possible that the future of our churches depend upon it.

Even the word “evangelism” makes some people feel uncomfortable. We have worked with church communicators who argued hard and successfully 
against our efforts to include information about what Episcopalians believe and how they 
worship on their website. They
 were happy to have it conveyed 
on parish sites, or on the website 
of the Episcopal Church. They 
just didn’t want it on their site. 
We think this is symptomatic of 
the fear and unease that what
 people sometimes refer to as the “E word” arouses.

The Most Reverend Frank Griswold, former presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, once said that the Episcopal Church’s approach to evangelism was similar to setting an aquarium on the shore of the ocean and waiting for fish to jump in. That doesn’t work in an age in which churchgoing is no longer socially normative. We live increasingly in an on-demand world where activities that once required us to be in a specific place at a specific time (television shows, movies) can be indulged on our own schedule. We live in a culture in which youth soccer and other sports compete for the affection of our children, and there is no longer a taboo against holding those activities on Sunday mornings. Fear-based motivations for attending church (to avoid going to hell or being seen as an outcast by one’s neighbors) have lost their force, and people who think of themselves as “spiritual but not religious” look to Oprah as a spiritual guide, to therapists for moral direction, and to book clubs and cycling groups for their sense of community.

Churches are up against all of those competing forces. Too often we respond by retreating to the comfortable place in which we communicate primarily, even exclusively, with our own members. Take a look at a few church websites. Which ones seem more like they belong on an intranet than on the Internet? How many take a “member services” approach to communications aimed at making it convenient for those already in the church to find the information they need quickly and then be on their way? This doesn’t make much sense as a web strategy. Your highly motivated regular visitors are already deeply familiar with your site. They do not need primary homepage real estate to draw them into the church, and after a visit or two they are going to know how to find what they need. Instead, the homepage of a church website is for the stranger who needs the real welcome, and who wants a deeper understanding of what the church is about.

We have not yet awakened from the dream of a time when aspiring to mainline Protestantism was part of rising into the middle class, and coffee hour was an extension of Saturday night at the club or Sunday afternoon on the golf course. We have not yet adjusted to the fact that the world, in many places, has passed us by, or that to catch up we have to tell a story that shows we have been meeting God and living lives of genuine faith all the while.

Rebecca Wilson and Jim Naughton are the principles of Canticle Communications. Naughton is editor of Episcopal Cafe. Speaking Faithfully is available through Cokesbury and Amazon.

Using and misusing St. Paul: wisdom, gender and sexuality

by Savi Hensman

Abstract

This article focuses primarily on the use and misuses of St Paul in fractious contemporary church debates about sexuality and gender. It can also be read in parallel with the growing body of theological and historical work on re-understanding one of the key figures in the history of Christianity, suggesting that Paul’s project was to create a new community and dynamic which was capable of re-energising the suppressed radicalism of Torah religion in a dangerously imperialistic setting.

Introduction

Some Christians look to St Paul as the guardian of a narrow doctrinal and moral purity, and cite his writings to ‘prove’, for example, the sinfulness of homosexual relationships. Others criticise him for the parallel reasons, seeing him as oppressive of women, gays and others. Indeed he is sometimes regarded as radically altering the faith Jesus founded, replacing freedom in Christ with rule-based religion. Neither view, I will argue, is fair to Paul, to the radical transformation he underwent, or to the contradictions with which he wrestled – personally, theologically and as a leader of a growing movement.

This article focuses primarily on the use and misuses of St Paul in fractious contemporary church debates about sexuality and gender. It can also be read in parallel with the growing body of work on re-understanding one of the key figures in the history of Christianity – including, for example, the conversations opened up by Neil Elliot’s book Liberating Paul, and the work (in German) of Ulrich Duchrow and others, suggesting that Paul’s project was to create a new community and dynamic which was capable of re-energising the suppressed radicalism of Torah religion in a dangerously imperialistic setting.

1. Who was Paul?

A complex figure, Paul first appears in the Acts of the Apostles as Saul of Tarsus, a young religious fanatic who tries to stamp out Christianity by violence. After a dramatic conversion experience in which he encounters Christ, he becomes a Christian himself and, while Jewish himself, focuses on bringing the good news to other peoples.

His influence on the church has been profound. His letters (epistles) are part of the New Testament and are often quoted, though scholars now believe that several ‘Pauline’ epistles were actually written by other people.

According to John Dominic Crossan, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon were by the historical Paul, but Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians were probably not his work, and 1-2 Timothy and Titus certainly not by him. (Jouette M Basler suggests that, while 2 Thessalonians and Colossians could possibly have been by Paul, there is overwhelming evidence that Ephesians, 1-2 Timothy and Titus were not.)

Difference in authorship explains some of the contradictions which have puzzled many readers, though other differences arise from the range of specific problems he was addressing, and the nature of the Wisdom tradition which helped to shape his approach.

2. Wisdom’s call and Paul’s response

The Wisdom tradition runs through much of the Hebrew Bible, and is particularly marked in what are known as the Wisdom books – Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. The later Jewish books of Wisdom (of Solomon) and Sirach (the Wisdom of Jesus the son of Sirach, sometimes known as Ecclesiasticus) are included in some Bibles and regarded as Deuterocanonical works of value (though not Scriptural) in certain other Christian traditions, and were influential in Paul’s day.

The name of Solomon – the scholar-king with wide knowledge of natural history (1 Kings 4.29-34) and deep understanding of the human heart (1 Kings 3.16-28), whom people travelled from afar to hear – is often associated with Wisdom. Some now associate the figure of Wisdom (Sophia in Greek) with the Holy Spirit. Through observation, experience, learning and reflection, this tradition sought a deeper understanding of the universe, how God is at work in it and how people ought to live.

In the words of Proverbs:

Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice?... “To you, O my people, I call, And my cry is to all that live.... I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me”... The mind of the wise makes their speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to their lips. (Proverbs 8.1, 17, 16.23)

Some passages in the Wisdom books are subjective (for instance the lament in Psalm 55 at betrayal by a friend and the sense of futility in Ecclesiastes 2), or are based on outmoded knowledge. For example, unlike the time when Psalm 19 was composed, it is known today that the sun’s journey does not cover the whole of the heavens: the universe is far larger. However an illustration based on flawed science does not necessarily invalidate an argument.

Indeed people in the twenty-first century have much to learn from those in earlier eras who, without modern scientific equipment, found out so much about the workings of the universe and, without computers or even printing, sought knowledge so diligently and made efforts to communicate it widely. And it is useful to remember that, to many even in the ancient world, religion was not seen as solely a matter of revelation detached from reason.

In Acts 17, Paul is portrayed sharing the good news in radically different contexts – with a mainly Jewish audience in Thessalonica, then Beroea, and later with Gentiles in Athens. In Thessalonica, he went to the synagogue and “argued with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead”. So Paul drew creatively on the Hebrew Bible, reinterpreting it in the light of new experience.

In Athens “he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols”. But he did not launch into a fierce denunciation of Gentiles’ wicked ways. Instead he entered into debate with philosophers and accepted an invitation to the Areopagus (named after the god Ares).

There, he engaged with them on their own intellectual as well as physical terrain, saying, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands”.

Paul went on to explain that God made all nations from one ancestor, intending that “they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’”

So he was able to affirm and build on what was positive in their culture, while challenging aspects which he believed alienated them from the living God.

In Paul’s writings too, he acknowledged the importance of Wisdom, for instance in Romans 11, where he drew on Hebrew Scripture, including Job:

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counsellor?”

In 1 Corinthians 1-2 Paul contrasted worldly with true wisdom:

since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe... Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages.

He went on to write that “we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.” This resembles Wisdom 9: “Who has learned your counsel, unless you have given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high?”

1 Corinthians 8 declares that “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” The author of Colossians (possibly Paul) extols Christ as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” There are echoes perhaps of Wisdom 7-8, in which Wisdom:

is a reflection of eternal light,
a spotless mirror of the working of God,
and an image of his goodness.
Although she is but one, she can do all things,
and while remaining in herself, she renews all things...
She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other,
and she orders all things well.

According to Sirach 1:

Wisdom was created before all other things,
and prudent understanding from eternity.

Thus the Christ to whom Christians are joined may be seen as an embodiment of divine Wisdom.

When considering what Paul said and wrote on particular topics, it is instructive to take account of his wider approach of seeking to discern, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, how God was and is at work, including in the lives of believers. Indeed in 2 Corinthians 3, he informed his readers that “you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts”.

3. Paul and women

As has often been pointed out, Paul’s attitudes to women were seemingly contradictory. This is explained to some extent by the different authorship of some ‘Pauline’ epistles, but not entirely.

Paul wrote appreciatively about female fellow-evangelists and church leaders, including the deacon Phoebe, and Junia, “prominent among the apostles” (Romans 16). He also stated in Galatians 3 that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Some regard this statement as being solely about spiritual equality, without implications for social relationships, but this distinction is questionable: for instance Paul was critical of Jewish believers who shied away from eating with Gentiles.

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul wrote on marriage in terms of mutuality. Yet in 1 Corinthians 11 he declared:

I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ. Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head... a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man.

(We should note that this is contrary to Genesis 1, cited by Jesus in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, in which both man and women are created in God’s image. Peter Williams and others have suggested an alternative reading of this ‘headship’ language, pointing out that in Hebrew anthropology, the source of decision-making authority is the gut, not the head, and that ‘head’ was understood as denoting source or origin. In which case Paul is here citing the Genesis account of woman being created out of the rib of a man – itself meant as an alternative to violent Mesopotamian myths that required the destruction of the feminine as the condition for creation – and stretching it into an argument about propriety and church order. There may be something in this, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Paul ends up with a depiction which is inherently subordinationist, even if this is not the intention.)

There are strong cultural factors at work here. In Paul’s day women’s hair was believed to inflame men’s passions and going about with free-flowing hair was frowned upon, rather like going topless in some societies today. He was concerned not to stoke the prejudice which Christians were already likely to face from those around them, as well as being swayed by the prejudices of the Jewish and Hellenistic cultures of his day, in which gender distinctions and male dominance were heavily emphasised.

In chapter 14 he went on to urge, in the context of avoiding disorderly worship:

As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

Confusingly, he then advises the Christians in Corinth (presumably of both sexes) to “be eager to prophesy”. It has been suggested that the practical concern he was addressing arose when women and men were sitting apart (as customary in worship) and wives called out to their husbands, disrupting the service.

In addition the authors of Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Timothy and Titus urged female submission.

It would seem likely that Paul experienced a tension between, on one hand, the freedom of a new community where barriers were broken down in Christ and roles determined charismatically and, on the other hand, the pressure of social and cultural expectations, as well as practical challenges.

However, especially when taken out of context, these passages appeared to endorse women’s inferiority. They could also be read as criticising anyone who sought to change gender, since this could be perceived as either abandoning one’s God-given dignity if born male, or improperly aspiring to a higher status if born female. Later teachers and leaders, including the authors of other ‘Pauline’ epistles, tended to shy away even further from the radical implications of being “one in Christ”.

Far more evidence is now available of the suffering and waste resulting from sexual inequality and rigid gender roles, and the benefits to church and society as well as individual women of recognising their gifts. The fruits of scholars’ knowledge and many people’s experience should be taken into account: as Sirach 6 puts it:

If you love to listen you will gain knowledge,
and if you pay attention you will become wise...
If you see an intelligent person, rise early to visit him;
let your foot wear out his doorstep.

(Or, in the era of modern communication, search out the relevant journal articles or websites as well as listening to others in person before reaching firm conclusions.)

4. Paul and homosexuality

Paul’s stance on sexuality has also been the subject of much debate. This is complicated by the fact that the modern concept of homosexual orientation was probably unknown in the ancient world, though of course some people engaged in sexual relationships with those of the same biological sex (and might today have been regarded as LGBT – lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans).

Ancient Jewish law forbade sex between men, a practice largely seen as associated with other, idolatrous nations, though not sex between women. The Greeks and Romans tended to approve of sex between males only if one was clearly socially inferior to the other (e.g. a youth or slave penetrated by an adult freeman), while a man who chose to “play the woman” would face mockery or worse.

1 Corinthians 6.9-11 and the pseudo-Pauline 1 Timothy 1.8-11 are often quoted as forbidding gay sex, yet there are widely varying views on how the relevant terms should be translated, let alone what weight they should be given today. 1 Corinthians 6 includes a list of those who will not inherit the kingdom of heaven, including malakoi and arsenokoitai, while the latter term is part of a list in 1 Timothy 1 of those to whom the law applies. The term malakoi (soft/weak/unmanly) may or may not have sexual connotations, while the obscure arsenokoitai may refer to male prostitutes, pimps or men having sex with men in general.

In the Authorised (King James) version, 1 Corinthians 6.9-11 reads, “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.”

This might indicate that Paul set the bar higher than Jesus, who was himself labelled as a glutton and drunkard by the religious leaders of his day (Matthew 11.19), and who warned them that “the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matthew 21.31). Indeed Paul’s warning would appear to be at odds with other Pauline teachings such as Romans 10.9 (“if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”).

However it is understandable that Paul would want to affirm the positive changes made by people joining the church and, like other Wisdom writers, encourage virtuous living. It is unclear what bearing 1 Corinthians has on equal relationships between adult men.

Romans 1 possibly comes the closest to addressing what might be regarded today as homosexuality. To quote the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV):

the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth... Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles...

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error...

They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

The main thrust of the argument is that those who condemn them are also sinners: “you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself” (Romans 2.1), in the context of an argument against legalism. He chose behaviour which pious Jews would abhor in order to drive home the notion that both Jews and Gentiles were reliant on God’s grace, and could be saved by faith. So using the passage legalistically misses the point.

Nevertheless the theory Paul seems to be espousing deserves attention: of idolatry leading to ‘perverse’ heterosexual behaviour, probably anal sex, giving men a taste for ‘unnatural’ sex which they then indulged with one another. (It is also possible, though unlikely, that the passage alludes to lesbian sex.) After all, it is not impossible for the direction of desire to be influenced by social ideals, e.g. of feminine or masculine attractiveness.

He seems to refer to the theory in Wisdom 13-14 about the origins of immorality:

all people who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature;
and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know the one who exists...
the idea of making idols was the beginning of fornication,
and the invention of them was the corruption of life...
they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure,
but they either treacherously kill one another, or grieve one another by adultery,
and all is a raging riot of blood and murder, theft and deceit, corruption, faithlessness, tumult, perjury,
confusion over what is good, forgetfulness of favours,
defiling of souls, sexual perversion,
disorder in marriages, adultery, and debauchery.

The behaviour of some members of the Roman ruling class in the first century, including Emperor Nero and his family, would have given further credence to this belief. However, in Romans, Paul questioned whether even those who worshipped one God were as righteous as they supposed.

As has been pointed out in recent decades, Romans 1 does not appear to fit LGB people, partnered or otherwise, whose orientation has not arisen from idol-worship and who are no more prone to vices such as envy and malice than their heterosexual neighbours.

In addition, far more is known now about sexuality than two thousand years ago, for instance that same-sex acts or pair-bonding occur in many species. Also, across cultures and throughout history, a minority of people have been mainly homosexual in orientation, and physical intimacy and/or marriage have often taken place between partners of the same biological sex. However how same-sex desire is perceived and expressed has varied considerably. As Paul sought out and learnt from the most plausible theories of his day, we would do well to do the same today.

More positively for LGB people, at a time when there was heavy emphasis on procreation, and the single and childless risked being marginalised, Paul upheld the acceptability of being unmarried (as Jesus had done), creating space for sexual minorities. He also encouraged a sense of ‘family’ that went beyond biological bonds, urging Christians to “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honour” (Romans 12.10)

Though almost certainly celibate himself, he was also realistic about the fact that most people were not cut out for lifelong abstinence. His suggestion that “because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband... To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn” was not the most enthusiastic endorsement of marriage! However it is still an important practical point that partnership allows people to channel desire constructively.

He thus prudently steered a path between the extremes of taking all sexual feelings at face value and suggesting that people could easily refrain from ever expressing their sexuality physically.

There is now extensive evidence that heterosexual marriages entered into by lesbian and gay people, though occasionally successful, are often tokenistic, short-lived or damaging to both partners; and that permanent celibacy works well for only for a minority of people, LGBT or heterosexual. In contrast, same-sex partnerships can be stable, joyful and a source of love which overspills to others in the community. It could be argued that “it is better to marry than to burn” could apply to same-sex as well as opposite-sex marriage.

5. Wider principles and ethical trajectories

Other writings by Paul are indirectly relevant when wrestling with ethical issues linked with gender and sexuality.

He made it clear that, in his view, moral conduct was not a matter of following arbitrary commands supposedly issued by God. In Romans 13, he wrote:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

In Galatians, likewise, Paul strongly criticised legalism: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery... You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ... the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’”

Love is not a sentimental notion: Paul writes at some length about what this might involve in practice (e.g. 1 Corinthians 13), and elsewhere suggests criteria for determining whether the Holy Spirit is at work in particular relationships and situations (Galatians 5.22-23).

There is an overlap with Jesus’ ‘Golden Rule’ in Matthew 7.12: “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

In addition, he advocated – and strove to build – a community not fundamentally based on hierarchy or competitiveness, an approach that remains radical even today. For instance he portrayed the church as a body with Christ as the head:

just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit... God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it. (1 Corinthians 12

Thus exclusion of any comes at a cost to all. And, within this ethos, there is no reason to suppose that improving the status of women or LGBT people will necessarily result in reduced status for men and masculinity, or heterosexuals and heterosexual marriage.

He also went to considerable lengths to challenge the marginalisation of converts and insistence that they adopt Jewish law to be fully included in Christian worship, to the point of challenging the main church leaders (Galatians 2.11-14, Acts 15). Attitudes and measures that discourage some groups of people from joining, or fully participating in, the church should not be lightly adopted.

6. Learning from Paul

Paul’s writings are sometimes cited by both supporters and opponents of women’s equality. Likewise, in debates on sexuality, he is often quoted by those who regard same-sex partnerships as wrong, while others believe such passages are not relevant to committed and equal relationships today.

However, perhaps even more important than Paul’s perspective on specific issues is how he reached his conclusions. Using particular passages as a new ‘law’ that means that other Christian views can be rubbished and the fruits of experience, learning and reflection ignored, misses the point of much of what he taught, and how he himself worked.

Steeped in the Wisdom tradition, he set an example of grappling with difficult issues. Christians today would be well advised to learn from him to study Scripture diligently yet approach it creatively, engage critically with surrounding cultures and advances in knowledge, and seek to determine whether particular acts or omissions involve harming one’s neighbour. The building of a community in which all are valued and brought to fullness of life, through the grace of Christ who died and rose again, is also of crucial importance, even if this involves challenging the seemingly important and self-righteous.

If indeed the refusal of full equality is demonstrably causing damage at both a personal and community level, we might be well advised to follow the advice in Sirach 4.26:

Do not be ashamed to confess your sins,
and do not try to stop the current of a river.

------

See also:

* James Alison, “But the Bible says...”? A Catholic reading of Romans 1: [The author is a Catholic theologian and author. He is noted for his application of René Girard's anthropological theory to systematic theology and also for his theological work on LGBT issues.]

* Savi Hensman, 'Thinking theologically: Bible, tradition, reason and experience'

* ____________, ‘Journey towards acceptance: theologians and same-sex love’: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17246

* Noel Moules, Sex, orientation and theological debate: an evangelical response

* Neil Eliott, Liberating Paul: The Justice of God And the Politics (Augsburg Fortress, 2006).

* Simon Barrow, ‘St Paul: uniting past and future’, Ekklesia, 1999.

This essay was first published at Ekklesia. Used with permission.

© Savi Hensman is a regular and widely published Christian commentator on public, political and religious/theological issues – writing in the Guardian newspaper, among other places. She works in the care and equalities sector, and is an Ekklesia associate. Her regular blog is here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/blog/13 Her column can be found at: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/news/columns/hensman

You don't have to see the whole staircase

by Margaret M. Treadwell

“If you want to be close to Jesus, be with the poor,” says Terry Flood, creator and director of Jubilee Jobs (JJ) since 1981. Today, JJ is one of the longest serving, best non-profit workforce development providers for those considered hard to serve in the Greater Washington Area.

Terry grew up in a middle class Chevy Chase family, attended public schools and graduated from American University where she became interested in social action and justice. This led her to The Church of the Saviour where each parishioner is required to join a mission group designed to address a place of need in the world. After the 1968 riots, Terry helped raise money for Jubilee Housing, where she worked until the 1981 recession when residents lost their jobs and became hungry for employment. Jubilee Jobs was born with a desk, two chairs, a phone and a job counselor to help focus on job preparation, placement, retention and career advancement. This remains the core of its mission today.

Terry says,” We always are looking for the strengths and the good inside the people who come to us for help. We want the personal connection not possible in big training organizations. My best example this week is Samantha, the daughter of our very first applicant. She worked hard with her job counselor and in the small community groups we provide to help our people stay on track. Samantha has obtained scholarships and will start The University of the District of Colombia this fall. The Samanthas keep me going as I see our work paying off generation to generation.”

Terry and I became friends at a Bible study group. Her enthusiasm for her work and ability to relate it to Jesus’s teaching convinced me that I was ready to add one –on- one ministry of presence to my volunteer work.

JJ offers several opportunities to help - becoming a job counselor’s assistant to walk applicants through the employment process including resume writing and on line applications, becoming a mock interview partner or leading workshops. I chose the latter and have been teaching “Eyes on the Prize” twice a month for a couple of years.

This last workshop before applicants begin interviewing for entry level jobs highlights specific steps for goal setting, practical ways to keep focused with deadlines and also a time to write down dreams as in Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. The message: Each applicant has strengths and skills this city needs! Dr. King said, “ Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

Before we begin, I learn and call each person by name for the rest of the morning. I feel personally transformed as participants openly share their determination to move up with faith, hope, a positive attitude and humor despite rock bottom stories of survival. I learn from them what it means to face all sorts of sabotage from self and others and to keep on keeping on. It helps that I’m speaking from personal experience (most of my family members and I have struggled with job loss) so that it’s not about them separate from me but rather all of us in exploration together. JJ clients teach me how to look for Christ in each person as sparks of wisdom, new ideas and strategies ignite everyone in the room.

Feeling like I always receive more than I give at JJ, it was natural to join St. Columba’s, (Washington, DC) “Light the Fire” initiative and start a SPARK group where fellow parishioners could experience God’s grace and become re-energized and connected working together on a Christian mission. Our group is engaged in a process unfolding with prayer and thoughtfulness rather than concern about the end result. There are currently nine of us who have met since March, visited Terry’s orientation program, sat in on workshops and benefited from St. Columba’s “Light the Fire” SPARK resource material in thinking about how we can be most useful. Presently we are planning an October Saturday morning training and participation as mock interviewers at JJ.

SPARK member Kay Tatum has provided our group’s most exciting development - inspiring her law firm to provide on site training classes in developmental and technical skills once a month to clients of Jubilee Jobs. In preparation for September’s highly successful first class, several of her firm’s trainers and other human resources personnel attended a JJ orientation and their recruiting manager began working with JJ staff to plan the classes for clients who want to move up from their entry level jobs. Our SPARK group has helped fuel JJ’s more intentional focus on this move- up program. The firm’s HR Director said, “This work is becoming a ministry to us.” We have expanded our circle.

It is always fun and rewarding to volunteer with my husband, Jay, but our connection with other parishioners in this endeavor has added spiritual depth and clearer intention to our work with JJ. I envision our SPARK group creating a circle of light radiating out from St. Columba’s to Jubilee Jobs as we come to know and respect staff and participants. In turn, this amazing place, these people, complete the circle and reflect the light back on our church.

As one member noted, “The Christian service with Jubilee Jobs is a means to experience fellowship at Saint Columba’s – to have other parishioners know me and call me by name.

Margaret M. (Peggy) Treadwell is a psychotherapist, columnist and teacher in the Washington, DC area. She is co-editor of “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix,” by Edwin H. Friedman.

*This article was originally published in the October 2012 newsletter of St. Columba's Episcopal Church, Washington, D.C.

Women and submission in church and society

by Ann Fontaine

AlterNet recently carried a story about the Mars Hill Church in Seattle and it's "hipster pastor" Mark Driscoll with the title: Oral Sex, Yoga, and God's Eternal Wrath: Inside the New Hipster Megachurch That Tells Modern Women to Submit:

When Jess came to the University of Washington as a freshman, she was a feminist economics major whose postcollege goal was to land a position at an organization dedicated to social entrepreneurship. Now in her early 20s and just a few years out of college, she is married, looking forward to a life as a homemaker, and involved full-time at the Seattle-based Mars Hill Church, one of the hippest, fastest-growing, and most conservative evangelical churches in the nation.
...
That men lead the movement is key according to Driscoll, who ties myriad modern spiritual and societal problems back to the failure of female leadership. Driscoll traces his theory all the way to Genesis—in a 2004 sermon, he said Eve’s eating of the fruit of knowledge was “the first exercising of a woman’s role in leadership in the home and in the church in the history of the world. It does not go well. It has not gone well since.” What’s more, Driscoll describes Satan’s encouragement of Eve as “the first invitation to an independent feminism...the first postmodern hermeneutic.” For Driscoll, then, feminism and postmodernism are not only demonic, they are inherently linked; two revelations in the bite that led to the fall of man.

Why do people and especially women join a church like this? The Rev. Dr. Edward O. deBary, Asheville, North Carolina, former Director of the Education for Ministry Program offers one answer.
I tend to see such movements as the Mars Hill Phonomenon in Seattle in a broader context. I would identify it as a social coping mechanism in a world society that has, and continues, to face mind-boggling changes. While the text differs the context and the desired out-comes do not change when one considers other movements that emphasize much of what the Mars group seems to develop vis-a-vis the relationship of men and women, sexuality, and procreation.

We can note other "religious" movements in far away places that adhere to a similar schema. While it is not part of the article, I think a similar search for durable, direct, and fixed answers (as contrasted to flexible approaches) also applies to end of life issues, including the death penalty. It is very much part of the body politic today and the underlying drivers revolve around fears: fears that we are alone, fears, that we have no control and will suffer at the hands of others (known and unknown), fears that even life itself will conclude in either a bang or a final croak (depending upon which disaster you want to pick), and fear that our lives have no meaning.

Ultimately I think these movements represent a kind of social hysteria which is why a gifted "guru" can often provide charismatic leadership to which the most discomforted adhere. As I heard one person who was concerned with the current debt, "We have to find someone who will save us." That person had a particular political savior in mind, but the very notion that this is what we are seeking in leadership - a savior - spoke to me of the fear and despair that permeates much of our society and thus gives birth to radical ideas as the way to salvation (economic or otherwise).

What do you think?


The Rev. Ann Fontaine is a retired priest who lives on the coast of Oregon. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

In sure and certain hope

by Maria L. Evans

In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother/sister N., and we commit his/her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless him/her and keep him/her, the Lord make his face to shine upon him/her and be gracious to him/her, the Lord lift up his countenance upon him/her and give him/ner peace. Amen. --from Burial, Rite II, Book of Common Prayer, p. 501

It's not every day one bumps into someone who actually plans on being cryogenically frozen, but at the very least this story I recently saw in the local college newspaper brings up interesting musings.

At one level, I totally get why a college-aged person with an inoperable brain tumor might choose such a thing. The overall sense of "unfairness" of a life not fully lived is quite palpable in her story. It's something I would not choose at this point in my life, but I don't really know what I'd have considered at her age. I also suspect as our society becomes more and more non-theistic, people will choose hope in a different sort of resurrection. If anything, it underscores the fact that it's human nature to hope in something. I applaud her for having hope in something, actually.

What it does remind me of, however, are those two decades I mostly hid from a relationship with God through community. I suppose one could say many of us who walk away from that thing we call "the church"and return...well, in a way, we chose to be cryogenically frozen. When I walked away from organized religion in the early 1980's, my recollection is I did not walk away from God. I could just no longer deal with the growing pain of other people's notions of a God where I was never enough, and I had all these things wrong with me. When I tried to change them to suit those people (or this God I was not sure about,) it felt disingenuous, and filled me a nagging sense that something was just not right in their assessment of God. I wanted--really wanted--to be obedient to God as I (barely) understood God, but it just seemed impossible to the point I was almost moribund. So I put myself into suspended animation. Coming back into a church community really did feel like a re-awakening, with the antifreeze in my vasculature slowly being replaced with my blood mixed with the Blood of Christ. My heart seemed to go from barely beating back into normal sinus rhythm.

When I think back on those times, those times when thoughts of God were few and far between, it really didn't feel that awful living that way. I felt fine most of the time as I was living it. But now, with the me that I am presently, I recognize that in some places there was a boredom that I no longer have, as well as a longing of sorts, to fill this blank spot in my soul that I had no clue could actually be filled. I didn't know it at the time, but I was living in a sure and certain hope of resurrection.

I also think my return to church must have been incredibly labor-intensive for some of the people around me, particularly my one friend who pestered me for over five years to join her at church. Even upon my return, when every step closer to God filled me with a sense of "Ok, when's the other shoe going to drop? When are these people going to tell me there's something wrong with me?" I'm sure I was quite annoying to those around me.

Believe me, life in a church community is not Shangri-La. There have been things that have happened in my parish and in the church at large that I don't think anyone would have blamed me if I walked. It would be understandable. Some days have even been the antithesis of Shangri-La. But I can no longer imagine living my life in suspended animation. I think I'd rather live in this more fully alive state that I'm in, crap and all (and yes, there IS crap living in community with other Christians, I'd be rather suspicious of anyone who says there isn't) with the understanding I have now already lived out parts of that sure and certain hope of resurrection, and there is more to come. The blood coursing through my veins feels much warmer these days, and I would not trade that for anything.

A lot of press-inches have been given lately to that group we call "the religious 'nones'," or the "SNBR's" (Spiritual But Not Religious,) and much of the popular progressive religious press says we shouldn't worry about them, they seldom return to church, that evangelism is more or less wasted on them. There have even been a few studies, with data. We fret over the lack of 20 and 30somethings in church, grumble about the aging boomers clogging things up, even use phrases like the "death tsunami" to describe what's in store for the mainline churches in the next decade, as the silent generation and the elder boomers drop off the map of the living.

Are we really sure about all those declarations of death? Or are we dealing with massive numbers of people who are in a spiritually cryogenic state, who will remain so unless the rest of us who are being re-animated become more fully alive?

Could it be that there are people out there who live in a sure and certain hope of resurrection, and display it all the time in a non-theistic way, but they are simply unaware that it involves God? How does it call us to be more fully alive in the world, and in that sure and certain hope, ourselves?


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

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