Beware the ecclesial fiscal cliff

by George Clifford

Many, perhaps most, Christian congregations in the United States are approaching an ecclesial fiscal cliff. Unlike the expiring tax cuts and growing deficits that define the federal fiscal cliff, declining memberships and rising costs define the ecclesial fiscal cliff.

For specifics, consider The Episcopal Church (TEC). From 2007 through 2011 (the last year for which data is available), the number of parishes declined from 7055 to 6736 (6.5%), the number of Episcopalians declined from 2.1 to 1.9 million (9.1%), and average Sunday attendance declined from 727,822 to 657,887 (9.6%). The 2011 mean average Sunday attendance was 97; median average Sunday attendance was 65 (half of all congregations were above 65 and half below); and 68% of our congregations reported an average Sunday attendance of fewer than 100.

If those numbers are insufficiently grim, consider attendance in the context of finances. The average pledge in 2011 was $2410. Optimistically assuming that a congregation’s number of pledging units equals its average Sunday attendance, then the average income for Episcopal congregations in 2011 was $233,770. (Surprisingly, that assumption is not too far off the mark in terms of total income per congregation. In 2010 (last available year), average income per TEC congregation was $244,719.) For an Episcopal congregation whose average Sunday attendance was 67 (the median for TEC, with half of our congregations being larger and half-smaller), income from 67 pledgers who gave the denominational average would be $161,470. (All data from the TEC research office’s website.)

What can $162,000 – or even $244,000 – in revenue support for an Episcopal congregation in 2012 or 2013? The diocesan asking is generally 10% or more of pledge income. A full-time priest can easily cost a congregation $100,000 in stipend, housing, pension, healthcare coverage, and any other benefits. Operating a building (utilities, insurance, cleaning, perhaps a mortgage) probably runs upward, and perhaps substantially upwards, of $30,000. Allowing for other items deemed essential (audits, music, religious education materials, etc.), an average sized congregation can quickly find itself in a position of having insufficient funds to operate in accordance with members’ expectations.

Few congregations are average. Congregations with large endowments, significant sources of revenue other than giving (e.g., income from parking rentals or a school), or an unusually large percentage of above-average generous givers often have ample income. These affluent congregations, which I’m guessing might constitute 10% but certainly no more than 20% of all congregations, are TEC’s equivalent of the nation’s wealthiest 2%.

A growing number of congregations, perhaps already a plurality within TEC, are in the opposite position: their revenue is insufficient to pay the diocesan asking, fund a full-time priest, and properly maintain their physical plant. Deferred maintenance on the physical plant is perhaps the most common means of covering a revenue shortfall. Other options include spending endowment funds’ principal, reneging on the diocesan asking, and eliminating perceived “essentials” (such as a paid musician, fresh religious education materials, etc.). Many congregations rely on several of these strategies.

Each year, the speed with which this ecclesial fiscal cliff approaches accelerates. Attendance declines, expenses increase, and options for covering financial shortfalls diminish. Episcopalians’ average age, perhaps somewhere between 50 and 60, which portends growing numbers of losses from death, seems likely to compound the speed with which the ecclesial fiscal cliff drams near because TEC membership gains widely lag losses due to death and other causes.

I do not intend this essay to be an message of unrelenting gloom and impending doom. TEC has some thriving congregations that experience significant growth year after year. We live in a world full of hurting, hungry, empty people whose lives the Christian gospel and our ministries can transform.

Christmas is a season of expectant new beginnings. Persevering with business as usual is a dead end for TEC. Sadly, better management – a topic near and dear to my heart, as a visiting professor in a graduate school of business and public policy – is no panacea, not even a partial solution.

Correctly perceived, our ecclesial fiscal cliff can become a catalyst for a paradigm shift that, while preserving the gospel treasure, exchanges TEC’s anachronistic earthen vessels for timelier, post-modern vessels. Among our dated earthen vessels are:

(1) Expensive investments in underutilized (generally, used only a few hours per week) buildings that are costly to operate and often poorly located to take advantage of current demographic trends;
(2) Increasingly unaffordable and underutilized full-time clergy (though their days may be full, they spend disproportionately little time doing that for which they were ordained (teaching, preaching, administration of the sacraments) and ever more time doing what is properly the ministry of the laity (most administration and most pastoral care);
(3) Music that though beloved by the few (I number myself in this group), feels to a majority of today’s young adults like it belongs in another century (actually, much of it is two or more centuries old);
(4) Sixteenth century technology designed to empower congregants (i.e., printed materials including worship leaflets, the Book of Common Prayer, and hymnals) that now ironically places TEC firmly in the eighteenth century and seems unwelcoming to twenty-first century people accustomed to video and electronics;
(5) Theology framed in terms of Greek philosophy and first millennium debates that post-moderns neither understand nor appreciate.

Your enumeration and description of our dated earthen vessels probably varies from mine. That’s okay. In our increasingly multi-cultural world, no one set of earthen vessels will suit everyone. People who seek uniformity will probably be happier in a Church such as the Roman Catholic Church or a fundamentalist sect that emphasizes conformity.

Diversity of theological, liturgical, and organizational earthen vessels will proliferate in the coming decades. Some vessels will be tried and found wanting. Other vessels will serve well in a limited number of specific locations or contexts but not be adaptable for broader use. A few vessels may find wide use. Experimentation is the only heuristic for identifying the vessels that belong to each of those categories. This multiplicity of styles and patterns echoes the early church’s practice. It was not until Christianity became the Roman Empire’s official religion that a single set of earthen vessels emerged as the sanctioned norm. Creative experimentation will become one hallmark of good leadership.

Our historic Anglican ethos of inclusivity, pastoral concern, commitment to worship in the lingua franca, cultural sensitivity, theological diversity, and unity rooted in common prayer seems well suited for TEC to thrive in our post-modern twenty-first century world.

The promise of Advent – that God has not finished creating the world – offers hope and renewal for we who seek the transcendent mystery and wonder of God's presence in our lives, a presence that generations of Christians have celebrated annually in the feast of the Christ-child’s birth. TEC needs leaders – our current Presiding Bishop and her successor, diocesan bishops, parish clergy, wardens, and vestry members – who inspire this hope in their preaching, teaching and ministries, motivating and empowering us to replace tired, archaic vessels with fresh ones better suited to this century. In such a Church, the impending ecclesial fiscal cliff, instead of signaling doom, will have become a force for renewal of both the Church and God's people.

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

Never read the comments

by Eric Holloway

I have this personal rule that I’ve set for myself: never read the comments section below online articles. If you’ve ever done so yourself, you know that they will invariably contain the most vitriolic, unfair, and often frustratingly under-developed arguments that one can possibly imagine, on both sides of whatever it is that the article is about. Not too long ago, as is my custom, I was ignoring this personal rule that I had set for myself, and reading through the entire comments section below the recent pastoral letter that our Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts-Schori wrote to the Diocese of South Carolina. (If you didn’t know already, the (former?) Bishop of South Carolina and its standing committee, as well as a presumably sizable portion of the laity have decided to leave the Episcopal Church, wanting to take with them the property and money of the Diocese, which our Presiding Bishop asserts that they cannot do.) ((pause))

I was looking for the fight, and I was not disappointed. The comments section was rife with accusations: “You don’t preach the Gospel!” “You don’t own that property!” “You’re schism is a far greater sin than anything that might provoke it!” And not just accusations, but also personal attacks against both Bishop Lawrence, the “self-serving egoist” and Bishop Katharine, the “ultra-liberal heretic.” Even those on the same side of the larger issue could not agree on how to handle the break, with every commenter knowing just what to do about this situation and spending heated and excited exchanges declaring the superiority of their positions and undermining the views and arguments of others.

((long pause))

In our Gospel reading this morning, there are 3 main characters: Jesus, Judas, and Peter. Peter is raised up as the obvious hero, contrasted with Judas who is in no uncertain terms the villain. And the author of John doesn’t use a comments section below the story to remind us of it, but sprinkles in the case against Judas all through this beautiful story about the faithfulness of Peter to follow Jesus even when it means turning his accepted cultural norms on their head, and letting his beloved teacher wash his feet like a common servant. The good one, and the bad one, set side by side as an example. So, who are we in this story? We future loyal and faithful leaders of the Episcopal Church? We are Peter of course! When called to break out of our comfort zone, to serve and be served, we say, “Not just our feet, but our heads, and arms, our hands and legs, our whole bodies and selves!” It’s the leavers, the jump shippers, the schismatics who are playing Judas in this passage, no doubt. The connections are all right there, before this dinner party is even over Judas runs away from the table and out of the room, taking the common money purse with him! It is so easy to see.

((long pause))

And it is so easy to forget. So easy to forget the irony of this passage, that the knight in shining armor, our faithful Peter, betrays and abandons Jesus just as surely as Judas does. For all his enthusiasm, Peter denies Christ not just once but three times. John’s Gospel is famously the gospel of setting boundaries for communities: who is in, and who is out; who is us, and who is them. And rightly so, a good community needs good boundaries. But despite this focus on who is in and who is out, there is no pass given to those that stay. Jesus did not wash the feet of one betrayer and abandoner that night, but several. Let us never forget that any faithfulness we might have is a gift, a blessing that does not come merely from being in that inner circle that ‘knows’ the lesson of humility and servant-leadership, but from actually doing it, from submitting ourselves to washing the feet of each other, even the heels that will be lifted against us. The unity of our Church, and of The Church, has always been and always will be a tenuous thing, breaks and tensions and stresses push and pull us from all sides. But we don’t need to be afraid of this, our gospel assures us, and we certainly should not let it distract or keep us from humbling ourselves always to one another and to those that we serve.

Eric Holloway is a Middler seminarian at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas and a Postulant for Holy Orders from the Diocese of Texas.

Christmas Pageant: Gabriel

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ - Luke 1:26-37 NRSV

Advent, being a time of preparation, uses the annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary as a sort of kickoff to the season. Even in churches where Advent isn't celebrated, Gabriel's visit is part of every single children's pageant that conflates the annunciation and birth stories with angels, shepherds and wise men all together. It was no different in the church in which I grew up. The annual Christmas pageant, given on a Sunday night a week or two before Christmas (so all the kids could participate, including the ones who would be off to visit relatives during Christmas itself), was sort of a highlight.

Kids didn't often get to be more than general people-in-the-pews and so the Christmas pageant was one chance to really strut their stuff, in a manner of speaking. Of course, there was competition; every girl wanted to be Mary and every boy Joseph. Nobody in their fairly right mind would entrust kids with a real infant, so somebody had to provide a very baby-like doll to be Jesus. The roles of the innkeeper, the head shepherd and one king were usually reserved for the kids who wouldn't freeze up when they had to say something and the rest of the kids were divided by gender into the remaining roles of shepherds and kings (boys) and angels (girls). One of the really BIG roles was that of Gabriel who probably had as much to say as any of the other characters, only Gabriel had only one long (for a kid) speech. It was a plum of a role, and for more years than I can count, I was it.

It didn't hurt that I had blond hair that could be curled under in a page boy hairdo for the occasion (the only time of year I wore it that way) like the medieval European paintings showed, and it didn't hurt that I didn't mind talking in church -- audibly this time instead of just providing a whispered buzz in the back pew like usual. The hardest part of the whole role was keeping my arm raised in the air the whole time I was on stage. Still, you have to make some sacrifices for your art, so they say.

Mama had made me a costume, a white robe with gold tinsel around the neckband, crossed over my chest and wrapped around my waist. I even had a halo of tinsel wrapped on a sort of rigged headgear made from what I remember as something that used to be a coat hanger. The big deal was, though, that I had wings, official looking wings. Substantial, silver tinsel-edged wings that were tied on the same way as the tinsel on my costume (and which the tinsel covered very nicely) and looked rather impressive, I thought. And I had those wings all year. They lived in what we called the feed room of our garage behind the house where we stored dog food and Mama's jellies, jams and pickles. They lay there with the pickles and preserves, waiting for the next year and the next performance. No other kid in York County, I'm sure, had a pair of wings in their garage. Sometimes it seemed like a curse, but hey, once a year I got to shine.

I knew about Gabriel's role in the annunciation, of course. I can (and did) recite the whole script to prove it. What I've learned since has made me more aware of what big wings I had tried to fill. Not just the angel of the annunciation, Gabriel was either an angel or an archangel, depending on the source of information. The name meant "Man of God" or "God's Might" or "God's Power," again depending on which source you use. Gabriel was God's messenger and has appeared in all three of the Abrahamic religions. In the Jewish scriptures, Gabriel is the angel who appeared to Daniel to interpret visions Daniel had been given but had been unable to understand. In midrash literature, Gabriel is one of the four angels standing at the four corners of God's throne and who attend God directly while other angels constantly sing praises. Gabriel is also said to have been a sponsor at the wedding of Adam and Eve and a rescuer of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the fiery furnace. Gabriel fights Israel's enemies while Michael is the guardian of Israel as a nation. For Muslims, Gabriel was the angel who spoke the Qur'an to Muhammad, and was one of the party who visited Abraham in his tent before going to Sodom and Gomorrah to rescue Lot. And then there is the Christian view of Gabriel as the messenger to Mary.

Maybe if I'd been more aware of all Gabriel was supposed to do and have done, I'd have approached the role a bit differently, but as a kid, it was a plum role in an annual Christmas pageant. It was a time to shine, literally and figuratively. And I was the kid with the wings in the garage.

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

How romance novels heal the world: happy endings as prayer

by Amber Belldene

Several years ago, back before video on demand, my husband and I found ourselves with a stack of unwatched DVDs from Netflix. They were dramas, foreign films, Oscar winners—things I thought we were supposed to like. Months worth of dust had settled on them where they languished on the DVD player. Because the truth is, my husband and I don’t like to watch movies like that.

Back then, I thought that in order to be the emotionally deep and intelligent kind of priest I aspired to be, I had to appreciate gritty, realistic art and literature.

Thank God I grew out of that smug notion. Now I am convinced that genres with happy endings are not superficial, but profoundly hopeful and spiritual. They train us to believe in redemption and look for possibility. I like hard-boiled detectives like Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko, who tenaciously fights for justice yet never achieves it, even though he always solves the mystery. And I love romance—historicals, vampire stories, anything with a tortured hero—because they unequivocally promise a happily ever after.

The rules of these genres comfort me as a reader. They assure me that no matter what happens to the characters I have come to love, some satisfying ending will be reached, even if I can’t possibly see how halfway through.

Narrative is a powerful force—it’s a way we make sense of things, and find meaning, and recount our memories. Words make our lives, just the way God spoke the creation into existence in the first place. Religions themselves develop out of stories, the welling up of narrative within a community to describe what God has done. The transcendent mystery of God becomes real and concrete in those stories—a child is promised to Abraham and Sarah, a nation is born, its people become slaves and then are delivered into freedom, the law is engraved in stone, things go awry, and the prophets promise a better future.

And, like genre fiction, these Bible stories promise a happy ending for creation—they all point to a future of peace, of well-being or even paradise, and an eternal life in union with God. The promise of this future gives us hope, and lets us rest in the comfort of God’s care for the world, even when we suffer.

We writers call the moment of worst possible calamity in a novel the major black moment. Sometimes when I reach it in a book I’m reading, I give up, overwhelmed by emotion and my intense care for the characters. I throw my e-reader aside, abandoning the hero or heroine in their suffering. But because it’s a mystery, or a romance, I always come back when I’ve found the strength to feel their pain, so that I can rejoice in their happy ending.

In the story of Jesus, Good Friday is the heartbreaking turn. But there is a way that, for the church, Advent is an annual black moment. This is the time of year when the days grow short and dark, and we look around, noticing all the ways the world is not yet the kingdom of God, that the wolves are still eating the lambs, and we are still making more swords than plowshares. It’s the time we slow down and ask, how can I make the world better? And we are forced to recognize our own human limits—that sometimes all we can do is wait for the part of the story that is in God’s hands alone. On some deep level we recognize that if we flip pages, skipping ahead to the happy ending without honoring the real and present darkness, our joy will not be complete.

Several years ago, after struggling a long time to conceive, I became pregnant with twins and then miscarried them both. On the heels of so much joy, the loss was devastating. It was nearly impossible to believe that wasn’t the end of the story, and that I’d ever become a mother. Then my stepmother said something surprising--that when I died and went to be with God, I would meet those babies there, grown into the fullness of what God had intended for them. If I had been wearing my theological hat, or my political hat, I might have argued or laughed. Instead, I was a grieving woman, trying to make sense of a terrible loss. And the promise of that future comforted me through many sad months, until I became pregnant again and my children were born.

That part of my story did have a happy ending, but if you asked me today to read a novel about a woman who experienced a miscarriage, I would say, “Hell, no.” That is, unless it had a man with an incredibly muscular bare chest embracing her on the cover, and trying to rip open her bodice.

And I don’t feel even a little guilty about it.

Every sexy love story I read helps me believe in the future the Bible promises. Every story about good triumphing over evil, or someone’s hard-won redemption, or a couple overcoming fierce obstacles to be together—every one I read is a prayer that justice, love, and life will prevail. And I believe it. It keeps me reaching for my own happy endings.

God began this story we are living by speaking words into the void. It’s a story of promise, a story about a future on a scale so much bigger than our individual lives and personal tragedies, and perhaps even bigger than our human social crises. In Advent, we remember that God does not abandon us to the darkness, believing that when God finally says, “The End,” it will only be after the sentence “And all of creation lived happily ever after.”

Post Script: I am grateful to Episcopal Café for publishing this little essay. You may think it's strange that I don't mention the shooting at Sandy Hook a week ago. I wrote this piece before that tragic event. (more from Amber in comments)

Amber Belldene is the pen name of an Episcopal priest. Her debut novel Blood Vine will be released in January from Omnific Publishing.

Finally, beloved

by Emily A. Mellott

Look at that – the reading you picked begins, “finally, beloved.”

I don’t know if you did that on purpose - I’d guess that the statement of lived love that follows those words is why you picked that reading for you and us to hear.

But, finally, beloved.

We’re here.

Look at you – after twenty-five years of life together, getting married.

You know, and we know, that the real work of marriage is what you’ve been doing, and what you’re promising today to keep doing and do all over again.

But there’s something deliciously sacramental about this afternoon, this set of promises, this time of looking into each other’s eyes and taking each other’s hands.

Because today, when you stand up and make those promises, there’s another sacramental sign to go with the rings and the vows.

There’s a piece of paper from the State of Iowa that’s the visible sign of the fact that your marriage matters to the rest of the world.

It says your choice to be married to one another is an important piece of our public trust, our definition of community.

And it says – just like the promise the rest of us made a few minutes ago – that we owe you recognition, and support, and trust and faith in your commitment to one another.

That’s grace.
That’s why I’m going to cry, a bit, today.
Because you’re legal. And that matters for us
us, whom you’ve invited to be here
and us, the world we live in.

Also, apparently, to the Church Pension Fund. Wouldn’t want to leave them out.

It matters, because as your commitment to one another makes you more generous, more open, more skilled in the essential spiritual art of forgiving and being forgiven,
you create wells of grace that spill over into other people’s lives.

I’ve seen your humor bubble, your patience deepen, your hearts open, and your faith in each other and in your selves shine when I see you together. You contrast, and you fit together, and because of that, everyone each of you touches is richer for the experience.

Today, there’s a piece of paper that says that this richness matters in the way we make sense of our world.

It matters to me.
Because the two of you together have made my life more whole,
and I never thought I’d get to preach at your wedding.
So it feels like a victory and a vindication that today the whole weight of custom, society and the legal system affirm your truth.

That’s why I wanted to hear Jesus’ words about salt and light as we celebrate with you, today.

Today there’s no more bushel basket, even if you wanted to drop one over your light. Today we get to glorify God for the holy light of your everyday, life long, work of loving one another in the hard ways, the funny ways, the physical, spiritual, emotional, and practical ways.

That light matters.
And so does the salt.

Salt’s a funny thing to compare to love, but I think it just might work.
Salt changes things. It’s a preservative; it makes things just enough different so that they last a good long time.

And it’s got some rough edges. Salt doesn’t spice things up by being smooth and subtle, but by sharpening the edges of flavor, being a little rough on the tongue (and sometimes on the blood pressure).

And I like that for you, today.
Because we’re changing the story,
taking the assumptions of society and the promises you made 18 years ago, and sharpening the edges of both so that your flavors are brighter, richer, bigger.
And it took salt in a lot of raw places in the state, the church, and your own lives to change things, and make this happen.

But here we are.

Finally, beloved,
we’re here to celebrate all that is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, praiseworthy and excellent in your marriage,
because your marriage matters.

It makes life-giving light out of that piece of paper,
because it makes life-giving light out of your lives,
and that lights up me, and us, and people far beyond this place.

Finally, beloved, and forever.

This sermon was preached on the occasion of the marriage of the Rev. Bonnie Perry and Ms. Susan Harlow by the Rev. Emily A. Mellott, is the rector of Calvary Episcopal Church, Lombard, Illinois.

The slaughter of the innocents

by Marilyn McCord Adams

Life doesn’t always unfold in “synch” with the liturgical calendar. Advent waits for cosmic interruption: the Word made flesh, a truly human but not only human God. Friday featured an interruption of the opposite sort. The governor of Connecticut declared: “evil visited this community today”--the kind of incident that all our systems were designed and up-and-running to prevent. Twenty children and six adults shot on site; add the killer’s mother and the killer himself.

So much commentary laments the slaughter of the innocents. A tearful president reacted as a parent: “so many were beautiful little children between 5 and 10, with their whole lives ahead of them.” Visceral responses to attacks on our young are hard-wired. I think of Giovanni Pisano’s pulpit sculpture of Herod’s soldiers’ butchering, of the mothers’ tug-of-war vice-gripping their babies with primal rage and hysterical grief.

Big-brained creatures need more time to mature, are vulnerable for longer. Biology builds in instincts to protect offspring at all costs. They are our species’ future. Human biology transposes this into the personal. Children have the best chance when they grow up in an environment where they feel safe and loved. We know that the world can be dangerous to our health, but we don’t want children to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil too soon. Or rather, we want to introduce them to the world’s hazards gradually, by age-appropriate stages, warning them off hot stoves, electric sockets, pulling the dog’s tail too hard, letting them experience little scrapes and pinches and “ouchies” before we expose them to anything traumatic.

Friday strikes terror into hearts of the adults, because it provides unmistakable proof that our best efforts were not enough to protect them. Each parent is asking herself, what more could we have done, what can we do now to prevent the worst? Newtown community, American villages and cities across the country, the leaders of our nation have paused to ponder such ghastly failure. Psychologically and spiritually, if we don’t let ourselves screen it out but confront it, the shootings at Sandy Hook are gut-wrenching and confusing.

Instinctively, we reach for a quick fix. The killer had two semi-automatic hand pistols and an automatic shotgun. Stricter gun control laws that took, not guns used for hunting, but rapid-fire weapons off the market would surely decrease the death toll. Personally, I grew up in a violent home and am confident that had my mother not insisted that the pistol be kept in a locked trunk under a ton of stuff in the back of the garage, it would have figured in any number of angry episodes and I would be long since dead. Personally, I will join forces to urge politicians to seize the opportunity to stand up to the NRA and make these legal changes, once and for all.

At the same time, we have to concede that the NRA is right: this sort of measure will not be enough to make sure Sandy Hook, Oregon, Aurora, and Columbine never happen again. Among the States, Connecticut ranks fourth for effective gun control. The weapons at Sandy Hook were legally registered by the killer’s mother. In any event, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Determined killers will find ways around the law to get what they need. Stricter gun control will surely save lives, but it will not guarantee safety.

Equally insistent is our instinct to “otherize” the killer. Tweets and twitters ask what sort of crazy person would do such a thing. We don’t want to think that normal people like us have it in us to do something like that. In fact, studies show that most ordinary people can be persuaded to participate in mass killing under the right conditions, where the violence is community- or state-sponsored, where there are stiff sanctions for non-participation, where a convincing group ideology assures that atrocities are the price we have to pay to secure our own survival and flourishing. But studies also show that most people don’t have it in them to kill and maim individuals in ordinary time.

Those of us who have experienced rage or fear, would probably do well not to be confident about what we would have done in Nazi Germany. Maybe we should not overestimate our own mental health or degree of spiritual integration. Still, I venture to say, most of us could not have done what Adam Lanza did on Friday: shot little children, school teachers and staff in cold blood.

For that very reason, we need to heed Jesus’ warning that “otherizing” is spiritually dangerous. Otherizing undermines sympathy, pronounces the perpetrator “beyond the pale,” definitely not one of us. We could not have shot children and school workers in cold blood, because we identify with them: they are us, their children could be our children, their town could be our town. But it is counting killers as not one of us, that tempts us to acquiesce in state-sponsored cruelty, torture, and executions. Who knows? Perceived alienation may have prompted Judas to betray Jesus, permitted Adam Lanza to “otherize” the children and adults he was shooting at the school. Our instinct to “otherize” should make us shudder with the realization that we are more like traitors and socio-paths than we would like to admit.

Jesus’ injunction to love enemies is a hedge against otherization. My point is not that parents and citizens of Newtown, Connecticut should forgive the killer, today, tomorrow, next month, or next year. That would be another “quick fix.” Grief and trauma have their seasons. I would not say any of these things to them. I am speaking to us, who the dubious luxury of standing back and assessing, to remind that otherizing is part of, sometimes lies close to the roots of our problem.

Not only children but humans generally do best when we feel safe and when we feel loved. Several interviewed psychologists prescribe reassurance through quarantine: Turn off the TV! Don’t watch the re-runs! Sandy Hook was a fluke. Most of the time, the world is not like that. Don’t lure yourself into the illusion that it is happening over and over again!

Meant as advice to the traumatized, this is fair enough. Once is more than children can digest. We need to believe the world is orderly. Even adults suffer from PTSD. Nevertheless, we adults have eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil often enough to know better. In Syria, such atrocities happen daily. In less than six months, we have had Aurora, Oregon, and Sandy Hook. Evil can be relied on for ghastly interruptions more than once a year.

Another psychologist voiced the necessity of making the tragedy meaningful. Bad as they may seem, death and dying are often predictable, framed by stable contexts. Senseless killing without rhyme or reason provokes panic. Media scramble to restore balance by probing the killer’s motives. Knowing that the crime was committed by a jealous lover, or accidentally-in-self-defense during a hold-up gives us something to work with. In Arizona, in the Oregon mall, maybe in Sandy Hook, there’s no telling why they did it. Mike Huckabee looks instead for God’s motives: lethal bullets were Divine punishment because “we have systematically removed God from our schools,” because we have “otherized” God. Alienated Adam Lanza was bad enough. If an alienated God otherizes back, how can we keep believing that it’s good to be alive?

We can’t make Sandy Hook meaningful by looking backward, but only by moving forward, by working alongside a God Who is for us, resourceful to make good on the very worst that we can suffer, be, or do. God knows, God has created us in a world where ghastly evil interrupts, despite our best efforts to control. God not only creates; God resurrects. God makes the worst count for good by bringing life out of death. To be on God’s side, we must bend ourself to efforts that foster life, inclusive community, and creativity. Collaboration revives hope because it convinces us: we are safe because, and only because, we are loved by God!

O God, we bring before You the people of Newtown, Connecticut. Welcome the dead. Comfort the grieving. Convert the killer. Make them all know and feel the healing power of Your love. Through Jesus Christ. Amen.

O God, the slaughter of innocents “blows our minds” and sets us staggering. But if we really knew the evil that lurks in human hearts, the fragility of human goodness, and the flimsiness of our hold on life, we might be driven to despair. O God, You alone can renew what is smashed, twisted, and broken. Gather up our fragments. Put hearts, and families, and communities back together again. Through Jesus Christ. Amen.

O God, where killing is concerned, what difference does it make whether the victims were children or adults? The children were fresh starts, potential-in- formation, bursting with promising surprises. The adults were invested in life, people with track-records and projects and commitments to others. O God, don’t ask us to choose among our griefs. They all died suddenly and without warning. Gather us all in the arms of Your mercy. Comfort us with Your love. Through Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Reverend Canon Marilyn McCord Adams is Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Assisting Priest at the Church of the Advocate, Chapel Hill

Elf on the shelf

by Torey Lightcap

Judging by photos and commentary, many of my Facebook friends’ homes appear to have been invaded by the Elf on the Shelf. Ours has, too.

For the uninitiated, Elf on the Shelf is a small “scout” elf with rosy plastic cheeks, long arms and legs made from felt, and cherubic eyes that are open to seeing everything. He comes in a box with a book that explains where he came from and what he does.

The story goes like this: you take the elf out of the box and name him, and then prop him up some place where he can be witness to the goings-on in your house. These activities, be they naughty or nice, are carefully noted by your elf, who flies to the North Pole each night in the run-up to Christmas and informs Santa about how the children are behaving. Santa may take these things into account in consideration of a whether and how to grant a child his or her Christmas list. The elf returns from the North Pole and reseats himself for another day’s observation prior to daybreak (at some houses selecting a new vantage point from which to see, judge, and report). The routine goes on from some time after Thanksgiving all the way to – what, Christmas Eve, I suppose.

When you break it down, the Elf on the Shelf just seems like classic behavior modification – the 2012 version of “You better watch out, you better not cry.” You want a little peace in the house, and incentives can powerfully work to achieve that end. My wife and I did think about that; we talked about it before we took our little elf out of the box and went through the routine of introducing him, naming him as a family (“Felly” is his name), reading the book about him, and placing him in a spot where his view would be good. After all, we have an eight-year-old and a five-year-old: if we can just keep the yelling down in our house for even a few weeks, it’s worth having Felly as a house guest, right?

But there’s a problem. I have come to recognize a key error in the thought process that drives the Elf on the Shelf, or indeed any form of Christmas related behavior modification.

Because I spend part of my sermon prep time each week with ELCA Lutherans (and I thank God for it), I’ve become increasingly comfortable with the myriad uses of the concepts law and grace. I am at best an armchair theologian with respect to these ideas, but I find them creeping into my usual thought process these days.

Would it be fair to say that the Elf on the Shelf is an instance of the common cultural law around Christmas – the simple idea that in the end, behaving well gets us closer to the material reward we wanted all along? If that’s a fair assumption, then wouldn’t it also be true that while we would all love for our children to act better, holding to the party line about “naughty or nice” in just about any form is also an enactment of the common cultural law of Christmas? What do we risk gaining or losing when rewards for good behavior and punishments for poor behavior are the main concern of the approach to Christmas morning?

By contrast, what if the Elf on the Shelf became something different – something more grace-filled? If he weren’t saddled with a perspective of law, or was somehow freed from it, what might the elf Felly of the Lightcap home come to represent?

I’d been pondering this some yesterday, in a mostly unconscious way, when we had a little evening dust-up. The kids were tired and easily irritated, and one of them decided to expend what was left of her energy on the other one in an annoying sort of way. When the explosion occurred, I found myself marching all parties to where Felly was perched and noiselessly pointing to him. Appealing to policy, in other words. Appealing to the law.

The implication: “Felly is watching, and what you just did is going to whittle away at your chances for good presents.” The response: a mournful “I forgot.”

The question immediately and shamefully arose: Why would I possibly want to turn something cool and magical into an act of accounting? When the presents have already been bought? When I’m not really planning to hold things back on Christmas morning anyway? Why?

That little thought landed like a splinter in my conscience. By morning it was a full-on hammer.

Christmas is about the manifestation and incarnation of a God who loves us beyond measure or reason. A God who longs to mercifully tabernacle within the creation and does so. Do we revere that incarnation and seek to emulate it in our lives with gracious living, or do we ruthlessly attempt to measure it out and hoard it for ourselves, for the sake of convenience? “The quality of mercy is not strained,” Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice, and maybe that’s just another way of imaging Christmas.

[Mercy] droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest.

What I want to know today is, How is God going to use Felly to accomplish God’s good purposes in Advent? How will Felly help our family to further prepare a place within ourselves for God’s gracious presence to come and tabernacle and be announced? How will the Elf on the Shelf demand, cajole, invite us to deeper and deeper transformation and peace? What turns will we need to make in our family’s common life to see this graciousness at work?

Clearly, it’s a story yet to be completed. It will find itself in us and in our living the remainder of the season. I just know that I’m happy to suffer the inconvenience of the narrative having to be changed if it gets us all a little closer to the heart of Advent.

And yes, I do hope Felly’s watching that, too.

The Rev. Torey Lightcap is Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Sioux City, Iowa and on the adjunct staff of Episcopal Café.

Tweeting the good news (Tweevangelism)

By Walker Adams

I love Facebook. It is a great way for me to keep track of what is going on with my friends, find out who has a birthday, and see my cousins vacation pictures. As much as I love Facebook, I think I love Twitter more. Twitter brings me a constant source of news and information. It allows me to have conversations with people I may have met only once, or people I have never met at all (which is how this article even came about). What I love most about Twitter though is that following trending topics enables me to see what is going on around the world, and gives me a glimpse into what people around me think is important (or not). In short, it keeps me in touch with society.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was in our diocese (West Missouri) this week to celebrate the centennial celebration feast day of one of our parishes, St. Andrew’s. She preached about St. Andrew, evangelism, and compared various fishing techniques to spreading the gospel, encouraging us to find what bait attracts us and use it to fish for others. While I loved her sermon, and wholeheartedly agree with her, I fear we as Episcopalians spend less time fishing and more time keeping the aquarium.

Let me explain. Over the course of the last few days as I have been reflecting on the words of our Presiding Bishop in comparison to Bishop Kirk Smith’s sermon “Digital Bishop”. As a young Episcopalian I am disheartened, and not surprised, at statements like “80% of people looking for a church to attend for the first time, go to the internet, and yet only 20% of Episcopal churches have an active and up-to-date website.” or that “Of the 110 active bishops in this country, only six are on Twitter.” (Although I think Twitter informed me that a few have joined since this sermon was preached, thanks be to God). Growing up in a digital age with a digital mind frame, I do not understand why the church would attend to current culture from the pulpit and preach the gospel as it relates to war in the Middle East, or the greed and need associated with this time of year, but will not take the step to log into Twitter and hashtag #BlackFriday. I understand sometimes the aquarium needs attention, but eventually it also needs fish, and it seems foolish for us to wait for them to jump into our Episcopal tank.

So, my challenge to the church during advent is this: don’t waste your Advent waiting for Mary to give birth to Jesus. Instead, make your faith incarnate right here, right now. Log into Twitter, find a trending topic, and preach the gospel in an ocean where the fish are. Will you proclaim by word, tweet, and example the Good News in Christ Jesus?

Walker Adams (@walkeradams1) is a senior music education major at The Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. He is a member of St. Paul's Episcopal Church and Day School (@StPaulsKCMO) in The Diocese of West Missouri.

Advent: a holy and a broken hallelujah

by Sam Candler

Alan Light has written a book about my hero, Leonard Cohen, titled The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah.” Actually, the book is really about how the song “Hallelujah” (written by Leonard Cohen) became so powerful.

I have yet to read the book, but I will. In one way, I don’t need to read it, because I already know the song. The song is said to have been undiscovered until Jeff Buckley resurrected it; but I, and many other Leonard Cohen fans, sure knew it. We have heard Cohen himself sing it in different ways. He is said to have written some 80 verses of the song before deciding on the four that occur in his album, Various Positions (1985); he has sung others since. And whatever the number of verses, one of those verses will always be:

There's a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah!

Advent, and even Christmas, can be times for brokenness. Broken toys, for instance. There will be some broken toys this Christmastide, startling introductions for children to the way the rest of their lives will be.

Broken promises. Maybe it was a gift that you were promised last year. Maybe it was something you promised several months ago that you just cannot fulfill now. Broken plans. One family member wanted to visit one in-law, but the other family member had another in-law in mind. Maybe some illness prevented the perfect plan. “My water has broken,” she said. That means a birth is coming, doesn’t it? Advent is, indeed, about a birth coming, but something has to break first.

The season itself is broken, isn’t it? We don’t know whether we are supposed to be still lingering over Thanksgiving, or being joyful, or refraining from singing Christmas carols because it’s not really Christmas yet. Are we supposed to be happy now, or preparing for something else? We don’t know.

Well, in the midst of whatever has broken this December, let me assure you that something holy is here. In fact, the most holy pieces of our lives are often the most broken pieces. I mean our hearts, our lives, even our hopes and dreams. We’ve all lost things in our life’s journey. I believe that what makes a place holy is that we have lost something there; we have given up something. What makes a life holy is that it knows how to lose things. One reason graveyards are holy is because they represent lost lives. Churches are holy because we give up things there; I hope we give up our lives there.

The Hallelujah that emerges from brokenness is a holy Hallelujah; it is a genuine Hallelujah. That’s why the Book of Psalms is so full of Hallelujahs; those psalms are as much about sadness and loss as they are about hope and victory. They are holy.

So, don’t be afraid if something breaks this Advent, of even if you break something. That brokenness can be an occasion for holiness. It can be an occasion to sing Hallelujah. When Jesus came into the world so long ago, the world itself was overturned. Mary said “God has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” In fact, the power of sin was broken. The power of death was broken, simply in that miraculous birth. In the end, brokenness is the real reason we sing Hallelujah: the brokenness between God and humanity is healed! The division is made one. God is made flesh in Jesus Christ our Lord. Hallelujah!

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”.

Advent: History, mystery, majesty

by Laurie Gudim

The whole of Luke 21 is Jesus talking about floods and famines, wars and insurrections, earthquakes and betrayals. He finishes up with the terrible poetry of today’s reading: there will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars and on the earth, distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding. The powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then the Son of Man will come in a cloud with power and great glory.

I have to confess that I don’t know what to make of all this. But, then, neither did the first followers of Jesus, who thought all these things would take place in their lifetime. And neither have subsequent generations, including our own, because we keep seeing the end times in the disasters in the world around us. Every time something big and cataclysmic happens we think maybe it’s the end. You’d think we’d learn after 2,000 years, and just let the idea go – chalk it up to a misinterpretation of what Jesus said, or maybe to the early church putting words in Jesus’ mouth. But we don’t. And maybe we don’t for a reason.

Advent is the season in which we focus on being ready, being prepared. It is an invitation to try to live in the present moment, awake and alert. This is important because living in the present moment makes us aware of how we always rest in God. Behind all our doings is the deep being-ness of our union with the Holy. And also, being aware in our moments gives us the opportunity to meet Christ in our interactions with others. Each word we speak and each action we take can welcome Christ or ignore him.

I have a saying taped to the dashboard of my car: “Live these transitory moments in light of the eternity at the end.” It’s from an ancient Chinese book of wisdom, and it reminds me to pay attention to the present moment instead of worrying about the past or the future. Each of the moments we live out is part of a tapestry we cannot undo or reclaim. In each moment we have the opportunity for creativity or anxiety, to focus on our relationship with God or on our ego needs.

Advent preparation is for the Coming of Christ. Every week as part of our Eucharist we repeat three sentences in one form or another. They are the core of our belief, a kind of pared down creed, and they place us squarely in a world belonging to and run by God. They make an excellent Advent meditation, and I want to recommend them to you for that purpose.

We say, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Or we say, “We remember his death. We proclaim his resurrection. We await his coming in glory.”

As one young biblical scholar I read put it, it’s about history, mystery and majesty.

My daughter has a new boyfriend, R.J., whom I met at Thanksgiving. He’s a coal miner. Furthermore, he likes being a coal miner. For him it’s the most meaningful work in the world. So of course my daughter prepped him before we arrived. “Don’t mention Obama,” she cautioned.

But we were both up at 5 am one morning as he was getting ready to go to work, and we happened to fall into a conversation in which we could really talk to one another. Sure enough, we don’t agree on anything. Pick a topic: abortion, world peace, race relations, economics, politics, and of course religion. We live our lives in very different ways, value very different things.

Even so, there is one most important thing we agree on. Thinking about how afraid he has been about the economy – he has survived two major lay offs at his company in the last 6 months – he said, “I guess I’ve just decided that I’m in God’s hands. So whatever happens will be all right. Whatever happens, God’ll be in it with me.” “I feel the same way,” I said. “Yes.”

This is the history part of “history, mystery and majesty”. Christ has died. We have a God who put on human flesh and walked among us on our planet, right here, where we could touch and hear him. Anything we can experience, God has experienced also, first hand. Pain. Loss of control. Grief. Hunger. God’s very nature is forever transformed, from the beginning of time to the end of the world, by the event of Jesus. God lived, tented among us. And so God is with us always because God has been with us in the most concrete way. Remembering that, we can live more securely in all our moments, because God is there with us.

The mystery part of history, mystery and majesty is that Christ is risen and death has not prevailed. Death – all death – physical, emotional, psychic – is transcended by the mysterious aliveness of Christ, a presence that transforms us all the time, here and now – transforms all our deaths. Jesus enters our hearts, like yeast in dough or weeds in a plowed field.

Years ago a friend of mine was feeling kind of depressed. “I should do more,” she said. “But I just can’t find anything in me that wants to.”

“Don’t do more,” I suggested. “Do less. Just talk to God. Complain. Whenever you think of it, just turn your attention to God and complain.

After a few weeks I saw her again. I could tell right away she had more energy. “I tried that talking to God,” she told me.

“Oh?” I said.

“It was interesting,” she said. “But maybe I didn’t do it enough or something. It didn’t really do much good.”

“You seem livelier somehow, though,” I observed.

“Well, yeah,” she said. “A few days ago I saw an article in the paper where Orville was asking for volunteers.” Orville was the owner and operator of the local shelter and food bank. “I decided to go check it out. And helping over there kind of gets me out of myself and gives me more energy.”

“That’s wonderful,” I said. “And wonderful, too, that you saw the article and went and tried it. A couple of weeks ago you didn’t want to do anything.”

We mused on that for awhile. Then she said, “I suppose I wouldn’t have gone if I hadn’t been complaining to God. It was kind of like a challenge. Like, because I’d been complaining, it was somehow, ‘try this, smarty pants.’ So I went and did.”

Prayer is a very dangerous thing. It invites the Jesus-perspective – that death-transforming, life-changing, topsy-turvy point of view – into our most intimate hearts. Then before we know it we are thinking and acting in new ways. We’re heading off to Palestine or sleeping with the homeless as part of Faith Family Hospitality, giving away our money and our time, embarking on new creative projects – feeling loved for heaven sakes – and somehow secure in the midst of the wildest insecurity. The power of the risen Christ transforms our moments.

And that brings us to the majesty part of history, mystery and majesty. Christ will come again. We say this every week. What do we mean by it? For me, today, it means that the entire world will one day be wholly transformed. It will become the manifestation of God’s dream for it. God’s majesty, Christ’s majesty will become apparent. Personally I do not see this happening through great cataclysmic disasters. I think it will manifest as a change of consciousness, an understanding that transcends the little ego divisions we create. But what do I really know? I am just one tiny human being.

What Jesus says in today’s Gospel is: when terrifying things take place in the world, stand up and raise your heads, for your redemption is drawing near. And redemption here means being claimed – grabbed like a coat from the hat check counter after the concert. “This one is mine.” In the face of all horrible things, personal or universal, this can be our response: that we belong to God. We are part of God’s creation, and we have God’s signature written in our DNA. We can be present to all our moments without worry. We are claimed.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. History, mystery and majesty. May your Advent preparation be fruitful and holy, and may you stand in your moments fully aware, knowing you are a beloved child of God. Amen.

*thanks to Working Preacher for Bible scholarship.

Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. She will soon manage a website for the Diocese of Colorado highlighting congregations' creative ministries.

Meeting the Messiah

by Linda Ryan

Rabbi Yoshua ben Levi asked Elijah the prophet, "When will Messiah come?"

Elijah replied, "Go and ask him yourself."

"Where is he?"

"Sitting at the gates of the city."

"How shall I know him?"

"He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. But he unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself, 'Perhaps I shall be needed: if so I must be always be ready so as not to delay for a moment." (1)

I like stories. They serve two functions, one is to entertain, the other to educate. Somehow it's easier to remember lessons when they are couched in a story that is easily remembered, perhaps not the itty-bitty details but rather the general gist. Stories like Jesus' parables are like that, and so are many in the book from which this story is taken, the Talmud.

The story focuses on one particular question: when will the Messiah come? Christians and Jews have been asking that for thousands of years. For Christians, the messiah came in approximately the year 4 BCE and left approximately 33 years later, but who is expected to return again at some point in time. For Jews, they're still waiting -- but then, as Elijah told the rabbi, the messiah was already here. Uh, yeah. Where? Didn't see any royal parades with horses and chariots, trumpets blaring fanfares and adoring crowds lining the street, shoving and elbowing each other for even the briefest glimpse of the one for whom they had waited for millennia, the heir to the throne of David and the ruler of the earth. No wonder Rabbi Yoshua had to ask how he was to find the messiah. Sitting at the gates of the city? That didn't sound very messiah-like. Lots of people sat at the gates of the city for all kinds of reasons, so how was the rabbi to know which one was the right person? Simple, Elijah assured him. Look at the lepers and see who is acting differently than all the rest. And the point of acting differently? To be almost immediately ready to answer a call? A call to do what?

There's the question. What's a messiah and who needs him anyway? Christians see the messiah a savior -- an innocent being, divine in origin, who sacrifices himself to redeem sinners. Jews, however, look for a mashiach, an anointed human being who will be a great military leader, a king, and a judge. He will restore Israel, its temple and temple practices, and its legal system to include not just Jews but gentiles as well. Tradition says he will come at one of two times: when the world needs him the most or when the world has achieved restoration and equality for all. It would be entirely possible for the mashiach to be found among the lepers -- or among the Pharisees. What matters is that he is God's appointed, not his social or political standing.

The crux of the story is that the mashiach is one of the people yet different from them. As a leper, instead of unwrapping all his sores at once, he unwraps them one at a time, lest someone need him and he would have to tarry to rewrap the ravaged flesh before answering the call. It's sort of like Jesus' parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt. 25:1-13). The foolish ones used up their oil early on, while the wise ones saved theirs until the proper moment for action. Each story, though, seems to wait for the right moment, the call, to do what is required or necessary or most beneficial. It's a sense of intention -- doing things deliberately rather than hastily - and in so doing, aren't so caught up in the action that the call can't be heard or felt.

So how does the story end?

So he went to him and greeted him, saying, 'Peace be upon thee, Master and Teacher.' 'Peace be upon thee, O son of Levi,' he replied. 'When will thou come, Master?' asked he. 'Today' was his answer." When the Messiah failed to appear that day, a deeply disappointed Joshua returned to Elijah with the complaint: "He spoke falsely to me, stating that he would come today, but has not!" Elijah then enlightened him that the Messiah had really quoted Scripture (Ps. 95:7): "Today, if ye hearken to His voice." (2)

So it looks like I have a job to do not just today but every day, really a two-fold job: to look and to listen, not just to the pundits but to the normally voiceless ones. Hmmm. Maybe I should also change my mental bandages one at a time instead of trying to do them all at once. Now comes the trick --actually doing it.

(1) Quoted in Nouwen, Henri with Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird, Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith. (2006) New York: HarperCollinsPublishers (128).

(2) Found at Sacred Texts

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

Taking Care of Clergy in the Storm

by The Rev. Scott Petersen

The Episcopal Church, along with all denominations are experiencing a multifaceted storm. There are two swirling cells of energy that have been butting up against each other. The first cell is God’s call to be faithful. The church is faced with a profound call to share the Gospel in new ways that will reach a people unaware of the beauty and power of Christ. The second cell is a decline in our institutional capacity. The church is a body of people formed into faith through structures and expectations that may no longer be sustainable.

Into those colliding cells enter the clergy. In many places the call of the church of the future is slamming into the church of the past. A systemic conflict is hiding amongst what looks to be situational difficulties. Some churches will ignore the call of the future. Some churches will navigate the vortex created by the two successfully. Some will not. As one would imagine, some clergy have been and will continue to be chewed up in these forces.

As the Episcopal Church enters further into a time when what clergy need to do to help develop thriving parishes, runs up against what has always been done in parishes resistant to change, it can be the clergy who are pushed out into the storm. While we may not be able to predict where individual clergy will get caught in this systemic difficulty, we can take steps to care for clergy who experience it. The call of this article is for the church to begin to recognize this systemic difficulty and to prepare for it by finding ways to support clergy caught in this crossfire.

There is evidence for this ongoing storm. The March (2012) issue of The Review of Religious Research shared some disturbing statistics. In an ecumenical study of clergy it was found that 28% of all clergy will experience a “forced resignation” some time in their career. In the Huffington Post David Briggs article, Silent Clergy Killers, Briggs writes about that 28%. He writes of those clergy,

“(as having) been forced to leave their jobs due to personal attacks and criticism from a small faction of their congregations. The researchers from Texas Tech University and Virginia Tech University also found that the clergy who had been forced out were more likely to report lower levels of self-esteem and higher levels of depression, stress and physical health problems.”

Anecdotally most clergy can tell a story of a colleague who has faced such a hardship. Briggs article goes on to reveal an equally difficult statistic. Of that 28% who experience a forced resignation, 4 out of 10 of that group will leave the ministry outright. “Want to know what that means in real numbers? Dr. Charles Chandler, head of Ministering to Ministers ( in Richmond, Va., asked Briggs. “It means across denominations 19,000 clergy a year will experience a ‘forced resignation.’” If four out of 10 are leaving active ministry as a result of such an experience that means approximately 7,600 clergy a year will abandon what was a living, beating call to serve the church. That is a huge number. In the most recent Ministering to Minister’s retreat, Dr. Chandler reported 5 of the 12 clergy in attendance were Episcopal clergy. Our denomination is not the only one being affected by this but, we are being affected. When difficulty cannot be resolved in the parish, the easiest solution is that the clergy person goes. In speaking with a bishop about this issue he said regretfully, “Clergy in this situation are expendable.”

It may be the parish is to blame, the clergy is to blame, the diocese to blame or most likely, some combination that involve all of the above. Blame, while convenient, does not heal. Whatever the reason for the separation, the separation causes pain across the board. As both bishop and parish are rooted in geography, the current structures of systemic support tend to favor recovery for the parish. While this author advocates support for parishes so they too might grow and heal out of these murky and difficult situations, the focus of this article is on getting clergy the help they need.

Episcopalians already invest an incredible amount of time, money, and discernment in the formation of our clergy. It seems a huge waste of time, talent, and treasure to see clergy, following their investment in formation, so beat up coming out of a “bad fit” that they leave the ministry convinced they have failed. Instead of blaming and potentially stigmatizing clergy for these systemic issues, we need to recognize we are in a storm and begin to offer resources to those affected clergy and their families. Instead of losing these priests we should be thinking how these men and women may be gaining an incredible formation experience. Help them recover and you gain a seasoned resource.

Recognizing that the systemic problem exists is a start, but only a start. Priests coming out of such situations want to do ministry yet often have to recover before anyone will be interested in them for future ministry. They want to know they are not pariahs. They need help in finding a way forward. CREDO, which provides a holistic approach to the health and wellness of Episcopal clergy in an eight-day retreat-based program, may have already laid the foundation on how we might go forward to address this need. For some time now CREDO has been involved in situational issues and tasked with helping priests recover from traumatic situations.

In 2005, Katrina hit the gulf coast. In response to the devastation and the long-term difficulty that clergy and lay leaders were faced with trying to help their communities recover, CREDO responded by offering “Weathering the Storm.” In 2010 after the earthquake crippled Haiti, CREDO shared “Strength for the Journey” to the leadership seeking to recover and live out of the national disaster there. Each program was designed to gather individuals together to remind them of their call, help them recover and find light in the midst of a difficult and challenging time. Hoping to bring the same type of recovery to the Dioceses living out of schism, The Presiding Bishop charged CREDO to prepare and then offer “Strength for the Journey” to the leadership in the re-organized Diocese’s of Pittsburg, San Joaquin, Fort Worth, and Quincy. CREDO in this capacity is not a fix. It is a resource that lifts, supports, and re-orients.

If we are called to lift, support, re-orient individuals who come to our churches, should we not do the same for our clergy? In each of the preceding situations CREDO was able to address a situation not experienced by the entire church, but offer resources and aid to clergy coming through such challenges. Could not this same CREDO model be provided for clergy coming out of difficult calls?

We do have a biblical model for leadership emerging out of failure. Some would argue that Peter’s ministry did not begin when Christ called him on the shores of Galilee, but that Peter’s ministry really began following the resurrection. They argue that Peter’s ministry began when Christ came to Peter after his three-fold denial. Peter in turn was tried through challenge, failure, and then, in response to acceptance rather than condemnation, found his true call as a result of it. Failure, when viewed in this way, is not an end, but an essential piece of formation.

In a time where the winds of change might result in an increase of “forced resignations” before we see a decrease, wouldn’t it be wise leadership to care for our wounded along the way? We may not know where or when the storm will touch down again but we do know it will. It seems prudent to be prepared for it when it does.

By de-stigmatizing failure and recognizing that systematic challenges lie ahead, CREDO may, if charged to the task, be poised to offer the following to clergy caught up in this crossfire: a respite period with others in order for the individual or family to discover that he or she is not alone; trained facilitators who have grown out of such circumstances; tools in order to recover; a safe environment to learn from challenging circumstances; the opportunity to begin building support networks; and guidance and mentoring toward how he or she might re-integrate back into ministry. This ministry does not yet exist formally, yet. The needed groundwork, however, is there.

If clergy are supposed to be wounded healers, as popularized by Henri Nowen, then shouldn’t we strive to help our clergy walk through it when they are? We should not shoot our wounded by leaving clergy adrift following what can be very complex circumstances. As Jesus lovingly looked at Peter following Peter’s failure on Good Friday, and encouraged Peter to feed His sheep, I urge that we, as Christ’s body in the world take some concrete systemic steps to do the same.

This article is the outcome of numerous conversations with leaders around the church in the last five months As I grow in ministry to hurting clergy I would welcome conversation from any priest who has experienced or is currently experiencing some of the situations described in the article.

The Rev. Scott Petersen graduated VTS in '07 and served in the Diocese of SE Florida. He currently serves in the Diocese of Western North Carolina. To contact him about this article email at

The next Presiding Bishop

by George Clifford

If someone asked me for a two word, thumbnail sketch of The Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop (PB) and her two immediate predecessors, I’d respond:

• Ed Browning: Justice advocate
•Frank Griswold: Prayerful spirit
•Katharine Jefferts Schori: Gifted helmswoman

I’m confident that other Episcopalians, if asked the same question, would offer different thumbnail sketches of these three TEC (The Episcopal Church) Chief Pastors and Primates. That’s not surprising. Personal experience, individual knowledge, and encounters (actual or virtual) all shape our impressions of another person. Furthermore, no person – absolutely no one – is reducible to a single phrase. Thumbnail sketches dangerously lend themselves to caricatures, which if not offered in good humor and with genuine respect can convey an acidic attack upon a person’s dignity, worth, and competence.

However, the advantage to setting a complex job description in its historical context and then summarizing both context and performance in a single phrase is that the phrase can provide helpful clarity about who a person is and the primary gift or emphasis that she or he brings (or brought) to the position.

Under the Most Rev. Ed Browning’s leadership, TEC continued the process, which began prior to his incumbency, of transforming this denomination into a more inclusive organization that rightly stresses the gospel’s ramifications for individuals and societies in the present. During the Most Rev. Frank Griswold’s tenure, TEC focused on creating a healthy balance between spiritual and worldly concerns. I especially remember his efforts to heal division and animosity in the House of Bishops during a very tumultuous period.

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori has sought to turn our focus to the future. She has encouraged us to face our numerical and financial declines, to adopt a more nimble, leaner structure (a task that should be well underway by the next General Convention), and to resolve the conflicts spawned over the last three decades. The recent Diocese of South Carolina’s declaration of secession quite likely represents the final, and based on outcomes elsewhere, presumably futile attempt by a diocese to withdraw from TEC. Apart from that one diocese, the 2012 General Convention’s adoption of trial rites for blessing same sex relationships happened with little visible angst. Although unanimity does not, and never will, exist, most of the people – lay and clergy – who cannot live with our present diversity and directions have already opted to leave. May God bless them – far from us.

Because of the ministries of these godly Primates, TEC is by many measures a much healthier, stronger, and faithful Church than it was fifty years ago. Our numerical and financial struggles, as much as anything, stem from the body of Christ freeing itself from unchristian social shackles and from the need for our organizational structure to keep pace with social change (for more on these subjects, cf. Episcopal Church Finances, Part 2: The Story the Budget Tells, and Rethinking Episcopal Church Structure Part II).

Adopting a nautical metaphor, TEC has cleared her decks for action. We’re ready to get on with the mission of being God's people in the world, working to make God's kingdom a reality. To accomplish that goal, using words adapted from Esther 4:14, what type of person with what agenda should we call in a time such as this to be our next Presiding Bishop?

Now is the time for this conversation. The Joint Nominating Committee for the Election of the Presiding Bishop is just beginning its work. The next PB, sine qua non, should be a godly person of deep spirituality, great ministerial gifts, respecter of the dignity and worth of all people, and a person being formed in the image of Christ. Since all potential nominees are already TEC bishops, I prayerfully presume that all of them – or at least the vast preponderance of them – satisfy those criteria. Yet their individual spiritualties and spiritual journeys vary widely; these criteria are too broad to provide much help in identifying particular nominees, let alone a final selection.

Similarly, the PB’s job description (found in Canon 2) is sufficiently broad to cover a wide variety of circumstances and leadership styles. For example, that job description has suitably encompassed the diverse ministries of Bishops Browning, Griswold, and Jefferts Schori. In other words, the job description offers no constructive specifics for those tasked with selecting the next PB. Most of our bishops could adequately perform these tasks, each in her or his unique style and with her or his unique personal emphases.

So, what do we want in our next PB? What combination of gifts, skills, and personality is God calling TEC to raise up as the next PB for this season in the Church’s life? The nine years from 2015-2024 will include several obvious challenges: completing the resolution of lawsuits and other actions in response to bishops, dioceses, and parishes that have sought to leave TEC in a manner that violates the canons; completing the restructuring now in its formative stages; and restoring TEC’s financial health. Concurrently, with the enthronement of a new Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Communion’s uncertain future has become even more difficult to discern.

However, an even more basic, more vital challenge should define the next PB’s ministry. TEC has a vision of its mission and ministry: to be the twenty-first century Anglican expression of the body of Christ in the United States (and affiliated overseas dioceses), incarnating an inclusive, radical hospitality that contributes to establishing God's reign on earth. We’ve struggled over the last few decades to articulate that vision and there are various formulations of it, some more eloquent than mine is. Yet wide agreement about that vision of our mission and ministry exists, as evidenced by the ability of this year’s General Convention to act on several potentially divisive issues while maintaining a spirit of cooperation, unity in the midst of diversity, and fidelity to our historic Anglican distinctives. TEC has also initiated internal steps toward establishing the organizational structure and health to live into that vision more effectively (achieving its mission) and efficiently (with the fewest possible resources).

What TEC needs is a PB whose inspirational leadership, building on predecessors’ accomplishments, will enlist an ever-growing number of Episcopal bishops, dioceses, clergy, parishes, and laity in the exciting ministry and mission of living into our vision. This next Chief Pastor should not be primarily an organizer (++Jefferts Schori has most ably set the needed work in motion), nor a healer (we are blessed with continuing benefits from ++Griswold’s legacy), nor a prophet (++Browning’s ministry firmly committed us to justice with love). Instead, we need to turn our eyes from an internal focus on self and organization to an outward focus on a hurting, desperately hungry world.

The English word inspire has its etymological roots in the Middle English verb to blow into. Breath and wind are both metaphors for God's spirit. Dwight Eisenhower famously defined leadership as, "the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it." An inspirational leader motivates people to live into God's vision for their individual and collective lives.

As an inspirational leader, The Episcopal Church’s next Presiding Bishop will spend his or her tenure communicating our vision to TEC and the world, and inspiring us to live heartily and fully into our vision. Everything else that needs doing – including the important tasks of finishing organizational restructuring, balancing budgets, negotiating Anglican Communion changes, etc. – is secondary and, as much as possible, delegated to others. The PB, borrowing a Presidential metaphor, has a bully pulpit. Bishop Jefferts Schori, an excellent communicator, has made good use of that platform. The next PB, an inspirational leader called by God for a time such as this, should concentrate her or his ministry almost entirely on that filling that bully pulpit, freed to do so by delegation and building on predecessors’ ministries.

TEC is at a critical juncture. Are we going to die? Or, are we going to continue to play an important role in God's work? I don’t believe that TEC has reached the winter of its demise. I am excited about our vision and the steps we have taken to incarnate that vision. Selecting an inspirational leader as our next Presiding Bishop will, I hopefully and prayerfully believe, usher in a new season of fruitfulness for us and for this Church.

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

Day 2 Jesse Tree: Eve

So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
‘This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken.’
-- Genesis 2:21-23 NRSV

"It's all your fault!"

Whether Eve was created at the same time as Adam (per Gen. 1:27) or, as in this passage, from Adam's rib, Eve was meant to be an equal, a co-worker, a partner. This was her function, her purpose, but one little slip --- and women have been paying for it ever since.

I have difficulty blaming Eve for all the evil in the world, or even for listening to a talking snake. God created humans with a brain -- but did God also give them all the knowledge they would need in order to totally function not only in a new environment but also a new relationship with God Godself? Was this some sort of trial balloon, to see how far humans could be led before they made a mistake? After all, God made human beings, not junior gods.

Eve has taken the rap all these thousands and thousands of years, and so have her daughters. To restore the earth, at least a good part of it, through tikkun olam, those daughters have to resume (and be allowed to resume) their rightful place as equals and as partners, not as slaves, second-class, kept-barefoot-and-pregnant or kinder, kirche, kuche (children, church and kitchen). They have contributions to make, and they must be allowed to make them.

My lesson from this? What do I need to do to help my sisters around the world who don't have the opportunities to be the helpmates they were created to be?

Work together.

To follow each day go to Jericho's Daughter blog.

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

Day 1 Jesse Tree: Adam

[T]hen the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. - Genesis 2:7 NRSV

Advent is probably my favorite time of year. I love the hymns, the readings, the anticipation of it, looking forward to Christmas without being in Christmas, in a manner of speaking. While stores and even a lot of churches have started in with Christmas carols (in the case of some stores, the trees and lights have been on display since before Halloween!), we tend to decorate for Christmas but pray in Advent expectation. It's a good way to be.

One of my favorite ways to run up to Christmas is by contemplating what is called the "Jesse Tree," 25 steps that introduce the people who were the spiritual ancestors of Jesus, whether direct members of his family tree (like David and Abraham and Sarah, among others) or spiritual ones like several of the prophets and the actions by which they contributed to Biblical history. As is in all stories and journeys, and advent is a journey, there has to be a beginning, and where would this particular journey begin except at the story of creation and the first of Jesus' ancestors, Adam.

It all began with Adam. Adam was the top of the pile, the culmination of God's creation, the one part of creation upon which God pronounced that " was very good." Adam, whether created by word or by God's clay-molding fingers, was the inheritor of the earth and all that was in it. Intended to be a companion to God, or so it seems, it felt like Adam was, as Paul said, " made... a little lower than the angels" although Paul might not have really made that particular connection, I think.

God created a perfect human being, even breathed God's own breath into his lungs despite the feet that remained planted on the clay from which the body was made. How apt that is, since many, many of our heroes have seemed to have God's blessings rained upon them liberally yet mess things up and remind those same people who put them on a pedestal that the heroic one had very real feet of clay.

Still, Adam is the beginning of many things, including our own salvation history and the story leading up to a stable or cave in Bethlehem generations and miles (and, in our case, days) later. What can I learn from Adam? Even the most blessed are only one decision, one footstep away from disaster.

Tread carefully.

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

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