Changing the world through liturgy

by Linda Ryan

In one of my Education for Ministry (EfM) groups we’ve been asked to think about liturgy and its place in our lives and ministries. I've found that I really know a lot less about it than I thought I did, and am less able to articulate what it is and what I believe about it as well.

I’ve been involved in the church for many years and in two denominations. I would have said that the church of my childhood was not “liturgical” while the Episcopal church is highly so, and I would have been wrong. What I have begun to realize is that liturgy is not merely a formal style of religion, although that can be a form of it, but rather the way people worship which differs from denomination to denomination and sometimes from church to church within a single denomination. Liturgy is about people: work, community, service and worship. The word itself is a combination of two Greek words meaning “people” and “work”, combining the two to mean either work for or by the people.

I mostly think of liturgy within the church, the rites and rituals done in community or even individually. I was surprised when discussing liturgy with an American Baptist friend some years ago. I mentioned that ours was a “liturgical” church, thinking of liturgy as the order and method of worship as we do in the Episcopal church, but she corrected me. “We are a liturgical church too.” What it boiled down to was that worship was done in a particular order and way, whether one used something like the Book of Common Prayer or not equals liturgy. Both churches used hymns, prayer, readings, a sermon and something invitational – whether an invitation to accept Jesus as a personal savior or an invitation to join in the Eucharistic meal. I can even participate in a liturgy when I read compline or join in prayers and conversation like we do in our EfM groups.

Liturgies cover all manner of things, cyclical ones like Easter, Christmas, the church seasons and the daily prayers from the BCP. They can also cover what are called crisis liturgies, those liturgies that mark a change in state or status of an individual, group or nation. When I think of crisis liturgies, I think of those that were done after 9/11, Blue Christmas liturgies or anointing when someone is in extremis and facing death. There are liturgies for traumatic events and liturgies for joyous ones. I don’t normally think of baptisms, weddings, ordinations, consecrations, confirmations or matriculations as crises, but they do mark changes in state or status. There are inward changes and outward changes, but all represent and mark milestones in the life of a person, group, church, nation or world.

Crisis liturgies have come to be very important to me, specifically the liturgy of healing. About three weeks after I received a diagnosis of breast cancer, I attended my annual EfM mentor training for recertification. It was good to see folks I hadn’t seen for a year and who I’d gotten to know over the past four years of training sessions. I was still rather foggy-headed about the diagnosis and it was never too far from my mind but I didn’t tell anyone in the group until we started to plan for the final Eucharist of the seminar. I spoke to the trainer privately, asking if it were possible to incorporate a service of healing in the liturgy, but to do it without drawing attention to my situation as I wasn’t totally comfortable with asking for prayers or speaking about the diagnosis. To make a long story short, it was incorporated and everyone was anointed by the trainer before we each gave each other the bread and the cup of communion. It was a powerful experience, one which finally allowed me to thank the group and to be open about my new state as a cancer patient. It certainly was a crisis liturgy in my mind, even though I didn’t really remember that it would be classified as such. I experienced a second one a couple of weeks later in an online mentor training seminar, and it was even more powerful. It was certainly an experiment, and even though the formula of the liturgy was fairly familiar (with a few changes), the idea of doing an anointing in a venue that is usually perceived as impersonal, somewhat anonymous and certainly remote was novel. I don’t know how it happened, but honestly, what I felt during that liturgy was almost indescribable. And the effects lasted for several days. Again, a crisis liturgy definitely had the effect of changing my state of mind and acceptance of my state, thanks to my fellow mentors and their brainstorming, willingness and creativity in adapting a familiar liturgy to work in an unusual setting.

Liturgy seems to be about doing things as well as changing status or state. It is a definite yet sometimes fluid way of doing worship, but it is also about building community among those gathered together to participate in a common activity and for the common good. This form of liturgy isn’t limited to worship but rather is more like putting worship to work to accomplish something other than a good feeling after an hour or so on Sunday morning or occasionally helping at a food bank or homeless shelter.

To carry the work of liturgy into the world sometimes takes creativity as well. There are stories of the imposition of ashes on public transit station platforms, prayers and anointing on public sidewalks, and ecumenical services held involving groups who normally would not meet together for an event surrounded by a religious aura. People seem surprised that those liturgies have an impact on just ordinary people who might not have darkened a church door for some time. But then, what if the idea of liturgy were expanded to encompass all the work of the people – working for environmental health, good stewardship of the earth and its resources, humane treatment for both animals and human beings, equality in the workplace as well as in the home and church, promoting the safety and welfare of our children, affordable and available health care for all, especially the elderly and those with infirmities, and a whole list of other things that would fall under what could be called a liturgy of kingdom work, making the kingdom of God here on this earth and in our lifetimes.

Liturgy confined behind church doors benefits those who are also behind church doors. Liturgy done for a greater good in a larger arena benefits many, many more. Liturgy, the work of the people, needs to come out of the church and into the world, and the only way that can be done is with the intention of the people to change things, to make things better for all people and, above all, to build God’s kingdom. I need to consider for myself what liturgy I can take into the world and how I can make even a very small contribution to the kingdom work. That, I believe, will be a work of change – and for the better for all concerned.

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

Reason, Nature, Experience and Data, and What's So

by Donald Schell

Part II. more on the “three-legged stool”

I just read four very different books in quick succession that each seemed to add something to the question of how we know the truth, how much truth we can know, and how we blind ourselves to the truth when we do that instead of knowing it.
As I read, I kept asking myself –

What is reason?

How do we test conclusions or trust the value of anything we do?

Whose witness do we trust?

Why do we listen to one another?

In their very different ways and considering very different material, the four books each contributed to a practice of reasoned reflection that values evidence, that’s holistic, and that is inevitably relational.

The New Atheists in their arguments with doctrinaire theology would reduce all religious discourse to irrationality. Richard Dawkins and other of the New Atheists appear anecdotally in Rupert Sheldrake’s Science Set Free, 10 Paths to New Discovery. Sheldrake is a distinguished British biologist. Some of the New Atheists are his scientific colleagues. And he faults them for lack of scientific rigor or genuine inquiry.

Sheldrake argues that science in the public forum (and the simple matter of what research gets funded) reduce complex questions and working hypotheses to matters of doctrine. In his book and in several lectures and papers he’s offered around the book, Sheldrake sketches the ten “dogmas” -
Sheldrake, a well-established research biologist, challenges ten scientific dogmas –

- that nature is mechanical
- that matter is unconscious
- that the laws of nature are fixed
- that the total amount of matter and energy is constant
- that nature is purposeless
- that biological inheritance is material
- that memories are stored as material traces in the brain
- that the mind is in the brain
- that telepathy and other psychic phenomena are illusory and
- that mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.

With each of these ten “dogmas,” some scientists will tell you that these ten items are certainties (or if they say “virtual certainties,” they seem to mean that they ought not be questioned). Challenging each “dogma,” Sheldrake offers solid experimental evidence, data, that simply asks us to reconsider (frame experiments to gather more data) whether these ten fixed principles are actually true. And Sheldrake insists that scientific knowledge (and knowledge’s useful partners in admitted scientific ignorance and in scientific curiosity) loses its legitimacy when it refuses to reconsider settled principle where new data doesn’t fit and can’t be interpreted away. Sheldrake reminds us that a scientific method of inquiry must remain constantly open to – experience - new observations, new data that ask to be included and integrated into the conversation and made part of the next moment’s knowing.

While Sheldrake had me thinking about reason, reasoning and how we know, and, (from a faith perspective) continuing respect for what we don’t know, I heard Maureen Corrigan’s NPR review of Henry Wiencek’s book, Master of the Mountain, Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves.

Wiencek writes a well-documented intellectual biography that addresses again the question of the great Enlightenment teacher and theoretician of Freedom being a slaveholder and active apologist of slavery among his slaveholding peers. Jefferson’s best writing is electrifying and his vision for valuing all humanity in freedom a legacy for which we can be grateful. His reasoning seemed inconsistent on the issue (and practice) of slavery. Listening to the review, I thought, this is the same Jefferson who spent his evenings in the White House crafted a Jesus who made more sense to him but cutting and editing the Gospels with scissors and tape. I was eager to read the troubling evidence of the teacher of Freedom’s practice as a slave-owner to see how he squared his thinking and eloquent writing about Freedom with his practice as “Master of the Mountain,” the owner, builder and director of Monticello. What do “sense” and Reason mean if we listen deeply to Jefferson and watch him at work?

Wiencek’s book shows a man whose careful thinking can offer us elegant prose and well-argued progressive opinions in one discourse and rationalize completely different policy and counsel in another discourse. What he says depends on who he’s talking to. To his New England colleagues among the Founders of the nation and his French Enlightenment friends, Jefferson spoke of the glories of freedom and lamented how much he abhorred slavery. Jefferson’s passionate advocacy of freedom and democracy originally led him to write a whole abolitionist section into the Declaration of Independence. Inheriting many slaves (some of them mixed race descendants of his father-in-law) and managing a great estate touched Jefferson’s thinking. He continued to be a theoretician of freedom in political discourse in America and in Europe, but, as a practical slaver, he claimed African-ancestry slaves couldn’t be taught significant skills and were unable to take care of themselves, even though he also boasted that his cook and cabinetmaker (and others of his slaves) were probably the most skilled in America. To his fellow slave owners, Jefferson was a theoretician and apologist for slavery. When a young neighboring landowner resolved to sell his holdings, free the slaves, and journey with them to Ohio where he’d buy land for himself and each of them, Jefferson tried desperately to dissuade him.

The book is a painful but fascinating read. Reason and rationalization live in close alliance. I was reading to understand more of the Enlightenment’s understanding of Reason. For Jefferson at least, the logic and rationality the Enlightenment proclaimed our highest function allowed him as a slave-owner to live in luxury tended by his wife’s enslaved half-siblings and his own offspring. What trapped him in contradiction wasn’t a failure of thought but a failure of heart. He couldn’t acknowledge the giftedness of his own children or love them as a father and keep them enslaved. So he closed his heart. Like of any of us, what Jefferson knew “by reason” could silence moral reflection and self-scrutiny when we fail to think (as Parker Palmer frames it) “with the mind in the heart.”

So, is “thinking with the mind in the heart” advocating for pure intuition, for letting feelings define our moral thinking? No, the useful question is what kinds of thinking (and “kinds” is deliberately plural) free us from prejudice and folly.

My wife works for an International NGO doing HIV/AIDS work in Africa. We’re familiar with the question of whether foreign assistance actually contributes to positive change. Partly, the answer rests with the heart and morals – “we’ve got to try!” Data does seem to support real change, at least sometimes, but some efforts prove massively ill-conceived and misdirected. Sometimes foreign assistance causes bigger problems than it solves. How do we know how to act? Unexpectedly those were exactly the questions I heard Abjihit Banerjee and Ester Duflo addressing on NPR’s program, Planet Money.

Banerjee and Duflo are Harvard and M.I.T. economists. Their book, which I’m now grateful to have read, is, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. Like Rupert Sheldrake, they argue for testing results against data. The questions they’re addressing are questions of doing good. What kinds of help actually give people the means to improve the quality of their lives? Is micro-lending effective? Does it unleash the entrepreneurial genius of the poor? If it’s effective, what are its limitations? Should we invest in education of the poor? What makes kids stay in school beyond a year or two? Just how does education make a difference? Like Sheldrake, they’re writing in territory that’s dense with dogma – economists with their theories of human nature and the value or dilemma of capital making broad, contradictory statements about what’s possible and what works. Repeatedly, they find that actual systematic study of results contradicts the principled generalizations. Change and the possibility to do good are real, complex, and both require steady attention to specific goals and specific means of implementation. Reading their work, I had several instances of my own settled, “of course we know…” overturned.

Finally, I just finished reading Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree, Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. The book is both challenging and exhilarating. This one and Rupert Sheldrake’s were the two of these four books which kept me thinking, “I wish more Episcopalians would read this book.” Andrew Solomon, gay and a non-practicing Jew, writes about parenting, identity politics and identity communities, and family’s and extended communities’ practice of inclusion. The book is dense with the storytelling from Solomon’s ten years of in-depth interviews and staying in conversation with families over time, his ten years of review of the research into how families included (or marginalized or rejected) their children who were gay, deaf, dwarves, had Downs Syndrome, were disabled, prodigies, children born of rape, were criminals, or transgendered, and his ten years of study and reflection on how science and medicine, education, sociology, and policy have attempted to address each of these different extraordinary identities.

This is a big book – 700 pages, and each chapter on specific difference is fifty to seventy-five pages long. Some of the stories he tells are hair-raising. Some are as revealing of courage and love as anything I’ve read anywhere. Solomon listens with remarkably little judgment. He’s more determined to sustain compassion and listen for understanding than he is to find answers. But, almost despite himself, he does come to one answer,

“I do not accept competitive models of love, only additive ones. My journeys toward a family and this book have taught me that love is a magnifying phenomenon – that much as loving one’s family can be means of loving God, so the love that exists within any family can fortify the love of all families. I espouse reproductive libertarianism, because, when everyone has the broadest choice, love itself expands. The affection my family have found in one another [his family is two gay fathers with children, and he tells all the stories of how and with whom] is not a better love, but it is another love, and just as species diversity is crucial to sustain the planet, this diversity strengthens the ecosphere of kindness. The road less traveled by, as it turns out, leads to pretty much the same place.”

I carry my experience of these four books back to liturgy and to my daily reading of the Bible. Each teaches something essential about knowing, about the human heart, about how we care for one another, about how we listen. The readers of Scripture and church teachers and preachers I trust most are in ongoing conversations and inquiries like these. The ways of nature and of wholly embodied reason and mind have much to teach us of who God is and who we are.

What are you reading? Whose inquiries and discoveries outside our community of faith shapes your vision of God and God’s work healing and reconciling humankind?

Read Part 1 here.

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

Reason, Logic, and the Logos: the 3 legged stool and beyond

by Donald Schell

Part 1

Some of the reading that most challenges and expands my theological thinking isn’t theological at all. In the piece that follows this, I’ll offer how some recent reading has me thinking again about Reason, Logic, and the Logos, listening for a non-religious critique of some cultural predispositions that show up when faith is vilified as inherently irrational.

I suspect my reading experience – finding inspiration in texts by unbelievers and practitioners of other religions - is true for many Episcopalians. Believing that any search for truth brings us closer to the Truth, we value honest inquiry. Episcopalians value scripture and tradition, but we also, most of us, think voices outside church tradition may help us know God. Part of what steers us away from Christian exclusivism and toward a more universal understanding of the Spirit’s work is that we ourselves, sometimes at least find God in our conversations with reflective unbelievers and people practicing other religions

When we want to make it absolutely clear that this openness to inquiry and discovery is legitimately Anglican (and Christian), we’re likely to invoke Richard Hooker’s “three-legged stool” of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. We might add that reason shapes our knowing of God, and that the truth -wherever we’re learning it – must point to the Truth we know in Christ because ultimately all Truth is one.

These are good moves. I trust them, as far as they go, and I want to reflect on some recent reading, because I think we need to go further. Specifically, with large segments of our culture and society interpreting faith and religious practice as inevitably dogmatic, intolerant and unreasonable, we, as Anglicans, will do well to reflect on what we mean by “reason” and how we’re open to it (and how it opens us).

Hooker won’t get us all the way we need to go. To begin with Richard Hooker didn’t actually give us the image of a three-legged stool and likely would protest a simple, balanced treatment that suggested Scripture, tradition, and reason were of equal importance. The oft-cited “three-legged stool” is a bit of Episcopal folklore based on a distillation (and reinterpretation) of Hooker. A three-legged stool suggests equal reliance on scripture, tradition and reason. Several (often conservative) sources will tell us that Hooker was a lot closer to Sola Scriptura than today’s liberal Episcopalians. Sola Scriptura was a Reformation battle cry teaching that Christians can/should acknowledge only the authority of the Bible. Sola Scriptura teaches that we only know God through God’s revelation of God’s self in the Bible. Hooker knew there was something more that allowed us to read Scripture critically and reflectively, but apparently this quotation is as close as he came to our “three-legged stool,”

“Be it in matter of the one kind or of the other, what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after this the Church succeedeth that which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason overrule all other inferior judgments whatsoever. “ (Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book V, 8:2)
If someone who knows Hooker well wants to supply other quotations, I’d welcome them. But at least here Hooker isn’t talking about three equal and inter-dependent sources of authority.

Instead Hooker gives first priority to the plain meaning of scripture, next to what one can bring to it by force of reason, and last to what the church (by ecclesiastical authority) thinks and defines to be true and good. Hooker certainly does mean to offer us a trustworthy means of interpreting Scripture. And he’s insisting on the essential importance of interpretation. While a fundamentalist might proclaim, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” responsible Christian theology has always acknowledged that even purported revelation requires interpretation and that, at some level, the test of good interpretation is that it makes good sense. Whether we’re talking interpretation or inquiry (more on those two to come), we’re looking for what seems and feels reasonable and coherent.

Hooker offers reason as part of a transparent interpretative process that couldn’t be reduced to the simplistic proof-texting of the fundamentalist “I believe it, that settles.”
Like many Episcopalians, thinking about Hooker’s helpful invitation to a deliberate and open interpretative process, I’d hope that what he meant by “reason” might, in some way include experience. As a pre-Enlightenment thinker shaped by medieval scholastic theology, I think we can make the case that Hooker’s “Reason” is something more layered and complex than simple “rationality.” But truthfully if he didn’t mean to include it, I’d push to include it myself. Others have said the same thing.

In fact in 1964, Wesley scholar Charles Outler offered that in the 18th century John Wesley had turned Hooker’s three-legged stool into a quadrilateral - Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.

For those attendant to metaphor, I’ll note that Outler wasn’t suggesting adding a leg to make a three-legged stool into a four-legged stool. The utilitarian advantage of a three-legged stool is that it stands firm even on rough, uneven ground, because three points, the end of the three legs, always defines a plane. A three-legged stool can sit us securely anywhere. A well-made four-legged chair feels solid in a house if the floors are really flat and level. Staying with the three-legged stool image, I’m inclined to join with those who want to make one leg “Reason-and-Experience.”
But Outler suggests a “quadrilateral,” which isn’t just a four-sided geometric shape – it’s also what the Chicago-Lambeth gatherings of bishop (beginning with an 1886 meeting of our American house of bishops) proposed as grounds of unity and authority in the church:

1. The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the revealed Word of God.
2. The Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian Faith.
3. The two Sacraments — Baptism and the Supper of the Lord — ministered with unfailing use of Christ's words of institution and of the elements ordained by Him.
4. The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the unity of His Church.

I’m guessing Outler offers a different Quadrilateral because he wants to offer as Wesleyan (and Hooker-based) response to what American and Lambeth bishops were asking, “What’s essential and how does it work?” It’s too bad to lose the stool, but Outler’s new metaphor reminds us that our real question is how we meet and know God. How does God speak to us?

As a somewhat contrarian Anglican, hearing Outler explain how Wesley addressed those questions, I’d say that Outler betters the Lambeth Quadrilateral by offering not just a small library of received texts and a couple of forms for sacramental practice – yes, what I see in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, but an implicit process of engaging scripture by means of tradition, reason and experience (so, to that extent, doing something like Hooker himself did). In other words, like Hooker, Outler says Wesley was sticking with the question of interpretation.

Does Wesley add something essential that Hooker had missed? I think the answer is both yes and no. It’s worth noting that between Hooker and Wesley, the Enlightenment took center stage and made some exaggerated claims for Reason. Descartes suggested thinking was what made us human (and could prove to ourselves that we existed).

As theologian of the first Anglican generation after the Reformation, Richard Hooker was a Renaissance thinker. He was a contemporary of William Shakespeare and wrote in the reign of Elizabeth I.

John Wesley, also an Anglican theologian, lived and worked in the last generation of the Enlightenment and saw its best fruit in the American and French revolutions, and had also seen its inconsistencies up close in a visit to Georgia’s slave economy. Wesley died shortly before the French revolution’s rationalist embrace of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity devolved into the reign of terror.

Hooker’s Renaissance understanding of reason carries forward and renews the complex scholastic inquiry into how we know, how understanding works, and how mystery and fact are inescapably intertwined. As an Anglican formed in the medieval scholastics, Hooker would understand that Reason includes more than logic or pure rationality.

In the wake of the Enlightenment, Wesley was breaking ranks with established cultural and intellectual norms when he put experience alongside reason, giving weight to both. Whatever Hooker or other Renaissance thinks may have meant by “reason,” with the Enlightenment, Reason had become the precise, logical reasoning that era exalted as our highest human function.

Would Hooker or Wesley claim we know God through natural theology, that the world we know around us can teach us valuable lessons about God and how God works? Well, they’d be likelier to than their own era’s fundamentalists. But would they go as far as we (I) might hope they’d go? Probably not.

So, full disclosure, whatever Hooker (or his later interpreters) might say, the Episcopal church’s acknowledging that way of knowing, even informally or by broad lay consensus was part of what drew me to our Church. I’d grown up in a Christian context where we were taught that we could learn nothing of God from our reasoning or experience. Hoping it was wisdom rather than hubris, I knew I didn’t trust that narrowing of the doorway or window to truth. I felt the presence of God or the Spirit in the human bravery and inspiration that creates works of art and in human acts of kindness, mercy, or compassion.

And the Logos of human kindness, creativity, mercy, and compassion is what I find compelling in the non-Christian books I’ve been reading. More on that in the piece that follows this.

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

My backyard baptism

by M. Thomas Shaw

On my day off, when I am in West Newbury, I go to a little gym in a storefront in a shopping center for my morning workout. While some of the trainers know I am connected to the church, none of them have ever seen me in my monastic habit or a clerical collar and everyone calls me Tom. Two of the trainers are evangelical Christians and one is what I would call a seeker.

Early in the summer Ryan, the one I call a seeker, became a dad for the first time. He and his partner, Laura, had a beautiful little girl. On his first day back at the gym after his daughter’s birth, we were all congratulating him and I added, “So what about a baptism?” He replied that he would get back to me after he talked to Laura. The next time I was in the gym Ryan told me they were up for it, and we scheduled a time for me to go to their house, meet Laura and her three children from a previous marriage and arrange for a baptism.

Wednesday evening, the time we had agreed on, 5:55 p.m., dressed casually, no prayerbook or Bible, I pulled up in front of their house. There were a number of cars in the drive. Curious, I thought to myself. I wondered if it was a two-family house or if they lived with parents. Then it dawned on me. It’s a party. They have invited family and friends. Ryan and Laura misunderstood me, and they think tonight is the baptism.

Sure enough, as Ryan greeted me at the door and introduced me to Laura’s parents, his parents, the kids, and I could see all the food on the dining room table, it was clear they thought tonight was the baptism. I needed to make a quick decision. Just do it, I told myself, and forget about preparation and a church and all the things I thought we would be talking about.

They showed me where they thought the baptism should be in the backyard, someone got a bowl and a table and we were all set. The family gathered around and I asked who the godparents were. The baby’s four-year-old brother and seven- and eight-year-old sisters, I was told. Improvise, I thought to myself, and so I asked the kids what it meant to be godparents. They told me that if something happened to their mother and Ryan, they would be in charge of Isabel. That’s a start, I thought, and I tried to explain what else was involved in being a godparent.

No one, it became clear, not kids, parents or grandparents, were connected to any church. I talked a little about what we were about to do and what I thought it meant for them and for Isabel. We prayed together, and then we baptized that beautiful little girl. Later, as we ate dinner, there was time to get to know one another, for them to talk of their religious experiences in the past and for all of us to share more about our faith.

I had the best time that night. And all the way home I laughed at myself. It was clear to me how much I relied on all the props of the church and a language that not a lot of people understood. I shook my head at myself about how inarticulate I was in front of kids who didn’t go to Sunday school, and parents and grandparents, good people, who don’t make many of the assumptions I do.

As I pulled into my driveway I thought, in a way, I was the one who was baptized that night. I was embarrassed by my inadequacy, but glad. I felt God had brought me to a new place. Has anything ever happened to you like that, where you have felt you didn’t have the words to explain the importance of your relationship with God or what the church has to give?

The Rt. Rev. M. Thomas Shaw, SSJE is the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Masschusetts. Used with permission from the Bishop's Reflections.

The Sewanee Compromise: trouble in the offing?

by Eric Bonetti

While many have applauded the decision by Sewanee to allow the blessing of same-gender relationships in the chapel, the details of the decision may prove troublesome in the not-so-distant future. How so?

The issue lies with the school’s decision to grant a couple’s home bishop or bishops a veto over the decision of campus clergy to bless the couple’s union, at least if they plan to use the school’s chapel. In short, the whole premise of the Sewanee Compromise is this: Want to do something potentially controversial? If so, you now have two or more bishops to whom you report—your home bishop, and the bishop or bishops of the couple seeking your blessing. And any one of them can exercise a veto over your actions, at least if you plan to use the Sewanee chapel.

This is a dangerous precedent, one not approved by general convention, and one that risks incentivizing cross-border raids.

We hope, of course, that American and Canadian bishops will work collaboratively to resolve differences. But we know that some will not.

And what happens if one of the bishops comes from another province? Is Sewanee saying that it will permit a veto by one of the Nigerian bishops? If so, by whose authority has Sewanee allowed cross-province involvement in such decisions?

Similarly, is Sewanee prepared to offer the same “courtesy” to clergy from other faiths? For example, may an Orthodox rabbi prevent a heterosexual couple from marrying if one of the spouses is Orthodox? Or lives in Israel, where restrictions exist on inter-faith marriages? One hopes that our sisters and brothers of other faiths will be accorded the same prerogatives.

On a larger scale, the Sewanee Compromise provides impetus to a troubling move away from the “broad tent” of historic Anglicanism. No longer are we content to maintain uniformity of communion, while avoiding uniformity of belief. Our traditional approach of welcoming Anglo-Catholics, evangelicals, and virtually every other shade of religious belief has fallen prey to a de facto belief that we must cease and desist if our views or practices differ from those of others.

Perhaps most telling are the stated concerns of Vice Chancellor John M. McCardell about “forum shopping” among couples whose bishops oppose blessing same-gender relationships. Neither local law nor local canons impose residency restrictions for same-gender couples who wish to get married in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington or several other jurisdictions, yet he is worried that Tennessee, which does not recognize same-gender marriages, will open the floodgates?

Under the circumstances, it seems unlikely that travel agents will soon be running a Sewanee-based, “Get Your Relationship Blessed and Get Two Nights’ Free Lodging” weekend special any time soon. But then, given the school’s efforts to increase its endowment, perhaps the idea is worth a second look.

Eric Bonetti lives in Northern Virginia. He is executive director of a small non-profit that provides affordable housing to persons in need and is a member of Grace Episcopal in Alexandria, VA. He is a frequent commenter on Episcopal Café.

Urban stewardship: an incarnational approach

by Sarah Raven

I was taken aback when I recently posted a comment on Facebook about being a steward over the earth and a fellow Christian remarked that I was trying to redefine “stewardship”. Stewardship as a concept often comes up in our churches and people offer a variety of definitions for this term. One might hear a sermon about being a “good steward of God’s creation” in church on Sunday and the theme of said sermon could be about environmental protection, loving one another, or perhaps more often; tithing. A steward could be an employee on a ship, train or plane, someone who is the financial advisor for an estate, or the person appointed to care for an entire household. Simply put, to be a steward means to take care of what has been entrusted to us. When talking about sustainability and our collective responsibility to the environment, I do not believe that it is a stretch to talk about stewardship. As Roman Catholic priest Fr. Robert Sirico points out in his forward to Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition, the creation account found in Genesis reflects the nature of the relationship between humanity and God’s creation.

Genesis presents a radically different picture of how the world is put together. In this account, God is the source of all values-in truth, he is the source of everything, calling it into being out of nothing by his powerful word. Man is part of this order essentially and, what is more, by the virtue of his created nature is placed at the head of creation at its steward. Yet this stewardship can never be arbitrary or anthropocentric, as the old canard goes, for this notion implies that man rules creation in God’s stead and must do so according to his divine will (Sirico, R. 2007)
Father Sirico’s assertion begs the question, “If humans are only to look after God’s creation according to God’s divine will, how can we discern the will of God with respect to our environment?”

If you expected that I would attempt to answer that question, you are giving me far too much credit! After talking to Fr. Robert Hendrickson (Missioner of Ascension Church, Curate at Christ Church New Haven) I realized that if we believe that money, plants, and animals are entrusted in our care, then we must have responsibility for the milk we consume that comes from animals. If we are responsible for the milk, then we must be responsible for the used container. Now, holding the container we face a commonplace yet critical choice. The fact that we often do not see this as a critical choice reflects our inability to seriously wrestle with the question of divine will and our environment.

I would argue that the divine will as described in Genesis urges us to ensure a sustainable environment for all life on the planet and future generations. Stewardship and sustainability are intimately connected in the life of the church. We are urged to bring a percentage of our financial trust back to God during annual stewardship campaigns. Simultaneously, we should be thinking about our organic trust, the very planet on which we live, breathe, and take our last breath.

As humans across the globe are increasingly flocking to urban centers, urban stewardship is on the hearts and minds of many. But how do we Christians who live in cities and inner cities, connect our story to a text filled with agrarian and pastoral images? How do we encourage urban sustainability or remain confident that it is within God’s will, when the bible is replete with stories of cities being damned, cursed, or utterly destroyed? I think the answer to this, lies in humanity itself. In our society there is an economy of worth that is too often applied to the value of human beings. How much a person can contribute to society by working and paying taxes is counted, measured, and categorized. We often find people in urban environments being discounted. Every once in a while a “rags to riches” story catches the American imagination where a once downtrodden individual has some undiscovered talent and becomes “valuable” overnight. We know that these children of God were always valuable, always precious in God’s sight. Priceless in fact, because each one of us bears the imago dei, and reflects God’s very image wherever we go. As Father David Cobb asserted, the promise of the carpenter from lowly birth who became our king and savior, is that even when humans mistake the true value of what we see; God, in the person of Christ knows our true worth.

People are sometimes over-looked as we walk briskly on our way to work; rarely pausing to acknowledge one another. It is no surprise then that plants, animals, and inanimate things often get tossed about it our cities as if they have little value. When I worked in downtown New Haven I would often walk to work instead of taking the bus. On one of these wayfaring voyages, I stopped for a second by a trash can on the sidewalk and noticed a bright-copper contraption sitting on the very top of the bin. I picked it up by the hook on its apex and immediately was drawn to this odd double-helix shaped piece of metal refuse. When I looked at this rescued item, I did not see a piece of garbage; I saw a world of possibilities. My first thought was to turn it into a wind-chime, then I thought I might keep it as it was and just patch up the few spots of rust. I proudly walked to work having hooked my shiny discovery on the outside of my coat pocket. It was not long until I generated inquisitive stares and even shouts from people I passed.

“Nice earring!”

“What is that thing?”

“What are you going to do with that?”

I was both amused and confused as to why my simple act of municipal waste defiance was causing such a stir. By the time I arrived at work I had made the decision to give my found treasure away to the administrative assistant.

“This is awesome!” She proclaimed. “It goes perfectly with my new lamp!”

I did not realize it that day, but this simple act of recycling that brightened my co-worker’s day, would help to solidify my determination to listen even closer to God’s still small voice, and to take very seriously the call to urban stewardship.

Sarah Raven is program director of GARLiC and graduated from the Iliff School of Theology in 2011, with a concentration in Anglican Studies. After graduating from Iliff, Sarah moved to the Hill neighborhood in New Haven and completed an internship with Christ Church at St. Hilda’s House and is now a member of the Ascension House intentional community.

Further thoughts on the church's fiscal cliff

by George Clifford

My last contribution to the Daily Episcopalian, Beware the Ecclesial Fiscal Cliff, evoked considerable interest and comment. The comments seem to consist of four identifiable, sometimes intersecting, streams.

First, some responders do not seem to have grasped the severity of the problem I sought to describe. Yes, some congregations do great liturgy in traditional ways and are growing numerically. However, there are relatively few such congregations. The Episcopal Church (TEC), as a whole, is a denomination in which the majority of congregations are declining numerically while concurrently experiencing increasing financial struggles to pay full-time clergy and to maintain underutilized buildings. Those declines are facts, not assertions or hypotheses (cf. Beware the Ecclesial Fiscal Cliff for the data).

If doing traditional liturgy better – whether high or low, sung or said – were a panacea, then TEC would not find itself in this predicament. Traditional theology and Anglican emphases would have kept a majority of our congregations on a safe, healthy course. The minority of our congregations that are thriving will wisely stay their current course (though an unknown number of these congregations have already begun to reinvent themselves for the twenty-first century). Quite probably, a handful of other congregations have the resources and context in which adopting a similar course will bring renewal.

However, thriving traditional congregations are exceptions to the norm. They represent a great danger if they distract leadership – lay and clerical – from recognizing that for the preponderance of TEC congregations staying the course will result in certain shipwreck. Each year the shoals of empty pews and fiscal insolvency become visibly closer and more threatening. Furthermore, underutilized buildings and clergy constitute bad stewardship of the gifts that God’s people have given (remember Jesus’ parable of the talents).

Secondly, contrary to many comments, technology is neither the problem nor the solution. Technology is only a means to an end. The English Reformation built on the technology of its day (the printing press) to make the Bible and Book of Common Prayer more available to all. The twenty-first century Church should adopt contemporary technology as a means for achieving the same end, a point some commenters grasped. Additionally, the new technology can benefit the hearing and sight challenged, which I had not fully appreciated.

Crucially, focusing on arguments about the pros and cons of PowerPoint vs. tablets puts the proverbial cart before the horse. If anachronistic technology were the essential problem, congregations that adopted modern technology while retaining traditional liturgy and theology would consistently experience renewal. This does not happen. The problems are much deeper and more basic than a dated form of presentation.

Our liturgy and theology are themselves earthen vessels whose form and design date to previous centuries. The immanence of God’s loving presence, which Jesus’ followers recognized as so powerfully manifest in him, is not defined, inherently and perfectly, by Greek philosophical thought (some moderns, for example, find process philosophy a more useful vessel) or the Creeds (e.g., the subtle, once hotly contested, distinctions used to define Jesus’ identity as God and human are irrelevant to, and ignored by, many in our post-modern world).

Many post-modern people hunger for a genuine spirituality. They seek a path that will lead them into a deeper relationship with God. They seek, often without realizing it, the treasure – the immanence of God’s loving presence found in the Jesus’ narrative – that the Church’s earthen vessels hold. Unfortunately, our ecclesial vessels too often impede rather than aid access to that treasure. For example, why should our theology depend upon thought forms that pre-date Jesus? Why should our worship use seventeenth or eighteenth century music instead of contemporary music? Ironically, Martin Luther’s hymns provoked ecclesial outrage in Luther’s own day because they set religious verse to popular drinking tunes, exchanging dated earthen vessels for more contemporary ones.

Third, some of the comments to my last essay remarked upon the economic plight of clergy formed and educated for full-time ecclesial employment. TEC has a problem. Our seminaries continue to produce well-educated clergy, many with significant indebtedness, all having made considerable sacrifice to obtain an M.Div. degree, who are committed to serving a Church that has a diminishing need for their services.

Technological and cultural transitions frequently create economic hardship for employees of affected concerns. Perhaps the highest profile example of this are rust belt and garment industry workers who experienced economic hardship when employers closed antiquated facilities or moved factories to lower cost locations. TEC, and other Christian bodies, rightly support displaced workers and advocate that government and employers provide appropriate transition assistance.

We need to take similar steps to support and aid displaced clergy. Consolidating seminaries and rethinking M.Div. programs can help seminarians graduate debt free (see A word on our seminaries: Consolidate! in the Daily Episcopalian). Emphasizing to people entering the discernment process for ordination as a priest that opportunities for full-time ecclesial employment are diminishing is another important step. Bi-vocational and other, non-full-time forms of clergy deployment will become increasingly common.

Diocesan and congregational leaders should not expend all of a congregation’s resources in usually futile last-ditch efforts to resuscitate an already deceased congregation. Instead, they should earmark sufficient resources to fund one or two years of secular education for the congregation’s last full-time priest, preparing him/her for bi-vocational work or a new career. Second career clergy may require less assistance to resume a previous career. The Church repeatedly calls for secular employers to support displaced employees in this way. Practicing what we preach would both add credibility to our social witness and encourage our ordained leadership to speak and lead with refreshing boldness.

Fourth and finally, a few people who commented – some Episcopalians and some from other denominations facing their own impending ecclesial fiscal cliff – actually grasped my message. (I’d like to think that these few represent the “silent majority,” i.e., readers who grasped my message, perhaps who even understood it and were taking action before they read my post.) The ecclesial fiscal cliff is real and we move alarmingly closer every year. In too many congregations, attendance declines annually while expenses inexorably increase.

Thankfully, we do not have to go over this cliff. Worn-out earthen vessels neither signify the death of God nor God having abandoned the Church. But choosing not to go over the cliff requires replacing the Church’s tired, dated, though often familiar and well-loved (by me, among many others) earthen vessels. Otherwise, God will sing a new song and act in new ways to achieve God’s purposes.

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.

Is a Facebook site an alternative to a gravesite?

by Ann Fontaine

553283_10151281039199193_998417139_n.jpgRecently this image has been traveling around Facebook. It caused me to wonder about “friends” who have died and with whom I am still “friends.” I wonder how people feel about continuing Facebook friendships with people who can no longer post their thoughts. At first I would “unsubscribe” to people when they died. Now I leave them in place.

The other day a birthday of a friend, who has died, came up in my feed and I visited her page. It was surprising to see how many were wishing her Happy Birthday and hoping she was in a better place – happy and healthy. There were notes from during the year from friends, grandchildren, and adult children and others expressing the sadness of the loss, joy at the time spent together.

Some of were discussing this phenomena and I asked what people thought: comforting or creepy?

Elizabeth Kaeton commented, “I actually take comfort in seeing their names when I'm looking for someone else. And, I confess, I visit the FB pages of people who have died; sort of in the same way I visit gravestones at cemeteries and niches at columbaria. I've thought of "unfriending" but as long as the families/friends of the deceased keep up their page, I'll visit.”

Maria Evans, an essayist for Speaking to the Soul and Daily Episcopalian wondered, “Well, ya know, I visit the cemetery now and then and chat with my dearly departed relatives. Maybe we need a Facebook cemetery.”

Elizabeth Colette Melillo reflected, “Normally I would joke about this, but it has saddened me, during the past year, when people who had recently died (without my knowing this) were flagged in birthday reminders and the like. I was sorry that I posted greetings thinking they were alive. I saw an extremely sad question in the Facebook FAQ - 'my daughter committed suicide - how do I remove her account?"

Pamela Kandt thinks it is a nice reminder of people gone from our lives, “I actually love seeing their names pop up. We lose so many people in this world and it's good to have reminders of people we have cared about.”

John Deuel speaks from personal experience of family Facebook sites, “They seem to have evolved into virtual gravesites, where friends and family visit occasionally and leave verbal flowers, or just spend a few minutes reliving special moments through photos that are still there. I think it's developing a place in our lives now and social networks should probably make a few minor changes to accommodate this evolution."

Linda MacMillan writes, "If I hadn't experienced it, I might think it was creepy, but I like seeing the name of someone pop up. It's as if they are still here. It gives pixels to the notion that as long as we remember someone, they are not really gone. I don't seek out their pages, but I enjoy having a reminder that they were here and that in some way they still are."

What do you think? Comforting or creepy?

The Rev. Ann Fontaine is serving as an interim priest for Grace Episcopal Church in Astoria, Oregon. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible and keeps the blog what the tide brings in.

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A response to "Secrets your pastor can't share in a sermon"

There has been a lot of discussion around the internet of the Rev. Gary Brinn's article on Secrets Your Pastor Can't Share in a Sermon lament. Here are a few "secrets" Eric Bonetti, active lay person, would like to share with clergy [used with permission from comments on The Lead]:

1) As my priest, sometimes you're just not transparent/genuine. I get that you need to maintain appropriate boundaries, and I want you to have those boundaries. But I don't expect you to be in a good mood every day, or to not have problems at home. Nor do I expect you to conceal your real views. Believe it or not, it's okay for me to know that you're a Republican. I'm not, but that's part of what I value about you: You have different views from mine. And by the way, not everything has to be sunshine and roses. Some things in life just stink, and you can say that. If we as a parish can't deal with that, it's our problem, not yours.

2) I actually do pray for you. Sometimes, when it's been a long day at work, I'm too tired to pray for myself, my family, or friends. But it is a rare day indeed when I don't pray for you.

3) Don't be afraid to call me if you think I'm having a tough time. Sometimes, I'd welcome hearing from you, but I know you're really busy, and I'm not the sort to make more work for you if I can help it. But it doesn't mean that I don't value you or your pastoral care.

4) Believe it or not, I have your back. Yes, I have heard people complain about your sermon last Sunday, the music, or something equally silly. Sometimes, I just chuckle and roll my eyes, or I change the subject. But push come to shove, I'll always take your side as long as you do your best, even if you make a serious mistake.

5) I am not sure you get social media. You spend a lot of time talking about evangelism and outreach, but your last post on Facebook was four months ago. Young people are the future of the church, so I'd love it if you just waded in.

6) When I send you info on social justice or other events in the area, please don't think I'm trying to add things to an already crowded calendar. I'm doing it as a gesture of respect and appreciation for you.

7) You might want to consider being directly involved in more parish activities. Yeah, you are busy, but keep in mind I just spent 7 hours on Saturday setting up and tearing down for an event at church--after a very stressful 70-hour work week. So I get it if you can't make it, but if you could spare 20 minutes, I'd enjoy spending time with you, and I'd be grateful for a leg up on things.

8) I understand more than you will ever know the conflicts that come up in your job. Parish life is full of twists and turns, and sometimes I don't tell you what is on my mind simply because I don't want to put you in the middle of things.

9) Your fear of change sometimes frustrates me. Yes, I get that you have to support all members of the parish, the vestry, and the diocese. But on social justice issues, sometimes I wish you smiled less and murmured, "You may have a point," and instead said, "I have a different perspective. May I share it with you?"

10) I rejoice when you take a stand on behalf of the poor, the hungry and the oppressed. Sure, some in the parish will squirm, but isn't part of your job to be a guardian of the less fortunate?

11) Sometimes, you don't get just how expensive it can be to be part of the church. I haven't had a raise in three years, and I've had a ton of medical bills, but I've managed to increase my pledge every year. Meanwhile, between various events at the church, the money I spend on Outreach programs, those three hoagies I bought but gave to folks at work, and more, I really am tapped out. So don't pester me if I tell you I can't support a particular program or activity. I really can't.

12) I worry that you don't know how much I appreciate you. Believe it or not, although I see you several times a week, it can be hard to find ways to tell you that.

13) Speaking of the hurtful comment that person made to you on the way out the door, what you didn't know is that I called that person on it. I was polite, fair, and gentle, but looks like I've really ticked that person off. Oh well.

Eric Bonetti lives in Northern Virginia. He is executive director of a small non-profit that provides affordable housing to persons in need and is a member of Grace Episcopal in Alexandria, VA. He is a frequent commenter on Episcopal Café.

How do the Magi receive revelation?

by Deirdre Good with help from Julian Sheffield

Today’s gospel for the feast of the Epiphany is Matthew’s account of the journey of the Magi to the house wherein Jesus was born. Led by a star, they travelled from further east to Jerusalem where they inquired of Herod, client king of Rome, “Where is the child born king of the Jews, for we have seen his star at it’s rising and have come to worship him?” (Matthew 2:2). Much of the chapter is about discernment: how do the Magi determine that following a star from their place of origin will lead them to a child born to be King? How does Herod determine the degree of threat posed by the existence of such a child? How do those in Herod’s realm respond to the quest of the Magi? How does Joseph manage the threat Herod poses against the child in his care? It’s a question that interests all religious people.

But through these questions lie larger ones about determining the significance of the child for the Magi, for Herod, for the kingdom of Judea, for Israel. Matthew does not describe the process of discernment each character in the narrative undergoes so much as the outcome: the Magi tenaciously follow the star over long distances in order to worship this child; Herod reacts in fear and then stealth, then anger and retaliation, as he copes with news of the child’s birth and the implications of the child; all Jerusalem reacts in much the same way as Herod to the query of the Magi; Joseph simply does what an angel tells him and thus saves the child and his mother by taking them to Egypt. Since the focus of Matthew’s narrative is on Herod and not the Magi, readers of Matthew see how a client king of Rome is undone by news of a potential rival’s birth. Herod is a king out of control, not one who rules by self-control. He is the anti-type of a self-possessed ruler of the age.

So what are the means of discernment the narrative ascribes to each character? The Magi follow a star. When it stops over the place where the child is born, they enter the house in great joy. They are also guided by dreams that warn them to depart for their own country another way and not return to Herod and his cruel intentions towards children. Herod’s chief priests and scribes in Jerusalem read prophetic scripture that indicates that the child will be born in Bethlehem. Herod seeks human advice: there is no suggestion that he has access to divine guidance. Joseph receives and heeds a warning dream from an angel.

There are three mediums for discerning divine revelation in Matthew 2 : a star, dreams and prophecy. Each medium is particular to the receiver: for the foreign Magi astronomy, not scripture, provides authoritative revelation; Herod's advisors consult their scriptures, not the heavens; while Joseph, a righteous man and a devout Jew, is visited with dreams bearing an angel. The stars, the scriptures, the dreams all speak joy, life and triumph for the child and his mother, to those who would receive that message. Herod, seeking his own security and power, receives from divine revelation fear, deceit, stealth and murderous rage.

Throughout its length, the Hebrew Bible demonstrates that God speaks to individuals and nations through dreams and prophetic scripture. Where Matthew breaks new ground is in asserting that the same God of Biblical revelation is also the source of astrological revelation to the Magi that brought them out from a different culture and civilization across many miles with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the child born King of the Jews. We don’t know what happens when they go home. We don’t know how they deal with knowledge of the child. But we do know that God works through their lives and the lives of those with whom they come into contact. This is the Epiphany of Matthew’s Magi for ancient and modern readers.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. Her blog is called On Not Being a Sausage. Julian Sheffield is the business manager of Brooklyn Youth Chorus and
a cradle Episcopalian.

Guns and choices

by Olivia Kuser

I grew up with guns. My father taught me how to shoot a .22 when I was nine years old up at my grandparents place. He was a hunter, a fisherman and an outdoorsman, like most of the men I knew. Weekends, he went pheasant hunting or sometimes duck hunting, on either his parents' place, Strawberry Hill, the highest point in Mercer County, or at their friend's places. These affairs usually finished with a giant `hunt breakfast', since most of the shooting took place in the early morning. When he came home, he'd sit at the foot of the stairs, unlace his hunting boots and clean his shotgun with a little piece of torn up flannel nightgown soaked in gun oil, wired to a long, slender rod. To this day, I love the smell of gun oil, although now, I haven't smelled it for many years. He took me with him to visit the gunsmith-reputed to be `the best in the county'- who lived near Washington's Crossing, close by the Delaware River in a little house, down a steep hill. The gunsmith's was where he bought his shotgun shells, which were beautiful, with brass embossed heads and different, brightly colored shells. We had a room in our house called the gunroom, with a locked glass fronted display cabinet for all the shotguns and fishing rods. Most were just regular shotguns, with a couple of small light weight .22s for my mother, but he had inherited a lovely old shotgun from the early nineteenth century from his grandfather. That one had beautiful carving in the metal and we were allowed to hold it and look at it. The shotgun shells were kept separately from the guns, in square, heavy boxes, down below the gun cabinet. My grandparents house had a gun cabinet too, as did my great uncle's farm, further south along the river. My father never had a hunting dog, as his parents and cousins did, who had big places with lots of room. We lived in the suburbs, with only a single acre of land and to his chagrin, my mother bought us a poodle.

At camp, I took Riflery. First we had a long class on gun safety with a written test. You weren't allowed to use a gun until you had passed this test. Then we lay on our stomachs in a hut and fired at targets that were set up against the bluff in the hillside. The whole range was in a steep small valley, so that random gunshots wouldn't get out of the range. I was terrible at it. I kept hitting other people's targets accidentally. The kickback wasn't nearly as bad lying down as it had been when my father taught me at Strawberry Hill, shooting at cans set on a stone wall, but it was noisy and unpleasant and I wasn't any good at it.

About four years before my father died he was hospitalized after a very public fall down a flight of stairs at a theater, where he was with my youngest sister and her son. This was the event that alerted us all to his deteriorating neurological condition, the one that eventually killed him. He had had some falls before this, but he had brushed them off, blaming things like his sneakers being too old and not having good traction any more. We, who didn't want to acknowledge his decline any more than he did, accepted these excuses. But the fall at McCarter changed all that. It was clear something serious was wrong and we all had to face it. Although his doctors could not give us a diagnosis their first piece of advice was that he not drive for at least six weeks while they ran some tests after his release from the hospital. This not being allowed to drive crushed something in my father. When I visited him, he was very depressed and spoke more bleakly than I had ever heard him speak. He defined himself by his physicality- that he ran every day, that he did all his own yardwork whereas our neighbors all had lawnservices and golfed on the weekends. My father snorted at golf. He fished, he hunted, he canoed, he chopped all our firewood. He took down whole trees with a chainsaw. An accolade from my father was "He cuts his own grass".

After my third visit to him in the hospital when he kept suggesting that he would be better off dead I drove home and removed every gun from the house. We no longer kept the guns in the gun cabinet in the gunroom- we had converted the gun cabinet to bookshelves sometime in the late seventies, now they were scattered in the attic and in the basement, so it wasn't obvious immediately that the guns were gone. I hadn't touched a gun since those long ago summers at camp. I took as many shells as I could find as well. I never told my father what I had done and he never mentioned it to me, though he must have noticed their absence.

I'm not against guns. I'm not against hunting. I'm not against target shooting or skeet shooting. But I didn't want my father to commit a permanent and irrevocable act in a moment of temporary despair. If he had really wanted to kill himself, I'm sure he could have found a way. I just wasn't going to let that choice be easy for him. That's all I think gun control offers us. A pause, an interruption between the thought and the act. Make it hard, make it time consuming, make it irritatingly bureaucratic to get a gun. I removed the guns from the house because I loved my father. Let us love one another.

Olivia Kuser is a lifelong Episcopalian who now worships at St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco. She is a landscape painter.


by Maria L. Evans

Psalm 130:
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.

"The most important thing you need to know about zoysia is this:
The first year it sleeps, the second year it creeps, and the third year it leaps."
--my old golfing buddy Tom Wylie

If someone were to ask me to come up with a modern parable about "change and growth within the church," I'd start talking about the year my favorite golf course put in zoysia fairways.

Years ago, when I was not living in the more rural environs, I used to get my fix of needing to be outdoors every Saturday and Sunday at a local public golf course. Spending four and a half hours in the confines of that green cathedral was my version of church back then. The tension that rocked the regulars at that golf course was the decision to put in zoysia fairways, because of their slightly more environmentally friendly nature, as well as their relative ease of upkeep. The long term benefit of them was palpable. However, the cost of establishing them and the initial outlay of material to maintain them was formidable.

Of course, in preparation of this, all our season passes went up in price. As you can imagine, there was much grumbling. Some people decided that if they were going to have to spend that much money, they might as well spend a little more and join a private club. It was disheartening sometimes to see that some people I thought liked hanging out there because they liked our companionship...well, I guess one could say I discovered that sometimes companionship fails in the face of finances.

Then came the large-scale destruction of the fairways the next fall, near the end of the season, and the mess that next spring in the replanting phase. The management would tear up part of every fairway but not all of it, and replant section by section with the little zoysia plugs. More grumbling ensued. Playing a round of golf was definitely not as fun. Seemed like no matter how well I was hitting the ball, I'd end up in those muddy bare spots more often than not. Everyone's handicaps inflated. It was hard to set up our little side betting games because no one could tell what anyone's handicap really was anymore, despite what their card said, and it felt unfair at times. More people gave up their season passes. There were rumors that the course was losing so much money there was consideration that it be sold. I fretted greatly over that, because I loved the company of the geeky scientific types that were my golfing buddies.

But my buddy Tom was a semi-retired professor in the agricultural sciences, and he kept telling me how zoysia grows, per the quote above. He kept telling me I had to be patient, that the establishment of zoysia took three years just to get off the ground, and there really wasn't much a person could do about that except nurture it and wait. Even then, he'd say, zoysia didn't really get lush and firmly established until seven years had passed. He talked about the environmental benefits of zoysia--how it used less water, managed to choke out many weeds on its own, and prevented erosion. He talked about how once established, a ball on it sat up a little better and a person could get a decent swing at it without hitting the baked summer Missouri ground and bouncing their club and messing up the shot. The only downsides were its slowness, and the fact it turned brown earlier than other grasses, so the course would not look as pretty in the early spring and late fall.

I had no choice but to believe him, because he seemed to know what he was talking about.

Three years later, he was right. We really did have almost as decent a course as we had before the transition. Seven years later, we had a lush, amazingly durable course that took less maintenance and made for a pleasurable round of golf. That's not to say there wasn't a price--the group of people that I called my golf buddies changed quite a bit over those seven years. Some were no longer with us, but new ones had appeared--it wasn't "the same," but it all still seemed very okay. I won't deny I missed some of those who made up our group in the past, but I also enjoyed the new blood. Of course, the day came that I was no longer part of the mix, either, when I moved to Kirksville. But I look back at that course, and the two holes-in-one I had on it (including being the first hole-in-one on the totally reconstructed fifth hole) with much fondness, because I learned some necessary lessons on my spiritual journey that I didn't even know was a spiritual journey at the time. I just thought I was playing golf.

What would happen if we took many of the tensions in our lives, and treated them like zoysia?

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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