by Marshall Scott

I’ve been thinking a lot about outcomes. For a chaplain, outcomes are an ongoing concern. Actually, for just about everyone in healthcare outcomes are a concern. We measure our success – and to a greater and greater extent, we’re going to be reimbursed – according to the outcomes.

However, it won’t surprise anyone that for chaplains outcomes are difficult. Just how do chaplains establish outcomes? By in large, for our colleagues in healthcare outcomes are pretty clear. Blood pressure goes up or it goes down. The infection responds to the antibiotic or it doesn’t. The patient’s pain is better or it isn’t. But for chaplains, the problem is different. Indeed, it’s a matter of great discussion among chaplains.

Indeed, chaplains have among themselves a real difference of opinion. What are the spiritual outcomes that are most important? A sense of peace. A sense of gratitude. The capacity to love. The capacity for generosity. Relationships reconciled with others, with self, with God. Arguably these are important for a sense of wellbeing, and for physical and behavioral health. Those relationships are known, and even studied. At the same time, they’re not easy to document, and not always easy even to describe.

There are outcomes that we can describe and document. We can enumerate how many folks we visit, and how many visits include prayer. We can identify who we spoke to (patient, family, etc) and perhaps some of the topics discussed. Those, though, are really process measures, and not outcomes per se (granted that whether appropriate things happened is an outcome in and of itself, and is certainly relevant). We can document whether coping seems improved, or anxiety is less. These are outcomes, of course, but still hard to describe, and sometimes to relate specifically to spiritual values. As I have said often enough, it seems the outcomes we feel important aren’t amenable to measurement, while the outcomes we can measure don’t seem so important.

As I was thinking about this, I also found myself thinking about Lent. As we prepare for Lent, many of us, I think, find ourselves having thoughts that are similar. I sometimes think there is this progression of questions: “What shall I do this year?”; followed by, “Well, what have I done before?”; and ending with, “When I did that, what came of it, really?” Certainly, we worry about motivation, but motivation is integrally related to results and consequences. There is the recurring story that would be apocryphal, if it weren’t for the fact that not only has it happened, it happens somewhere every year (and probably in any number of places). That is the young person who commits to giving up dessert in Lent, who hears the response, “It isn’t really Lenten abstinence if your real purpose is just to look better in your bathing suit this summer.” The young person clearly had a result in mind for abstinence during Lent. It just wasn’t a result that was actually about Lent.

What are the results of Lenten discipline? If I do give up desserts or take up a regular exercise program, there may well be results that are good for me. If I give up caffeine, there will certainly results, but I don’t think they’ll be good for me – or, for that matter, anyone around me. That’s not to say that giving up desserts or caffeine, or taking up regular exercise can’t be part of Lenten discipline. It’s just that the reason for choosing, and the results sought in choosing, can’t simply be what’s good for me, or what makes me uncomfortable. Those may or not be reasonable consequences, but as ends in themselves they’re lousy, and certainly not Lenten.

On the other hand, what are the consequences of reading Scripture more, or praying more, or taking more time in silence? My experience is that they help my relationship with God. However, just what that looks like can sometimes be hard to demonstrate. I feel closer – but, how is that lived out? Am I kinder or more patient? Does prayer come easier, or can I stay silent longer? If there is a difference, would anyone besides me notice?

You can see why this would feel to me like my quandary as a chaplain. Arguably, for Lent, too, the important results are hard to measure, and the measurable results don’t seem as important.

I do want to have results, and I also want those results to be about my relationship with God. I want to experience them both day to day during Lent, and also to have them reshape my life. So, I seek something that augments something that’s already part of my discipline. I want to challenge myself. I want to choose something important enough to me that if I miss it during the day I’ll notice and remember to ask forgiveness at night. I want to choose something attainable, so that if I do miss it during the day I’ll know it’s my own failing and not a physical or emotional wall. And especially I want to choose something that in its very nature turns me to God. It may not turn me entirely away from myself – for, after all, what is good for my relationship with God is good for me – but it’s clearly not about me.

I know that I’m “preaching to the choir” about this. So, I don’t think readers will be too skeptical if I say that, following these principles, I have over the years seen results. Sometimes those results have been temporary. Sometimes those results have become permanent. Most of the time, those results have been things God and I have been clear on, that would be less obvious to others – although I do think perhaps others might note that I listen a little better, and better root my reflections in my faith. Whether anyone else sees them, I am aware of them in my closet, when I know I am not alone. They aren’t necessarily the most measurable results; but I’m more than convicted that they are most important.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a hospital chaplain in the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an Associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

Proclaiming the Gospel with Reckless Abandon

by Douglas J. Fisher

A couple of weeks ago, the good people of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Longmeadow, MA gave me this wonderful mandala. The words around the mandala are these: “Together, we are called to the great adventure of expressing our faith in a new era, a time full of challenges and possibilities. May we have the courage to proclaim the Gospel boldly and creatively.” The quote is something I said in the walk-abouts. It is really cool to have your own words put into art. That also means those words stand as an on-going prayer to our Living God. Give us the courage Lord to proclaim the Gospel boldly and creatively.

Let’s look at that and let’s get there by way of a story. My oldest daughter Caragh was a gifted basketball player – set the record at her high school for most points in a career by a female basketball player. But before that, in 8th Grade she went through a rough stretch. She had a coach on an AAU travel team that was really tough. For years I had been her coach, always encouraging her and staying positive and she played the game with a joyful aggressiveness. Now this coach was very knowledgeable but screamed at kids when they made mistakes. I went to one of her games and Caragh would run down the court and go to the exact spot her coach had told her to go. But she would just stay there. If she caught a pass she would throw it right back to the teammate who threw it to her. After the game I said to her, “Caragh, you aren’t having any fun out there. You are just trying to not make mistakes. I want you to listen to your coach but take risks out there. If you mess up, you mess up. But play with reckless abandon.” That became our phrase – reckless abandon. I was at West Point at that time and Caragh was used to all the cadets talking in acronyms. Like rem for “ready to eat meal” –in which none of those words are true. We agreed I would shout out RA from the stands to remind her to play with reckless abandon.

The change was remarkable. I would shout out RA and she would go back to her old style. On defense she would jump the passing lane and steal the ball, charge at the dribbler and create turnovers. On offense she would hit the cutter with a pass, if she was open she would shoot or drive the lane. The game was fun again.

One time I arrived at a game late, coming directly from a church service so I was dressed in clericals. As I shouted “RA” from the stands, a person turned around, saw how I was dressed and said to the person next to her “I don’t know what that means. Maybe it is one of those John 3:16 things.”

It is time, in this new era, a time when our world, our country and our state have become more and more secular – a time when church going Christianity is in decline and consumerism is the new mainline religion, it is time to express our faith with reckless abandon. It is time to try new things, to take risks, to be bold and energetic and not be afraid to fail. There is someone who lived that way – his name is Jesus.
The Gospels tell us Jesus’ last words on the Cross were “God, into your hands I commend my spirit.” A statement of profound trust. Where did Jesus get the strength to say it at that moment? I propose that Jesus could say that line because he practiced it. Could it be that every time Jesus was on the frontier of the unknown, every time he was doing something new, every time he was not sure what would happen next, he prayed “into your hands I commend my spirit.” Jesus made that prayer a way of life. I invite us, God’s people in the Episcopal Church to make that our way of life. Let’s express the eternal truth of the Gospel in new ways. Let’s look at one of many possibilities.

Matthew 25 tells us where to find Jesus. Jesus is the person who is hungry, who is in prison, who is sick. Matthew 25 calls us to a ministry of outreach and social justice. It is the challenge of the prophets. Matthew 28 tells us to go forth and baptize all nations. It is a clear invitation to evangelism. What would happen if we risked mashing those two great challenges into one. In my experience, congregational development happens when we are passionate about both Matthew 25 and Matthew 28. What social justice ministry is your parish called to? And how are you expressing “Jesus Christ is our Savior” in an imaginative, creative, enticing way? Put Matthew 25 and Matthew 28 into action and the Holy Spirit will set our churches on fire.

Amen. RA

The Right Reverend Dr. Douglas J. Fisher, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts. This homily was excerpted from the sermon that Bishop Fisher delivered at the Western Massachusetts Diocesan Convention last December in Springfield, MA.

Below is one priest's response to the Bishop's sermon:

Read more »

Sustaining a vocation: Fear Not

by Will Hocker

A couple months ago, our rector, Paul Fromberg, asked me how I can work as a pediatric hospital chaplain. That is, how do I bear being with children as they suffer. I knew, as the words came out of my mouth, that I was scratching the surface of something I barely understand.

I said, “I cry. A lot.”

Well. That certainly is true. Actually, it’s never been so true as it’s been since I uttered those words. Nevertheless, it’s an inadequate response to a tough question. I’ve been holding this question close to my heart ever since.

How do I work with children who are gravely ill? How do I stand by them? How do I hold their disbelieving, fearful, sad, angry families close enough to feel their pain, yet at enough distance to act helpfully?

How does any of us sustain a vocation?

I consistently take great comfort in hearing the gospel lesson for the Feast of the Presentation when Jesus' parents first take him to the temple. Just he takes Jesus into his arms, Simeon says, now that he’s seen the Person in whom God becomes one of us, he can rest in peace. Anna, at just the sight of Jesus, praises God, and tells all those anticipating Israel’s renewal that their hope has arrived. For me, the joy of being a pediatric chaplain lies in this very truth: that through working with ill children, their families, the doctors and nurses, respiratory therapists and physical therapists, that stand by them – all of whom embody the Divine as I understand it – I have the assurance my life needs.

Yet, the work challenges me daily. The work changes me daily.

How do I live with the suffering of others?

Well. It seems I – as is so with many of us – I have never been able to avoid it. My father became ill with heart disease when I was 13. He died when I was 20. How much time in the hospital had I spent with him during those 7 years? A whole year? I don’t know. I do know this: By the time my father died, I could find solace alone in the light of a hospital vending machine, worrying a watery cup of hot chocolate from one hand to the other – vaguely satisfied, if only because the cocoa was warm and familiar.

A refiner’s fire. A fuller’s soap.

When we’ve said ‘yes’ to the Spirit’s invitation to join in God’s mission of love, we begin to be purified. Not unlike the silver smiths hold deep in their fires. We are cleansed, our imperfections washed away, as the fullers’ cleaning, bleaching, wetting, and beating make new cloth clean and full.

Any true calling entails living out the understanding that our spiritual life is indeed our life. No more, no less. Our daily bread is the stuff of that life. It is given to us. Our sole responsibility in this involves saying ‘yes’.

When I was 25, a colleague asked me to visit a man with AIDS at Ann Arbor’s V.A. Hospital. I’d been reading about AIDS – which of course back then was known as the ‘gay plague’ or, as Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. I’d been working with both the University of Michigan’s Lesbian and Gay Advocates Office and the Washtenaw County Health Department to educate myself and other gay men about this disease. Shortly thereafter my friends and colleagues began to die.

It was possible to escape this tragedy, to bury one’s head in the sand, for a short while. But, frankly, no one I knew did so. In fact, all those I knew – lesbians, straight folk, gay men, rolled up their sleeves to post HIV awareness flyers, and slept on their couches while their sick friends wasted away in their beds.

A refiner’s fire. A fuller’s soap.

I was not surprised when I myself began to get sick. I knew it was coming. Or, maybe, I just dreaded surviving as my friends and colleagues were dying. Eventually I was confronted by that ultimate need to let go of my doing and simply get on with ‘be-ing’. Not an easy feat for someone driven by a sense that he’s got a lot to do. But, with the help of my husband, and a Blackfoot shaman spiritual director, and a couple bad-ass friends, I did let go. I learned to stop doing, and to begin blessing others from my chair and from my bed.

This messiness is indeed the stuff of a calling. Facing our messiness – our shadow (which we strive to never see and acknowledge) and our persona (that dull smile we present daily) – is surely the linchpin of our salvation.

I’ll say that again: Facing our messiness is the linchpin of our salvation.

It is from this place of ultimate vulnerability that I know being a chaplain to ill children to be my spiritual path. As a pediatric oncologist acquaintance has said, there is indeed something about our work itself that sustains it.


that acknowledges death and injustice and love thwarted and hope extinguished and potential squandered without accepting them as facts preeminent over life and justice and love triumphant and hope eternal and potential fulfilled.

Truly, I don’t know if this love, this being a pediatric chaplain, is forever. Three months ago it felt sustainable by daily prayer and tears several times a week. But the past 6 weeks? I actually don’t know how I’ve made it through so many sudden, unanticipated losses: a child born deaf and blind who wrapped my heart around his own – perhaps because his nurse told me his parents could not be in regularly, and asked me to take him into my arms when I could do so; and, more recurrences of cancer than I’ve seen in the 2 ½ years I’ve done this work. Will I be a pediatric chaplain 5 years from now? I hope so. But, I don’t know. I believe I’ve learned, in a life lived amidst the suffering of others, how to care for myself well enough to have another day. But, truly. I do not know.

A refiner’s fire. A fuller’s soap.

Whether I continue to serve as a pediatric chaplain remains to be seen. Whether Cheryl will continue to work with special needs children, whether Maitreya will maintain the fight exonerating innocents now on death row, whether Sara will every Friday help the needy and hungry feed the needy and hungry, I do not know.

But, whether we continue to bear our spiritually and emotionally challenging work or not, the world’s suffering continues. Even were we to step out of the trenches, none of us can adequately shield ourselves from this fundamental truth, from these inevitable injustices and sufferings.

In fact, it is in our very attempts to protect ourselves from such painful realities that we actually injure ourselves spiritually.

Pico Iyer, one of my favorite thinkers on multiculturalism, says "To see that life means a joyful participation in a world of sorrows, and that suffering is not the same as unhappiness, is one of the singular blessings..."

Frankly, I take heart facing into the wind, leaning into the gospel certainty that we continue toward perfection as we face the truth. We follow our calls not on our own, of course. We do so in sure and certain truth that we will be dismissed in peace, according to God’s word; that we ourselves have seen the pattern of our salvation in the life and death of Jesus. Even when we face squarely the tragedy inherent in life, we know we have nothing to fear.

Jesus assures us again and again: Fear not.

The Rev. Will Hocker, pediatric staff chaplain at UCSF hospital and volunteer priest associate at St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco, CA

Restructuring principles for the church Part 2

by George Clifford

Part 1 enumerated the first six principles. This post presents the remaining four principles, summarizes all ten, and briefly illustrates the importance of articulating principles before tackling the tough issues of restructuring.

Seventh, form should follow function. Given the paucity of scriptural principles for shaping ecclesial organizations, TEC can shed, freely and guiltlessly, any anachronistic policies, rules or structures that no longer fit today's context, detract from community or mission, or are unnecessarily convoluted. Concurrently, TEC can create any new policies, rules, or structures that seem likely to aid in being God's twenty-first century people (community) and doing God's work today (mission). I'm tempted to enumerate my candidates for elimination, but want to focus the initial conversation on the ten principles rather than specific recommendations!

Eighth, incorporating a system of checks and balances into TEC's structure will help to avoid future power imbalances in and between the denomination's various constituent members, components, and orders of ministry. The blurred lines between the executive (denominational leadership and staff/agency management), judicial (trial courts for bishops and clergy), and legislative (includes all bishops, and many lay/clergy who also have executive or judicial roles) functions makes adequate checks and balances essential.

Separation of function is not the answer. Thankfully, TEC has few judicial tasks. Generally, the pastoral should take priority over the legal, even though this adds complexity and potential role confusion. Similarly, strongly differentiating between the Presiding Bishop (PB) and other bishops could draw a clean line between executive and legislative functions, but at the potential price of moving toward more authoritarian PBs emerging in the future. In short, blurred lines between the functions are an inescapable consequence of an ecclesial structure defined by principles of representative democracy, mission, and collegiality.

Ninth, TEC's structure should exhibit transparency and accountability. The Church has nothing to hide and practicing transparency – apart from sensitive personnel issues – with its constituents, stakeholders, and even the public will assist TEC in sustaining its focus on mission and community. Transparency (open meetings, full reporting) is the most important element of good organizational accountability. Other aspects of accountability include mandating prudential fiscal management (full financial reporting; regular and thorough audits; etc.), open elections that encourage multiple candidates for each vacancy, and opportunities for input to representative bodies from their constituents.

Tenth, technology increasingly poses a greater challenge for preserving unity through common prayer than theological differences do. Our secular culture is moving away from the printed page and toward video and electronic communications. This advantageously permits greater local adaptation to better suit particular situations and audiences but at the price of introducing added liturgical diversity. The variations allowed in the provisional rites for blessing same sex relationships represent part of the leading edge of this shift, as do some of the optional Enriching Our Worship liturgies utilized in some congregations in some dioceses. TEC will probably never again publish a paper hymnal. Instead, congregations will draw their music from increasingly diverse sources. The move away from the printed page is irreversible.

Restructuring affords TEC an excellent opportunity to adopt structures that link people together in worship in spite of this trend, e.g., emphasizing structures that offer worship and fellowship opportunities and minimize/streamline governance (cf. my earlier Daily Episcopalian posts Rethinking Episcopal Church structure Part I and Rethinking Episcopal Church structure Part II).

In sum, the ten principles proposed for guiding TEC's restructuring are:

1. Preserve the four historic orders of ministry
2. TEC's structure should emphasize both community and mission
3. Preserve governance premised on discerning God's leading through representative democratic processes
4. Practice subsidiarity
5. Adopt a minimalist approach, reserving all specifically unidentified powers and responsibilities to individuals, congregations, or dioceses
6. Aim for simplicity of structure
7. Form should follow function
8. Incorporate a structural system of checks and balances
9. TEC's structure should exhibit transparency and accountability
10. Take advantage of the opportunities for new forms of community and structure that technology has made possible, while seeking to avoid or minimize any adverse consequences

One of the major questions that the task force on structure will assuredly address is whether to recommend that TEC adopt a unicameral legislative structure or retain its bicameral structure. I've not directly addressed that question. Instead, I've offered a framework of principles for shaping consideration of that and other questions by the task force and others.

In particular, several of the ten principles enumerated above are relevant. Will a unicameral or bicameral legislature best focus our communal and missional concerns and efforts? Which structure is most congruent with the principles of representative democracy, subsidiarity, simplicity, ensuring adequate checks and balances, and affording the best opportunity to preserve denominational unity?

Reasonable, godly people can and will disagree about the answers to those questions. But establishing a set of guiding principles to shape the debate will help to preserve Christian civility premised on the belief that all participants want to seek both the mind of Christ and what is best for TEC. Reliance on explicitly identified principles will also help TEC to avoid polarity and a gridlock similar to that which bedevils our politicians.

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, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

Restructuring Principles for the church, Part 1

by George Clifford

The Episcopal Church (TEC) has constituted a special task force charged with proposing denominational restructuring. Here are ten proposals for shaping their recommendations and the ensuing discussion; our denominational history and the Anglican interpretation of Christianity inform all ten. If we can agree upon a set of principles for restructuring, then the ensuing debate is likely to be more respectful and productive because participants will share common goals, though differ, perhaps sharply, in how to weight factors, perception of need, and future ramifications.

Part 1 enumerates the first six principles; Part 2 includes the remaining four, a brief illustration of the relevance of this approach, and a summary of the ten principles.

First, and perhaps most obviously, any restructuring should preserve the four historic orders of ministry (lay, deacon, priest, and bishop). The New Testament provides scant detail about the organization of the early church. Although twenty-first century Christians hold widely divergent views about the early church's structure, our Anglican tradition is clear in affirming the four orders. Holy Baptism is the lay equivalent of ordination; the ordination services establish some boundaries for each of the other three orders while recognizing considerable overlap. Scriptural and historical studies provide some, though incomplete, information about of the role and function of each order. In other words, restructuring should respect what little light the New Testament sheds on patterns of ecclesial organization while recognizing that considerable flexibility exists.

Second, TEC exists as a communal and missional expression of the body of Christ. That is, TEC does not claim to be the only legitimate branch of Christ's body, but a valid part of that body in which Christians enjoy the community of God and the saints, and in which Christians unite to serve God. Our baptismal vows make this dual emphasis on community and mission explicit. In the service of Holy Baptism, the celebrant asks any adult baptismal candidates and the assembled congregation to commit to continuing in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, and then asks whether they will proclaim the gospel in word and example, seek and serve Christ in all people, and strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human. A strong communal and missional emphasis in the task force's work will focus TEC's structure on its raison d'être. This sharply contrasts with the apparently widely held but mistaken presumptions that dioceses and TEC's national structures exist primarily for governance or that congregations exist primarily to preserve local tradition and their facilities or for the benefit of the clergy.

Third, restructuring should preserve governance premised on discerning God's leading through representative democratic processes. This practice, arguably rooted in New Testament accounts of the early church (e.g., reports of Church councils, their debates, and early Christians consensually drawing lots to replace Judas), was distinctive of the post-American Revolution Episcopal Church. Vestries, diocesan conventions/councils, and TEC's general convention/executive council are all expressions of representative democracy (a limited number of members/delegates/deputies represent the larger constituency). Direct democracy (everyone has a vote) is more cumbersome, costly, and time-consuming without any assurance of better results, i.e., more faithfully discerning God's will or fostering committed community.

Over the last half-century, TEC has pushed for greater inclusivity and diversity in selecting individuals to serve as representatives (deputies, delegates, etc.). Hopefully, the commitment to racial, ethnic, and gender inclusivity has sufficient traction to sustain it (better yet, for these commitments to continue to gain momentum!) without requiring institutionalizing through formal quotas. Diversity and inclusivity fall short of the mark with respect to age (e.g., General Convention deputies are disproportionately old), affluence (overcoming this would require paying all expenses for representatives, including childcare), and employment status (increasing the number of virtual meetings will allow the participation of more employed people who have limited vacation time). Additionally, term limits that allow shorter tenure among incumbents (fewer individuals filling the same position for three, four, or more terms) would advantageously allow for broader participation without increasing the number of deputies.

Fourth, the principle of subsidiarity should shape restructuring, i.e., functions better performed – for any reason(s) to include tradition, effectiveness, and preference – by provinces, dioceses, congregations, or individuals should be the responsibility of the most basic level possible. Subsidiarity promotes decentralization, creates greater opportunity for lay ministries, maximizes options for participation, and is consistent with the diocese as the Church's basic unit (in contrast to a tradition that either centralizes authority in a patriarch or views the congregation or individual Christian as the basic unit in the body of Christ).

Fifth, restructuring should adopt a minimalist approach, reserving all specifically unidentified powers and responsibilities to individuals, congregations, or dioceses. Less structure is usually better than more structure. This principle, a corollary of subsidiarity, extends the latter principle to recognize the individual and appropriately diverse nature of religious belief and practice. Centrally determined forms of prayer and cooperative action are not synonymous with uniformity of belief or coercing compliance to church norms. The failed effort to unite the Anglican Communion with a Covenant designed to ensure conformity represented an abrupt break with Anglican tradition.

Sixth, simplicity of structure will promote efficiency (cost and labor savings) while enhancing effectiveness (nimble, reasonably rapid responses). Proliferating committees, commissions, boards, task forces, etc. can create an illusion of broader participation in governance processes. However, proliferating our structures actually impedes decision-making without improving its quality. TEC depends upon volunteer labor, a scarce and precious resource that is wrongly squandered on committees (by whatever label they are known) that lack a clear function and achievable goals or are entirely tangential to TEC's mission.

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, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

Life imprisonment vs the death penalty and the victim

by Martha K. Baker

A life sentence, rather than execution, provides more closure for victims than execution does, according to a recent study, begun under the auspices of The Episcopal Church. In addition, that closure comes sooner and is healthier.

A life sentence, imposed on the perpetrator of a capital crime, produces more emotional, psychological, and spiritual benefit to surviving victims, concludes the study, “Assessing the Impact of the Ultimate Penal Sanction on Homicide Survivors: A Two-state Comparison.” The study, published in the Marquette Law Review, contradicts long-held, but unstudied, thinking that victims gained closure -- with the gratification that justice is done -- from the capital punishment of murderers. Never before had the impact on victims been analyzed scientifically.

The directors of the study are Mark S. Umbreit, director of the Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking, located at the University of Minnesota, and Marilyn Peterson Armour, director of The Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue at the University of Texas at Austin. “Given the steadfastness of the public’s opinion that the death penalty brings satisfaction and closure to survivors, it is surprising that there has been no systematic inquiry directly with survivors about whether obtaining the ultimate punishment affects their healing,” wrote Umbreit and Armour.

The Episcopal Church initially called for the study by resolution of General Convention in 2003. The study was designed to cover a period of years due to the necessity of following a number of cases in both states from start to finish in order to sufficiently satisfy the scientific requirements for analysis of the qualitative and quantitative data.
In the end, these data agreed to a stunning degree, adding considerable weight to the conclusions.

Individual bishops provided the initial funding of $50,000. According to the Rt. Rev. Joe Morris Doss, a lawyer and the retired bishop of New Jersey, “We initiated the study and did our part in seeding its funding out of our need to provide ministry to victims, usually loved ones of someone killed in a capital crime, and out of our long-standing opposition to the death penalty.” Bp. Doss said that bishops’ support comes “in no small measure” out of their concern for victims who, too often, “are exploited by the nation’s justice system to secure capital convictions and, ultimately, to carry out executions.”

The opposiing argument declares that victims need the sense of justice and the benefit of closure provided only by an execution.

“We needed data, based on scientific study,” explained Doss, “to determine if our view was correct or to admit that we have been incorrect.”

The conclusions are significant, said Doss. “We have studied the last argument in favor of the death penalty that can be considered rational – unless one concedes that vengeance is rational.” Other claims, such as deterrence, are no longer countenanced by objective experts, he noted. This study, he added, provides sufficient proof that warrant for the death penalty can no longer be based on the needs of surviving victims because it studied the real effects of executions on victims.

Doss went on to say that the church can now speak to the issue supported by independent and objective scientific analyses. The conclusions match the experience through the years of countless numbers of clergy and lay professionals who have counseled victims of violent crime and offered the ministry of the church to them.

According to these,

Victims should not have to deal with the problems that come of the role that society tends to impose on them for the purpose of securing an execution.
Victims should not be expected to hold to hatred in their hearts.
Victims should not be expected incapable of the ability to forgive – and if not to forgive, victims should, at least, be given the opportunity to move on with their lives.

The Church’s resolution had been made feasible in 2003 due to the recruitment of the Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking, located at the University of Minnesota, where, coincidentally and fortuitously, The Episcopal Church was holding its convention. Bishops chose UM’s justice center because of the trust of victims’ groups, both for and against the death penalty.

Marquette University Law School supported the study not only with renewed interest in restorative justice but also with the bulk of the funding. Professor Janine Geske, former Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, provided leadership.

Umbreit recruited Armour, an expert on homicide survivors. She has written extensively on the aftermath of murder for family members of homicide victims, including studying the concept of victims’ “closure” through convicts’ executions. Umbreit’s and Armour’s universities are located in two states primed for a comparative study of this subject: Minnesota does not allow the death penalty; Texas had the highest number of executions during the time period of the study.

Armour focused on a comparison of executions in Texas with life sentences in Minnesota. The study used in-person interviews with a randomly selected sample of survivors. It covered four time periods in order to examine, according to the study’s introduction, “the totality of the ultimate penal sanction (UPS) process and its longitudinal impact on their lives.” In addition, the study assessed the differential effect of two types of “ultimate penal sanctions” by comparing survivors’ experiences in Texas, a death-penalty state, and Minnesota, a life-without-the-possibility-of-parole-state. The study highlighted differences, largely during the time after conviction, specifically with respect to the appeals process and the well-being of survivors. In Minnesota, for example, survivors of adjudicated cases show higher levels of physical, psychological, and behavioral health.

Unbreit and Armor believe that their findings have implications for trial strategy and policy development.

The study for this essay is here: Assessing the Impact of the Ultimate Penal Sanction on Homicide Survivors: A Two State Comparison.

In response to the study, opposers of the death penalty will present a conference, open to all, on Feb. 21 and 22 at the Marquette Law School’s Restorative Justice Center in Milwaukee, Wis. They will celebrate the study’s findings and plan a strategy for publicizing them.

“We will focus on concern for victims,” said Bp. Doss.

Restorative Justice: The Death Penalty versus Life without Parole: Comparing the Healing Impact on Victim Families and the Community Place: Marquette Law School, Eckstein Hall Date and Time: Thursday, February 21, 4:30 pm – 5:30 pm Friday, February 22, 8:00 am – 3:30 pm

Martha K. Baker, a member of Trinity Episcopal Church, St. Louis MO, is a free-lance writer and critic; she served on the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music during the last triennium.

To whom is it Lent and for how long?

by Linda Ryan

There's an old joke about a newly married couple whose wedding night (and the next few) are not quite what the bride had envisioned. The groom explains that it is Lent. The bride's comeback is, "To whom is it lent and for how long?" With the coming of Lent beginning this week, it seems to me to be a more than appropriate question (even for a punch line).

The easy part is "how long." Answers range from "Ash Wednesday until Easter" to "A period of time before the first full moon following the vernal equinox." It is forty days -- excluding Sundays which are always little Easters, even during Lent, -- a season of penitence and reflection leading up to the glorious celebration of the resurrection at Easter itself. Many mark the Lenten season with the custom of giving up something like chocolates or desserts or the like. Others may instead take on something like extra church attendance, Bible reading or prayer instead of or, occasionally, in addition to, giving up some particularly enjoyed activity or food. It's supposed to remind us of what Jesus gave up for us and to identify in some very small way with Jesus in his suffering. We can't really identify with the depth of Jesus' suffering because we aren't Jesus, but the giving up of something is supposed to be a sort of martyrdom by pinpricks; we have little twinges of temptation to give it up and just eat that Cadbury Egg or drink that beer. Me, I've never had any success giving up Peeps during Lent (the only time REAL Peeps are sold) until last year, but that's another story.

As for "To whom is it lent," it seems to me that that's a much deeper line of thought. Of course, the obvious answer is "the church" or "Christians" but I think there's more to it. While we're meant to use the giving up as a sign of love for Jesus, one thing that isn't always stressed is that we are encouraged to take the money we'd normally spend on whatever delicacy we're giving up and either save it to make an Easter gift at the church, to a favorite charity or toward a particular need somewhere in the world. I usually have a problem just giving up something without remembering that second part of the equation.

But there's another thought going through my head. Lent, besides being the name of the season, is also the past tense of "lend" -- giving something with the expectation of having it returned at a future time. We voluntarily give up something with the full plan to dive back into it as soon as we hear the first "Alleluia!" We can say we're doing it for our spiritual growth, or maybe for our health's sake, or even just because it's easier to give up something when there are other people around also voluntarily offering to sacrifice a personal habit or indulgence. Mutual support makes the road easier, there's no doubt. But I wonder, is it just for us that we're doing this?

What if we thought of "to whom is it lent" as putting our endeavors in God's hands, "lending" them, as it were. As Christians we believe that all that we are and all that we have is God's anyway, even though we're given the stewardship over the things we are and have, much as the servants in the parable (Matthew 25:13-30, Luke 19:11-27) were given various amounts of money to care for during their master's absence. The expectation of the master was that the servants would use his money to make him even more money, and two of the servants did that, each roughly doubling the original amount given them. The third, though, gave the master exactly the amount the master had entrusted to him. Calling him lazy and unprofitable, the servant was punished for not taking a chance, not thinking that the money was lent for a purpose and not just to hang onto with clenched fist. I wonder, do we see the small sacrifices we make for Lent as giving God back a bit more of what has already been entrusted to us and with which we are supposed to show a profit? Peeps and beer seem like a pretty poor return on God's investment.

I know the story is usually more a stewardship-drive kind of scripture, but I think we're supposed to find epiphanies in whatever we read and whenever we read it. Yes, we are supposed to make regular returns to God from our life and labors, as the exhortation goes, and so we chuck in a check or some bills and coins when the alms basin goes around. We volunteer to help tidy up the church and grounds a couple of times a year or we go and help feed the hungry at the local soup kitchen on Christmas and Easter. Those are our returns on investment to God, but during Lent we're called to do a little more. God has lent to us our lives, what we lend to God are little habits and pleasures we think we can do without for forty days (excluding Sundays). Seems like a small return on investment, no matter how much we really want those Cadbury Eggs or that cup of coffee.

I ask myself, what am I lending to God this year? How much of a sacrifice will it be to my life, and how much benefit will I accrue from it? It's like a time-limited New Year's resolution -- can I really keep the promise I make to God about this one thing or these few things? How much will it hurt, but what will I learn as a result of it? I have a feeling the answer will be both surprising and enlightening.

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

A blizzard of challenges: church on Facebook

by Alex Dyer

A wise person once told me, “Most of life is not what happens to you, but how you respond to what happens to you.” With that in mind, imagine just before the weekend a massive blizzard descends and drops nearly three feet of snow in one evening. Even in New Haven, Connecticut, this is a very rare event.

Every priest leading a congregation is forced to make the difficult decision whether to cancel church or march on as usual. Unsure whether we could even plow the sidewalks by Sunday and a travel ban in effect throughout the city and state, perhaps there is another way. Perhaps there is a via media, or should I say via social media.

When presented with unique circumstances, one must come up with unique solutions. I began to think about having a church service via Facebook. It was not a perfect solution, but it was worth a shot. I sent the word out via our email lists and held the service at our normal time, 10:30 AM on Sunday.

One of the local reporters, who I am Facebook friends with (always a good idea to get to know your local press) picked up the story and wrote a piece on the virtual service. It became a form of “e-vangelism” as well. Now it was no longer a simple service for our own parishioners. The pressure was now on to make it something special, and the clock was ticking.

I pre-recorded my sermon for Sunday on a video. I decided to wear my clerical collar because I am an Episcopalian after all (since no one could see from the waist down, I must confess I was also in pajama pants). I led the liturgy of the Word, as that was most familiar to people. I gathered all the pieces for the service. I collected hymns via Youtube and had all the readings typed up and ready to go.

I invited people to join me on the church Facebook page, and I posted the words of the service via our status updates. Before the service began, I invited people to comment and like the hymns. I was shocked how quickly community started to form. I was also shocked how much work it was to lead a service this way.

I found that you are flying blind and have no idea how quickly or slowly to move through the service. It is always tough for me to preach to a camera with nobody else in the room. Despite these obstacles, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive.

Religion and social media have had an interesting relationship. Churches seek to build genuine, deep, rich communities, and social media can present many challenges to this community building. There have been critics ever since the conception of social media. Facebook, Twitter and all other forms of social media are tools; they are not perfect, but they also serve a purpose by connecting people.

I was amazed at how the Holy Spirit was active. One parishioner commented that this idea led her to call an elderly parishioner and say Morning Prayer together since she was not on Facebook. It led another parishioner to begin to think of new ways we can use technology to get our worship services out there to people who cannot make it to church. We had people from Texas, New Hampshire and Nebraska join us for our virtual church service.

It would have been easy to take a Sunday off because of the snow. Believe me, the thought crossed my mind. I am so glad that I did not go that route and was able to see the Holy Spirit move in new and exciting ways. I know in my own life, I do not always take risks as much as I should. The Church is facing a blizzard of challenges in today’s society, and perhaps God is calling us all to be more creative and take more risks. Challenging circumstances are inevitable. How are we going to respond to them?

The Rev Alex Dyer is the Priest-in-charge of St. Paul and St. James Episcopal Church, New Haven, CT

Dreams do come true

by Gail Greenwell

We have waited a long time for this day to arrive, haven’t we? For some of us we’ve waited as long as we’ve known Doug and Kirk as a couple. For some of us, the waiting began long before we even knew them, long before they were even born. For all of us, this day is a dream come true!

It is a dream come true because we have watched their love for one another grow and blossom into something that is clearly holy and life giving. It is a dream come true because we longed for a public declaration of their intention to live together with love and fidelity.

This is a day of dreams fulfilled, because there were times when we doubted … yes, we doubted …. that this day might ever arrive.

We wondered, we whispered to one another, “Will this wonderful couple, our good friends, our own sons, these faithful disciples of Christ, will the day ever arrive when they can stand before us in this sanctuary, in the church home for their entire lives, and publicly declare their intention to hold and to cherish each other for as long as they both shall live?” We had that dream.

We dreamed that this church, which sheltered their sorrow when fathers died before their time, might one day bear witness to the vows they make here today. We dreamed that this church, which nurtured their spiritual awakening from the time they were small boys, might have this opportunity to help them keep their promises fresh and alive. We dreamed that we would have the chance to pray God’s blessing upon them, and to know that entwined with our prayers for them, were prayers for ourselves and the health of our own relationships. We had a dream that this church, which witnessed Doug and Kirk’s dedicated service to all God’s people, to the poor and the outcasts, might one day embrace them in the same way they have embraced others. We had a dream for them.

Yet, on some level this day is a dream come true for those of us who love the church itself. Today we are finally able to say that the church will rise up and live out the true meaning of her creed … as Dr. King might have said. The true meaning of her creed … that all who enter here are God’s beloved. The church’s creed that says that all who are worthy enough to be baptized and marked as Christ’s own forever, are also therefore, worthy of to seek every sacrament of the church.

Our dream could not come true so long as we said “the Episcopal Church Welcomes You”, and there was a small asterisk after “You”.

Or when our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters recited the words of our Baptismal Creed - words such as “strive for justice and peace among all people” and “respect the dignity of every human being” - when we knew, knew in our heart of hearts that ‘all’ didn’t mean all.

Today is a dream - and so I am happy to join with you today, as we become an incarnate sign of God’s redemptive love.

At the core of the Christian faith is a simple and profound assertion: God loves you just as you are. In the Gospel the first and last word is grace. Grace means you don’t have to become or do something before God loves you. That unconditional love is not marginal to our faith, it is central to all we believe. God’s enormous capacity to love is central to the reason we are gathered here today.

Doug, Kirk, my beloved friends, may I just say now, with a certain presumption on my part, I apologize on the church’s behalf that we have come so late to the party. We confess our blindness and hardness of heart.

You have been the better angels of our nature. You have been enormously patient, full of humility and compassion for how long it has taken. You have chosen to clothe yourselves in love, which as the Apostle Paul wrote, “binds all things together in perfect harmony”. Your forbearance for those who could not yet see God in your relationship has been nothing short of miraculous.

Jesus counseled us to do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us, to pray for those who abuse us. And you took his Beatitudes to heart and in so doing; you became the incarnate face of the “issue”. You have helped hearts and minds to change. You did not merely bear with us, you chose to demonstrate the unconditional love and fidelity God has for us. You lived it, showing us day by day, year by year, that what marks us as a true church is not that we agree on all things. But rather, we are faith community because of the times when we are profoundly at odds, deeply challenged, and then, we choose to forgive and love as God loves us.

Doug and Kirk - thank you for giving us a reason to celebrate all of that today. I believe your relationship, like all covenant relationships, has a Divine purpose. What might that purpose be? Well, on some level it is a mystery! It is as mysterious as how one who loves pastel gingham shirts, and singing Broadway show tunes at the top of his voice, falls in love with a boy who prefers Benedictine spirituality and solitude. Yet, anyone of who knows them, know this love works! It has for 22 years and it will endure.

Like any long and enduring relationship, they are better than the sum of their parts. They have supported and held on to each other through times of want and plenty. Kirk said, “My life with Doug in many ways embodies my life with God – when I am separated from Doug I feel less whole, less connected, less ME! When we are connected, I am one with myself and with God”.

Tenderness, care and deep respect, are the first and last breath for them. Their Divine purpose is this: the same Spirit that strengthens them to be a blessing to one another has allowed them to strengthen and bless the relationships of those who know them. They are blessed to be a blessing! And, as a godly side-benefit, their relationship is blessing and strengthening the church for its mission and ministry.

Doug and Kirk:
That is what any godly, covenant relationship should do – draw all of us who are blessed enough to know you, into a deeper place of love and purpose. We, who are fortunate enough to be here today, owe this couple our gratitude. Thank you for loving us enough to make this day a day of dreams come true.

So I want to end as we began, with the words of the Hymn that brought us into the church, “All Are Welcome”, chosen by this couple not only as a theme for their special day, but as our mission as a church. In the last verse we sang:

Let us build a house where all are named, their songs and visions heard, and loved and treasured, taught and claimed as words within The Word.
Built of tears and cries and laughter, prayers of faith and songs of grace, let this house proclaim from floor to rafter:
all are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place. *

I pray that God will help us make it so!

* All Are Welcome, copyright 1994, Marty Haugen, GIA

The Rev. Gail Greenwell is Rector of St. Michael and All Angels and currently one of 5 candidates for Bishop of SW Virginia.
This sermon was preached on January 19, 2013 at St. Michael and All Angels Church in the City of Mission in the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas. This service was the first blessing service in Kansas for a same sex couple since the 77th General Convention approved provisional rites in July 2012. The couple are both life-long members of the parish. The Bishop of Kansas, The Rt. Rev. Dean E. Wolfe also presided.

Spring training

by Emily A. Mellott

Every year, early in January, certain dates imprint themselves on my consciousness: Ash Wednesday (this year, February 13), and the date that pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training (February 10 for the earliest teams, including my Chicago Cubs – your team’s pitchers may report a day or two later.) And then there’s Easter (March 31) and Opening Day (March 31, Rangers at Astros, 8 pm EDT). And so for several weeks, I’ve been aware that this year, Spring Training almost exactly parallels Lent.

For the sake of my personal dreams and wishes, this is a disaster. Every year I promise myself that next year I’m going to Spring Training. And every year, the time comes to book tickets and it turns out that Lent has overwhelmed my calendar – it happens that way for parish priests. But in other ways, this calendar coincidence is perfect.

In Arizona and Florida, in a few places consecrated by hope and sweat and expectation, major league ballplayers start the disciplines of their vocation. The rituals of teamwork take over from individual training or relaxation. Repetition, trial and error mark the path to the perfect pitch, the tight and well-turned double play, the towering home run. And identities are navigated: who’s the starting second baseman this year, and who is the utility infielder; who’s the clubhouse clown, and who steadies the team and pulls everyone together?

It’s the same thing we’re doing in church, after all – in communities all over the country and the world, consecrated by prayer and habit, by inspiring experience and hour after hour of volunteer effort. The rituals of Lent insist on a different focus of attention; one where repentance and renewal takes over from routine and comfort. Trial and error – and then a lot of repetition – mark our liturgical changes and our commitments to fasting and discipline – better known as “giving something up” or “taking something on” for Lent. And we wrestle with our identity – our flaws and our gifts, our hopes and fears – what and who we truly believe ourselves to be.

For me, Spring Training is a fantasy land – a place and a life that I have promised myself, someday – because it’s warm, and relaxed, and open. The sun is supposed to shine on Spring Training, the distinctions between stars and newcomers blur, the players and the fans seem closer together. But most of all, Spring Training is my dream because it is so infused with hope. It’s a blank slate: what happened last year is gone, and everything is possible. It’s a free zone for trial and error – horrible batting averages, team records, or ERAs disappear on Opening Day.

Even though that’s not how I usually think of Lent, it’s what I long for. Wouldn’t it be great if our season of repentance was full of light, refreshment, and openness? Repentance, after all, is the process of profoundly turning back to God. The metaphorical equivalent of midday Arizona sun would help - to see where I’ve gotten to, and how to turn back. That sense of openness to others could turn up God-sightings in unexpected places. Openness is a part of the practice of forgiveness, too – because trial and error happens at least as much in faith as in baseball. And I’m probably not the only one who needs to relax a bit, to stop depending on our schedules and ourselves and our electronic devices, so that we fall further into the hands of God.

Most of all, though, Lent is a time to steep ourselves in hope and possibility and expectation. Professional ballplayers are training for the win: for awards and titles, winning seasons, the World Series. Christians, meanwhile, are training for resurrection: for eternal life breaking in to here and now. We’re training the muscles of the spirit and the heart to reliably produce the kind of hope that sees the presence of God in the world, right in the midst of daily life. We’re training those muscles to produce possibilities for reconciliation, compassion, and healing in the face of prejudice, petty injustice and systemic oppressions. We’re training our bodies and souls for the joy and gratitude and grace so needed as the world turns upside down again and again.

Living resurrection, living in the kingdom of God, is a lot of work. But we don’t do it alone. It takes a team – including the folks who barely get off the bench, the staff who never set foot on the field, and even the fans in the bleachers – to win the World Series or to record a “perfect game.” It takes a team – you and me and Christians we’ve never even met – to make truth out of eternal life and fact of the Kingdom of God.

But I’m convinced that when we get there it’s worth every moment – every year and hour of hope and work and cheering from the bleachers. I like to think it’s sunny and warm – but it might happen on a snowy October night. And if this isn’t the year we win the Series, or the year of your resurrection, then it’s especially good news that Spring Training happens every year – in Arizona, in Florida, and in your local church. And once again, over and over, everything is possible, and hope is the only truth that matters.

So, in that spirit, please forgive me if I slip some Sunday morning, and open the worship service with the immortal words, “Play ball!”

The Rev. Emily A. Mellott, is the rector of Calvary Episcopal Church, Lombard, Illinois and a life-long Cubs fan.

Making a place

by Kathy Staudt

I haven’t posted in awhile because for the last three quarters of 2012, I was in the process of moving, from the split level house where we have lived for 24 years, and where our children grew up, to a newer house, walking distance from my husband’s work, a “tradeup” that worked for us in the current economy.

My goal when we started was to be settled in the new place by Christmas, and we were: we welcomed family and friends and celebrated the new places where we now find ourselves.

And now, moving into the New Year, in the season of Epiphany, I am finally settling down to write, in this spacious, light filled space that is the main floor of the new house. Only now can I begin to reflect on what the move has meant for me.

Though friends have commiserated along the way about how traumatic a move is (some have said “why would you choose to move?”)the process has been oddly serene for me. Yes: it has involved sorting through and throwing out the accumulated mess of 24 years and more. But it has also involved deciding to keep a lot of things that seem to contain our story: we have space, so I have kept boxes of memorabilia from our childhoods and college years, and from our children’s years in school, camp, growing-up-life. Some things we probably should relinquish but cannot yet: our complete collection of vinyl records -- the music we acquired separately and combined into a fabulous classical music collection. We grew and enjoyed that collection during the first decade or so of our married life -- before digital vinyl gave way to CD’s and mp3s. We did throw things away: truckloads, in fact. But we have kept a lot, too.

I have seen this especially as I put our books back on the shelves: the last step in the move-in, which makes me feel fully “at home here.” I arrange them by genre, and alphabetically by author, with special photos and knickknacks breaking up the monotony of library shelves. Fiction and poetry in our large rec room Theology and literary criticism, Bible and more poetry in my own study. As I put the books out I relive my intellectual life. I wonder about the people whose books I’ve bought and not yet read, about the projects ahead of me that some of the books may open up. The library is testimony to an ongoing life of learning. There are books here that I will read or return to. “There you are!” I say to a book that I’ve loved and not seen since June, when I packed so much away to “stage” the old house for sale (Prospective buyers, apparently, would view too many books as “clutter”). These are my friends. It’s good to have them back.

I have of course thrown out boxes and boxes of books, clothes, papers, and given away more. So arranging our things in the new place is not a matter of grasping or attachment. Rather, for me it has been a process of letting our things tell our story. There is something sacramental about the act of placing them here, with intention, in this new place -- as if I were offering for blessing the history that has already formed us, and hoping to give it new space, new expression, in the years ahead.

For this is the turning of a page, with a new chapter of life ahead. There is space here for guests, for new family members should they arrive, for a new way of being together as a couple. As I have sorted and stacked and boxed and unpacked the things that hold our story, our life as a family, I have done so sometimes with surface weariness and stress, but mostly with a deep-down sense of peace, as if God were working in my spirit in ways that I can’t access just now. And the work with the stuff, on the surface has been a good distraction, keeping me out of God’s way.

There are already hints of what this new chapter will bring: 2013 will be the year that I turn 60. It is also the year that we will inherit more “things” -- as we help to close up and sort out both our mothers’ homes, and inherit more things laden with family history. I already see times of both grieving and celebration in the year ahead. So am sure that the process of moving has been a preparation for me, a loosening of control and opening to new things. I emerge from the work of moving now and step into Epiphany. I am deeply curious, turning the page, to see what this new chapter of my life will bring.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph. She works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area and is the author of two books of poetry: "Annunciations, Poems out of Scripture" and "Waving Back:Poems of mothering life", as well as a scholarly study of the modern artist and poet David Jones.

Faith on the streets

An interactive exercise for Café readers: Sara Miles' new book, City of God, looks at faith on the streets. As Ash Wednesday approaches please share your own experiences with liturgy in public places.

by Sara Miles

…This was my neighborhood. And it was God’s. How had I managed to not see God for so long, when he’d been sending out signals for twenty years as unsubtly as a popsicle vendor ringing the bells on his pushcart and screeching paleeeeetas every time I ventured outdoors?

I thought about the plaza at 24th and Mission, where we were going to hold our Ash Wednesday service. The plaza was smack in the center of the Mission and held a special attraction for the most hardcore Christian zealots. I’d more or less ignored them for over a decade. Then after my own unexpected conversion to the faith I listened with new ears, and found myself mortified by the ferocity of their message: Repent… sinner… Zion…everlasting fire...

On the southeast corner of the plaza, a MacDonalds daubed with graffiti sold all-American industrial “tacos” to Mexican families. ...

There was a gaggle of old Nicaraguan men to the northwest, parked on milk crates on the sidewalk, arguing pointlessly about exile politics. A more or less Catholic religious-goods store, its windows clogged with rosaries and medallions and ugly plaster statues of Guadalupe and St. Joseph, was behind them. Open only intermittently, its dingy back counter held candles and powders and a business-like priestess who promised luck, money, revenge, love, protection from the evil eye. ....

Oblivious, a few Jehovah’s Witnesses positioned themselves across from the musicians: plain middle-aged women in glasses and long skirts, silently holding up copies of the Spanish-language Watchtower that nobody ever took. ...

The really serious evangelicals were clustered on the northeast side of the plaza, next to the guys hustling bus transfers. Repent, burn, alleluia, amen, repent. And this was where we were headed: ground zero for prophecies shouted out through crappy little amps, accompanied by tambourines and clapping and the occasional psychotic preacher howling about hell so relentlessly that the transit cops would finally have to tell him to go home.

“Oh my God, Sara,” Martha had groaned, that first year I told her where I was planning to be on Ash Wednesday. “Are you really going over to the plaza in, like, full church drag?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Well, you know, just a few of us, just a little service. Sort of. Ashes. I mean, look, what can I say, I’ve gone over the edge.”

I tried to sound nonchalant, but ever since the idea of celebrating Ash Wednesday in the street had seized me, the line between respectable Episcopal churchgoer and lunatic evangelist had been rapidly eroding. I hadn’t told Martha we were planning to kneel on the sidewalk and pray.

Because there was no line, really. There was no boundary but the very thin layers of skin between my thumb and a stranger’s forehead, made slippery with the shared truth of our mortality. And those ashes, like all blessings, were going to dirty us both up, unleashing a power that flowed back and forth, creating space for the good news to spring up new between us.

Those of us in cassocks on Ash Wednesday, those shouting repentance at rush hour through their amps, were hardly “bringing church to the streets.” If the Mission meant anything, it was about how church––not the buildings, not the tax-exempt legal entities, but the complex, contradictory, earthy, passionate and mutually indwelling body of Christ––was already living there. ....

Read more here and add your experiences in the comments.

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