Tenth Ring

By William H. Murray

I lay in the hospital bed thinking “This can’t be true! Boy, I bought the farm on this one!” Suffering multiple organ failure, I had just received a grim diagnosis that I would be having a danger-laden surgery that would alter my life forever. It was the wages of a life that seemed so successful, but was undergirded by the troika of fear, doubt, and guilt – a three-legged stool.

It would be about a year before I could have the surgery, and I was filled with terror as to how I would live through that year. So I raced to develop and embrace a holistic (holy?) recovery plan to gain the necessary health to avoid, against all odds, the surgery. My holistic plan, fully supported by my doctors, brought the physical, spiritual, and emotional healing that I needed, and surgery became unnecessary.

However, my healing ushered in a new crisis: how was I going to make a living? I had been laid-off from my employer of 30 years and was in no condition to conduct a vigorous job search. After a brief wallowing in my financial bleakness, I figured that I could live indefinitely off of my retirement savings, though it would be an order of magnitude less than my former income.

Although I would miss flying to Paris for escargots, at a moment’s notice, I also felt a sense of peace that I wouldn’t be living that crazy lifestyle anymore, a lifestyle that was ultimately the cause of my illness. I guess I was at the golden moment in my life where I wanted something more fulfilling – sort of a “been there, done that, what’s my next adventure?” After much prayer and soul-searching, I felt drawn to the two non-family loves of my life: church and ballet. I had been a professional ballet dancer in my 20’s, and had always been active in my church. My children were grown and on their own, and I was debt-free. As I thought about this plan, I grew more and more excited and figured that I could devote half of my days to ballet activities (management consulting, simple stage roles, ushering, etc.), and half to church activities, mainly at the diocesan level (management consulting, ministries, study, etc.). I knew that I would be downsizing my lifestyle to a fairly ascetic one, and that I would be sacrificing a lot of things that had made me sincerely happy, including many of my friends who still enjoyed an affluent, though wise, lifestyle. Gone would be the fancy parties, dining out with them, etc. I would miss their company, but I really liked where my life was going.

Much to my surprise, my friends did not abandon me! They knew my financial situation, and the altruistic reasons for it. When necessary, they took care of my expenses when I was with them, and they still included me in their activities. What I realized was that over all these years I had surrounded myself with intensely spiritual people, and yes, they were churched according to their beliefs. Their affluence did not define them any more than one facet defines a diamond. Indeed, it is not wealth or poverty that defines the sin, it’s what we do with our lot in life and our connection to God that most fully defines our glory. Indeed, I had now regained my belief at last.

"There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven…a time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain…a time to tear, and a time to mend, a time to be silent, and a time to speak.” - Ecclesiastes 3: 5 & 7


Bill Murray was born 1952, raised in a suburb of Boston. Attended The Governor's Academy for prep school, then the University of California, Santa Barbara, graduating with a degree in Psychology and in Cultural Anthropology. Was a professional ballet dancer in his 20's. Became VP of a large high-tech company. Raised Methodist, then joined the Episcopal Church in 1979, currently attending St. Bartholomew's Church in Poway, CA. Serve as Chalice Bearer, Lay Eucharistic Minister, and Order of St. Luke. Volunteers at the Office if the Bishop of San Diego. Completed Cursillo in 1997.

A Paradoxy Church

by Paul Bagshaw

What is it with institutions? You can't live in 'em, can't live without 'em.

I wish to suggest that institutions – specifically churches – are inherently paradoxical structures and, while it's hard to live in the midst of paradox, nonetheless paradox has helped the church survive.

Some paradoxes are inherent in all human structures. Time itself creates a central paradox: decisions about the future can only be made retrospectively. Decisions made yesterday in response to a problem which arose the day before are effectively determinative for the following day. Organizations that are ostensibly forward looking are in fact and inevitably walking backwards through a dark forest making blind guesses about its next steps.

Paradox is also built into the role of churches. Churches sustain and validate Christian identity, sponsor mission and substantiate faith, judge innovation and sustain continuity. None of these is a matter of Solomonic judgment. Validation, mission, faith, development and authenticity – the continuous enactment of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church – are not so much decisions as agonistic processes that always remain unfinished. Canons and constitutions, decisions and declarations are merely truces for the time being. The practical consequence is that faith and holiness are evoked and sustained by horse-trading, argument, devotion and bitterness.

206px-Church_of_Saint_Simeon_Stylites_01.jpgMoreover: a church that struggles together, that fights together, is a church that stays together. The quickest way to schism is to proclaim absolute and unnegotiable Truth. (Even this is paradoxical: the proclamation of Truth in such terms entails a claim to power greater the church which nurtured the claimant.) The second quickest is to stop talking to those who disagree with you. For the most part unity and identity depend on pragmatism and conflict: on accepting the coexistence of incompatible expressions of faith within the same organization, and on agreeing to disagree on proper and possible embodiments of God's will, all the while seeking to promote your own judgment against others'.

Churches are always insufficient for the formation of faith: they are also all we've got. Faith is both mundane and transcendent. The most sensitive formation can do no more than teach, lead, prompt, predispose, canalise faith. Faith is essentially God-orientated. In the evocation of faith churches point beyond themselves and yet, simultaneously, churches insist: 'keeping looking at the pointing finger'. Thus they fulfil and frustrate their own goal.

Churches are also always inadequate to the challenges they face in the realisation of faith. The challenge is perennial: to evoke, disclose and validate Christian faith in changing circumstances. Yet digitisation and global communication means that everything is changing so rapidly – think the invention of printing raised to the power 10, at least, – that no institution can possibly keep up. Decisions made yesterday are barely relevant today and forgotten tomorrow.

This is an emotional process. Evocation and realisation of faith has gone into a state of corporate shock. Consequently it can seem perfectly rational to react by diving back into barricaded redoubts and to reassert eternal verities to hold back the chaotic tide of change. It won't work: but it might give some breathing space. It also seems equally rational to articulate and embrace new Christian paradigms and emerging practices. They won't last, though they may enable some adaptation.

Schism and new unities, reclaiming the past and reinventing the future, are aspects of the same processes of uncontrollable change. And no-one can know where, or even if, we'll emerge from the storm. There is only now: all we can do is our faithful best in the moment.

And yet, curiously and positively, it may be that institutional paradoxes are themselves a hope in times of trouble.

Historically the church has repeatedly dragged words, formulae and the gospels themselves out of one intellectual and cultural world-view and re-articulated them in another, sometimes with horrendous violence, sometimes with hardly anyone noticing. It can and will happen again. The lack of a one-dimensional, single-meaning foundation for faith, the polyphony of biblical voices, that Jesus told stories rather than expounded a philosophical treatise, the paradoxical instability and persistence of the institutional church, the capacity of members to reach outside the institution for criteria of validation and action that can only be recognised inside the institution, all give hope for the future. Praise God for uncertainty.

Of course, whatever emerges in some new world, we will still be tormented by paradox and destabilised by doubt. We will still (if we live to see it) love and hate the institution, its heirs and successors. We will still make self-contradictory demands and resent each ambivalent answer. Our battles will be forgotten and new ones will have taken their place. Churches will still be necessary and insufficient, domineering and broken.
But that's the way of institutions: they give life and they stifle it; and hope remains.

The Revd. Paul Bagshaw Paul Bagshaw is priest in two parishes in North Tyneside, UK, not far from the North Sea coast.


"Church of Saint Simeon Stylites 01" by Bernard Gagnon - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution

Why I Believe in God and Not in Santa Claus

by Kathleen Staudt

A piece by T.M. Luhrmann in a recent issue of the Sunday NY Times pointed out that we often clarify our faith commitments by identifying the things that we really don’t believe. That is why arguments between “heresies” and “orthodoxies” can be clarifying (so long, I would say, as they don’t involve politics and violence as they so often have in history). I’ve been doing a lot of reflection lately about what it means to be what I consider to be a reasonable person who is also a person of committed Christian faith – something a lot of people around me seem to find anomalous. Maybe it will help to try to explain a little about what I don’t believe. Perhaps the best place to start is to say that I believe in God, and I pray regularly and joyfully, but I don’t believe in Santa Claus. Nor do I believe in a God who is anything like Santa Claus. Here are some things, following from that, that I don’t believe:

1. I don’t believe that God is always “making a list and checking it twice,” judging us for every mistake and misstep and condemning us for things that our social group would also condemn us for (not being a good person, however that is defined.). I do believe in a God that in some mysterious way desires our thriving and calls us to be our best selves. That’s a different kind of relationship than the Big Brother God who is always watching to see if we have slipped up and expects us to be sorry all the time.

2. I don’t believe that God gives us what we want if only we’re good enough, pray the right way, find the right words. The whole question of why good and bad things happen is, to me, a mystery. I believe that God is in it but I don’t understand it. It is at best magical thinking – left over from childhood – to believe that I can somehow by my good behavior force the universe to do things the way I want them to be done. On the other hand, I do believe that the resources of Scripture and religious traditions and practice give us some clues about how to seek the will of God in some situations, and align ourselves with that – that is behind my own practice of intercessory prayer, a mysterious practice which in my experience does sometimes seem to bear fruit in a powerful way. But I don’t pretend to understand how.

3. I don’t believe that when bad things happen it is because I or someone else has been bad and deserves punishment. That seems to me like a very magical and limited idea – that I can control the universe by my behavior. On the other hand, the religious tradition I have embraced does include many stories of actions that have bad consequences. Usually the stories wind up being stories about the divine mercy – God ultimately returning and restoring the balance that human beings have upset. That story gives me hope.

4. I don’t believe that the Bible is in any sense the literal, dictated word of God, but I do believe that it is “Scripture’ in the sense of giving us a privileged record of human experiences of God that still has much to teach us today. I wish more people knew more about the context and background of the Biblical stories. In my experience, the more I know, the more the stories speak of the mystery of a God – the God of all the Abrahamic traditions – who keeps trying to get through to us, who has some kind of stake in human history and human moral life, and keeps on inviting human beings to grow into their fullest and best selves, despite mighty resistance and ugliness that often comes from the human side. They are stories, giving shape to something that is beyond story and history, but they are a way into the mystery, for me.

5. I don’t believe that people who don’t believe in Christianity – my version or anyone else’s – are going to hell. A lot of Scripture comes out of tribal contexts, and there is a lot of “us and them” language running through it, but if you look at the overarching Biblical story, it is about a God who desires to gather everyone in. At least that’s how I read it, and how many other wise people in the tradition have read it, in different generations. “Us v them,” “Who’s in and who’s out” doesn’t make sense to me.

6. Lately I think the fear of being heard as exclusive or literalistic has sometimes kept people within the Christian tradition from reading the Bible thoughtfully and from embracing the unique and exciting ideas that Christianity brings to the table in the conversation among world religions. I wish we could reflect more about the unique and positive things that Christian faith has to offer, rather than ceding ground to some of these other ways of thinking about God. I long for a deepening of Christian faith among people who have been drawn to it and raised in it, and for honest and thoughtful listening across faith traditions.

MerryOldSanta.jpgI often say to my seminary classes “If there’s anything to what we say we believe, none of us has got it right. “ If there is a God, especially if there is a God who entered history as a human being to show us the way to a greater wholeness, as Christianity claims, then the whole story is ‘way bigger than anything we can grasp or control or understand. But the invitation to live into the story is there. As are the resources of Scripture and tradition. I am grateful for this.


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.


"MerryOldSanta" by Thomas Nast - Edited version of Image:1881 0101 tnast santa 200.jpg.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Thoughts on the future of campus ministry

by Karl Stevens

Part 1 of 2

Campus ministry used to be easy. In the beginning, no such thing had to exist, because most colleges and universities in America were founded by specific denominations, and populated by members of those denominations. Then, in the late 19th century, students at state institutions began forming denominational groups. Some of those denominations called ordained chaplains to minister to them directly. The Episcopal Church didn’t, with some notable exceptions, preferring to establish parishes near campuses and work with student chaplains. And it was pretty clear who those chaplains and parishes were meant to serve - four year residential undergraduates, and graduate students who might stay for longer but certainly lived within the vicinity of the campus and the church.

That model began to break down in the 1960s, as campus unrest led many nearby parishes to disengage. But there was also a larger social trend going on. The mainline denominations began losing members, and the denominational students on campus, who had once created ministries to serve themselves, were now no longer interested in those ministries. The impetus for forming Episcopal communities on campus shifted from the students to church institutions, and this marked the beginning of a decline.
For the past fifty years, the Episcopal Church has tried to keep a presence on campus by hiring campus ministers and chaplains, who sometimes step in to serve healthy and existing communities, but often are charged with creating such communities out of thin air. This has made for challenging work, and the challenge is increasing due to one simple fact: four year residential undergraduates are no longer the majority of American college students.

According to the Higher Education Research Institute only 40.6% of students who enter as full-time undergraduates complete their education in four years. So there goes the idea of a four year education. Couple this with the fact that a growing number of students are part-time or taking online courses, and the percentage of “traditional” students falls to 20%. Yet these are the students that higher education institutions were set-up to cater to, and these are the students that campus ministries have relied on to remain viable. But if they’re not on campus, they can’t be expected to be in campus churches. And for those who are on campus, they don’t value denominational identity in the way that their 19th century forbears did. For the most part, they’re not looking for other Episcopal students to bond with over their shared Episcopalianism.
This obviously presents some very strong challenges to Episcopal campus ministry and to the church in general. But in some ways Episcopalians are more fortunate than our sisters and brothers in other denominations. Because we never separated the idea of campus ministry from parish life, we still have the basic scaffolding that allows outreach to students. While many denominations have closed down the dorms they once owned and sold off their campus ministry houses, we still have viable parishes near campuses that are mostly supported by their own membership, rather than by funding from a diocese or the national church.

Of course, this very blessing requires something of us. Much of what I’ve said about the history of campus ministry in the Episcopal Church comes from a thesis by the Rev. Brian Turner. Brian points out that the clergy who served parishes near campuses in the 19th and 20th centuries were expected to have some scholarship, and to understand “the needs and aspirations and perplexities of youth.” Now that students are of multiple ages and, if they’re taking online classes, are sitting in the pews of churches that are nowhere near a campus, this 19th and 20th century demand that parishes and priests understand students and learn how to speak to them has become universal.

The “needs and aspirations and perplexities” of students are different now then they were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The vast majority of students (87.9%) believe that going to college will help them get a better job. They’re focused on their future earnings potential, but they have good reason to be anxious about this potential, since almost a third of recent college graduates are working in jobs that don’t require a college degree. They’re not finding opportunities to use the education that they paid so much for (the cost of higher education increases by 7.8% per year, which is higher than medical costs and more than double the rise in consumer prices). They’re worried about their future, and they didn’t necessarily take the time in college to wallow in great books and great thoughts. This should come as a relief to priests and parishioners who are worried that they might have to have PhDs to communicate with students. But it also means that these students probably haven’t been introduced to the great intellectual traditions of Christianity, nor have they had the opportunity to think about their faith’s relationship to the classes they took, the life they want to lead, and the ways in which new academic discoveries are shaping the world.

What can parishes do for them? And how can those of us who specialize in campus ministry help parishes engage with the students in their midsts? (read part 2 next)

The Rev. Karl Stevens writes at Praxis. He is an Episcopal Priest and a writer and illustrator. He is exceedingly fortunate to be the Missioner for Campus Ministry with the Diocese of Southern Ohio. He also got lucky when he married the lovely Amy Stevens, with whom he has one glorious child. Early in the summer of 2013 he and a bunch of parishioners from Saint James's in Columbus set themselves on fire to demonstrate the properties of propane mixed with bubbly water and, of course, the power of the Holy Spirit. Everyone else got fantastic flames up and down their arms. Karl found that he had to cosset his flame like a small bird. He's trying not to read too much into that.

Religious tattoos

by Maria L. Evans

"you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own for ever. Amen."--Holy Baptism, p. 308, Book of Common Prayer.

A recent article reminded me of how people don't always understand the most intimate of physical signs that accompany some of us on our faith journey--the religious tattoo. Although the article was written from a Roman Catholic point of view, I think there are parts of it that will resonate with people from a variety of denominations and faiths.

The religious tattoo is perhaps one of the oldest known expressions of faith, dating back as far as first and second century Egyptian Christians. Body art was already long a part of the Egyptian culture; it was a natural progression. It was also a natural progression of any pre-Christian culture that attached a status of protection to tattoos--the Celts, the Polynesians, and many pre-Columbian cultures in the Americas, just to name a few. I would venture to guess that the Christian cross is one of the most popular tattoos in America, if not the most popular one.

Yet large tattoos, even religious themed ones, at the very least, are often given a diffident sniff in polite society, and even called an abomination in others. Their owners, at times are accused of everything from vanity for "wearing one's faith in a showy way," to devil-worship. I know personally, people often find mine puzzling at the least, because I'm a bit older than that 18-to-40 age group where the latest studies show roughly a third of them have at least one tattoo.

But what the article points out is a very important part of many faith journeys--many times there is a story behind that tattoo--a deep and intimate story--of hardship, thanksgiving, faith, or answered prayer. Even the ones that were drunken mistakes have a story and a new meaning may evolve over time. Perhaps even a story of transformation is in there, when one of those mistakes is re-configured as a new tattoo by a skilled body artist.

I know with my own tattoos, I was searching for exactly what we proclaim when a new baptismal candidate is sealed with holy oil and the sign of the Cross--a way that every time I saw it, I knew in my heart of hearts I truly was marked as Christ's own. I didn't always believe that. I still have some days where I lose sight of that. But the mirror doesn't lie. My tattoos will never "officially" qualify as sacraments in our canons, but at a very personal level, they will always be for me a visible and outward sign of an inward spiritual grace.

How might Christ be calling us to the margins in the inked margin of someone else's tattoo? How do we proclaim the Good News in Christ with our own tattoos?


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

Atheist churches and disciple making congregations

by Kathy Staudt

I have been reading with interest about the new movement among atheists to found churches. (an example here) The movement sounds a lot like what we hear in our conversations about congregational development and vitality: Atheist groups are adopting the word “congregation” to meet a widespread craving for what one Atheist pastor calls “a really close knit, strong community that can make strong change happen in the world. And he adds, “It doesn’t require and it doesn't even imply a specific set of beliefs about anything.”

His use of the word “require” reminded me of a character in one of Mary Gordon’s novels who quips that “Episcopalians are not required to believe in anything but the beauty of the burial service.” It’s a joke, but there’s some truth to it: We too have shied away from insisting publicly on “required” beliefs, in the desire to invite seekers, but we do still say the creed, commit to the baptismal covenant, retell the story of salvation at every Eucharist. To get people in the door we are more likely to promise things like close knit community, hospitality, a commitment to outreach. I was groping around for what seemed to be to be missing here: what is the difference between an atheist church and an Episcopalian Christian church, if it’s not just about “required beliefs.” What is the point of church anyway? The emergence of atheist “congregations” requires us to look anew at that question, in our own congregations.

I would say that though the difference is obviously in part about belief --God v. “not God” -- it goes deeper than that. What attracts people to an atheist church is a spiritual “practice” of gathering and sharing values. “Practice” has of course been a buzzword of late in congregational development circles and I will return to this in a moment -- but I would suggest that the purpose of Christian congregations is not just spiritual practice for our own sake, but practice in the service “disciple-making”, and all that goes into it. What if we thought about our congregations, our nurturing, our welcome, our outreach, in terms of sustaining discipleship, giving people what they need in order (to use Brian McLaren’s words in A Generous Orthodoxy) “to be and to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world.”

A disciple is someone who follows a master, who adopts practices modeled by the leader (“make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”, Jesus says at the end of Luke’s gospel). And this is done in the service of a larger vision -- as our catechism puts it the desire “to reconcile the world to God in Christ.” What might it look like to use this as the basis for mission building and ministry review in our churches -- to ask “How are we doing at making and sustaining disciples of Jesus, for the healing of a broken world?” I’d suggest three ways we might think about this, in our worship, our community life and our formation, and the headings are “Story,” “Practice,” and “Participation”

“Story” -- We have a story to tell, and it is good news. How can churches help people to own this for themselves and for their lives? A practice that has been neglected in our denomination, is helping people to learn and own the story of Scripture. We tell this story at the Eucharist each Sunday and we hear a lot of Scripture read in church, but the energy for discipleship comes when we can see ourselves in the story of God’s work in human history, understanding context, history, and ways of reading Scripture. Becoming more scripturally literate, as individuals and as congregations, can help us see how God’s story is unfolding in our own time. The process of grappling with Scripture, using our imaginations and our reason to make sense of it for our time, can be both creative and energizing, and it connects us to others who have found Christian faith to be life-giving and exciting. I was excited to see the diocese of Washington adopting an online curriculum that encourages people to study Scripture as “the Story” . This is foundational to who we are.

“Practice” -- It is now well documented that vital congregations can point to particular practices -- ways that people live out their faith through prayer, service, discernment, in that particular community. These practices are not just about self improvement - they connect implicitly to a vision for discipleship -- what do we do to keep ourselves alert to opportunities to live out our Christian discipleship in our lives? What opportunities do churches provide for us to practice our faith, through prayer, discernment, study, service, hospitality? These practices are not ends in themselves, to make us feel better or even personally “closer to God.” They are about forming us as disciples of Jesus - whatever that may mean in our time. My favorite “practice” is the practice of the discernment -- finding ways to attend to what God might be doing and how we might participate in this.

“Participation” -- The more we read the story, the clearer it becomes that we are called, not to change the world all on our own, but to participate in something that God is doing. One of my favorite prayers in the prayer book ends “let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which have grown old are being made new, and all things are being brought to their perfection in Jesus Christ. . . . (BCP 280) What if each congregation asked “how are we participating in the New Thing that God is always trying to do in us and in our lives? Where do we see this happening here, in the places where we find ourselves, and in our corporate lives?

Of course I am using language about “God” and “Jesus” and Scripture in laying out this vision of discipleship as the mission of congregations, but without being very clear about “required” beliefs. . I think we work out what we believe about God and Jesus and discipleship in practice, and that is why we begin with worship and corporate prayer. That is the experience that churches offer that differs from a community center or a neighborhood group. “Praying shapes believing,” we tend to say as Episcopalians -- so do our practices of discipleship. As we seek ways to “follow Jesus” we find out what we believe about him.

I wonder what it would look like if we used the standard of “making disciples” as a way of designing mission statements and reviewing ministry in our congregations. What would it look like for leaders to begin, not with the question: are we giving people what they want, in a tight-knit community? but rather “How are we doing at making and supporting disciples of Jesus? And what particular ways are we doing that in this congregation?


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.

The Higgs Boson, the God particle, the Christ

by Sam Candler

The naming of the Nobel Prize for physics is always cool. But it is especially cool this year, because the winners were involved in the conceptualization and discovery of the Higgs Boson, a particle so tantalizing and theoretically necessary that it came to be called the “God Particle.” Congratulations to Peter Higgs and Francois Englert, winners of 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics!

The Higgs Boson, a sub-atomic particle, was theorized many years ago as the particle which allows other particles to have mass. (Higgs and Englert were the first to document its possible existence, way back in the 1960’s.) I make no claim to know theoretical physics, but the Higgs Boson is apparently the reason other particles in our universe cohere together instead of simply flying off in a hundred million different tiny directions (okay: many more than a hundred million). If your physics knowledge is as shallow as mine, you might enjoy the short and delightful explanation in this video: “The Higgs Boson Explained.”

But I was going to talk about God. Since it was theorized so long before its actually detection (detection came in July of 2012, at the Large Hadron Collider), the Higgs Boson came to be called the “God Particle.” It was the reason every other particle had mass. It was the reason every other particle came to be created; it was, and maybe is, the “God Particle.”

Well, I like that name: the “God Particle.” Yes, God is someone I talk about a lot. God is someone I have theorized about, though I have sure had a hard time detecting God sometimes. Yes, God is someone I have spent a large part of my life trying to discover. My understanding is that many, many other people have been trying to discover God, too!

It used to be that we thought the “atom” was the smallest indivisible particle of the universe. Over two thousand years ago, the very word was formed from “-a,” meaning “not,” and “temno,” meaning “cut.” An “atom” is uncuttable, indivisible. As recently as the nineteenth century, we considered the “atom” the smallest indivisible part of creation.

But we’ve come a long way in a hundred years. We human beings have discovered that atoms consist of protons and electrons and neutrons, and then they consist of leptons and quarks and muons and charms and stranges and who knows what else. And it goes on and on. I am convinced that it goes on and on. I want our discovery to go on and on. The world is a better place when we make scientific theories and discoveries and confirmations.

However, I have another hypothesis for what we might truly call the “God Particle.” I discovered an energy long ago, which I believe is responsible for life and growth and energy at all levels of existence. It goes by many names, but I have come to call it the “Christ Particle.” And it is not restricted to Christians (Raimundo Pannikar writes about The Unknown Christ of Hinduism).

It is the Christ Particle which creates life and makes things hold together. From primal elements, creation is formed; the Christ is the power of that creation. From dismal misery, love explodes; the Christ is that power of love. Even in times of destruction and betrayal, the Christ brings forgiveness and reconciliation. That power is massive and incredible. It is also the Christ energy which inspires learning and discovery!

The Christ Particle will never be measured by our technology and machines. It is undiscoverable by empirical or scientific means. I have nothing against science. We need empiricism and science; in fact, we need more of it! But science will never discover this particular God Particle. This Christ Particle is what we are looking for, the energy point of creation. It is why other particles attract to each other. One might even claim that the true Christ particle is the opposite of entropy. It is the energy particle, the ultimate force that loves us together.

Yes, it is the smallest particle in the universe. But, it is also the largest. It is the most mysterious, and it is right before us every day. Blessings to all who seek the seemingly impenetrable secrets of the universe; I am pulling for you, and you will go on and on! But blessings, too, to who all who seek the mystery of Christ, who is the image of God, and in whom all things hold together. “Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in Christ all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through Christ and for Christ. Christ himself is before all things, and in Christ all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:15-17).


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

Forgiveness is not re-booting or cache clearing

by George Clifford

On a recent trip, I visited a public library where I had previously used a convenient, free Wi-Fi hotspot. Unlike my prior visits, I could not connect to the Internet even though my computer received a strong signal from the network. After I rebooted my computer and still had no success, I spoke with one of the librarians. She was very pleasant, informed me that several people had complained about difficulties connecting to the internet that day, asked if I had tried rebooting my computer, and then apologetically told me that library policy does not authorize the staff to reboot the network.

Both the librarian and I were aware that rebooting can correct many computer glitches, sometimes so effectively bringing closure to problems and rectifying the situation that no trace of the prior difficulties remains.

Driving from the library to another Wi-Fi hotspot prompted me to reflect on rebooting. Most people probably have a few moments when they wish that humans came equipped with a reset button with which to reboot life or a relationship, moments for which we want (or need) forgiveness and/or closure.

Humans, however, differ from computers. Rebooting a life, or even a relationship, is impossible. Our brains record data from every experience. Some of that data may degrade over time, some may become inaccessible to one's conscious mind, but no data set is ever likely to be entirely deleted (apart from permanent brain injury or a debilitating neurological disorder).

Popular theological and spiritual descriptions of forgiveness as wiping the slate clean therefore rely on an unhelpful metaphor. We can more powerfully conceptualize forgiveness by picturing it as removing the barrier that an injury or wrong places between two people, or even between God and a person.

For example, in the fifth chapter of John's gospel, Jesus tells a paralytic, Walk! The paralytic, and probably most of those present, shared the worldview that paralysis resulted from sin, that is, a wrong done to God or neighbor prevented the person from walking. Jesus' injunction to walk shattered that perceived barrier, communicated forgiveness, and brought healing. The gospel is also clear: the paralytic, after his healing, remembered his paralysis and, by inference, the circumstances that had led to his paralysis.

Decades of ministry have taught me to recognize the paralysis that sin causes. One of my first parishioners refused to enter the church, insisting that a nameless, unforgivable sin would cause the roof would collapse. In retrospect, I now recognize that parishioner lived in the shackles of paralysis caused by sin. Other cases of paralysis caused by sin were perhaps less dramatic but no less real: individuals trapped in dead-end, destructive relationships convinced that s/he deserved nothing better; individuals unwilling to succeed, believing that they merited only failure; etc.

Most of us have moments that we wish a rebooting would delete. Those moments need not paralyze us; the reality of forgiveness can shatter the barrier or barriers that prevent us from living abundantly. Jesus incarnated God's forgiveness; his words to the paralytic echo across the years, words we can hear him speak freshly and directly and freshly to us: Take up your pallet and walk; live fully, as God intended.

One of my pet liturgical peeves is people pausing between two inseparable phrases of the Lord's Prayer: forgive us our trespasses PAUSE as we forgive those who trespass against us. The PAUSE insidiously implies that experiencing God's forgiveness is detached from our forgiving others when actually the two are indivisible. Resenting others blinds and deafens us to God's grace; spiritually, and perhaps otherwise, negativity immobilizes us.

Yet forgiveness is not rebooting. Living with moments that we would prefer to delete and the associated remorse can help us to learn from our mistakes and to avoid, at least some of the time, hurtful repetition.

If rebooting – starting fresh with no lingering memories of the past – is impossible for humans, is closure also impossible?

The phenomenon of people explicitly talking about closure is relatively new. Couples ending their relationship want closure. Bereaved persons seek closure. Families missing a loved one (a member of the armed services missing in action (MIA), a person presumed to have died in a natural disaster but whose body remains undiscovered, etc.) yearn for closure. Traumatized persons pursue closure, wanting to move ahead with life free of their injurious past.

Aiming for a type of closure that connotes erasing all memory of a relationship, no matter how desirable, is to tilt quixotically at windmills. The physiological reasons that prevent human rebooting also thwart any closure that entails erasing memories. Furthermore, the plasticity of the human brain records and then subsequently contributes to the unique interaction of the physical and experiential that shapes an individual. Erasing every residual memory trace of a relationship, regardless of how painful or damaging the relationship, would alter a person in presently unimaginable ways.

Instead, genuinely constructive closure adds a new layer or sequence of experiences to an existing relationship, as an author might add a new chapter to a book or a composer might append additional measures to an existing opus. The new complements or completes rather than replaces the old. A couple may rejoice for what they shared, jointly acknowledge what has changed, and together release the other from the vows that once expressed their mutual claims upon the other. Symbolically, the bereaved says goodbye to the deceased, admits to feeling abandoned (or other negative feelings), and takes the first tentative steps to a new life. Families tell stories to remember the missing and honor the life shared; through caring expressions for others, done in the name of their beloved, they can give the gift of hope and enable the missing to live again. Traumatized persons may metaphorically burn their memories, expressing their decision to not allow a painful, injurious past to monopolize the present, discovering in the release living springs from which spiritual gifts flow.

Forgiveness and closure, unlike rebooting, are inflection points in the spiritual life. The option for Reconciliation of a Penitent in the Book of Common Prayer's Pastoral Offices and the new liturgy for the Dissolution of a Marriage are helpful rites for marking and more fully experiencing God's grace in inflection points. We would do well to create more such liturgies, for in inflection points God acts, barriers fall, and we experience life a little more abundantly.

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.

The Most Important Word in the Bible

by Sara Miles

[John 16:12-15]

It’s summer, and I work at a church, so I’m getting a fairly incessant barrage of emails from church youth groups all over the country asking if we have any last-minute volunteer opportunities for their coming mission trips to San Francisco. Can fifteen or twenty of their teenagers come to our food pantry some Friday and work for us? Do we know about any other service opportunities, since they’ll be here for three days and would like to do something for the homeless, or the hungry, or people in need?

They are so nice. And I always feel snappish. Partly it’s that our food pantry really can’t take groups: we’re just not big enough to have tasks for everyone, and I know what a drag it is for volunteers to stand around with nothing to do. But part of my frustration with mission trips has to do with my understanding of the Holy Trinity.

Let me explain. Recently I’ve been reading an article by Samuel Wells [link: http://thecresset.org/2013/Easter/Wells_E2013.html], a theologian from Duke University and a priest currently working in England, who’s writing about a new framework for understanding Christian service. He’s not interested in what Christians want to do, think they should do, or even actually do for the poor. He’s interested what he calls, shamelessly, the most important word in the Bible.

It’s sort of like a theological party game. What’s the most important word in the Bible? Jesus? Love? Mission? God? Sin? Mercy? What do you think?

Samuel Wells, and here is where I think the Holy Trinity comes in, says the most important word in the Bible is…. with. It’s a trick question, but I have to agree: the most important word in the Bible is with.

The Trinity is, at heart, about with: about what Christians call “perichoresis.” This is the dance in which Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one being, existing through their mutual relationship. And God is always gathering all humanity into that undivided relationship, bringing us all into life with God.

Remember, at the beginning of John’s Gospel: “The Word was with God.” And Proverbs: “When God fixed the foundations of the earth…..I was there, ever at play in God’s presence, delighting to be with the children of humanity.” In other words, before time began, before anything else, there was a with. And until the end of time, there is a with, as Jesus promises: behold, I am with you always. With is the most fundamental thing about God.

With. And so we open our worship saying: the Lord be with you. And so we proclaim that the Word made flesh came to dwell with us. And so we call his name Emmanuel, meaning: God with us. And so we bless our gatherings saying: the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all.

Notice: with, not for.

Because God is not actually for us: except in my crazy, private triumphalist fantasies in which God, who takes my side always, will magically appear and smash my enemies. God is not doing nice things for us, like strangers on mission trips who appear, hand out random goodies and go home. God is not for us in the sense that God is always going to be giving us what we want, protecting us from illness and harm, and making us rich.

God’s just with us. God sticks with us. Accompanies us. Delights in us, plays with us, suffers and abides with us. In trouble and in doubt, when everything goes perfectly and when things fall apart: God is with us.

Trinitarian theology has a reputation for being difficult. But I think the real challenge isn’t intellectual or doctrinal–– “Oh, it’s so complicated, how can three be one?” I mean, that’s sort of like saying, how can I possibly be Sara who’s Katie’s mother and Sara who’s Sylvia’s colleague and Sara who’s Roberto’s neighbor? Am I three separate persons, three Saras? No, of course not: I’m just one, existing with different people. All my relationships inform each other—who I am as Sylvia’s colleague affects and is affected by my relationships with my neighbors and family––but I’m actually not three separate persons.

And the Trinity is not three separate beings: God only exists in relationship. With God’s self, and with us. That’s the challenge. Because this understanding of the Holy Trinity, if we model ourselves on it, changes everything. Our lives as Christians must mean being with others the way God is with us. With, not for.

Doing for, as mission groups and lovers and parents know, is super-tempting: it’s easier and often feels safer than being fully with. Let me act on your behalf, doing something for you as if my being were somehow separate from yours. Let me hand you a sandwich at a sanctified distance. Let me solve your homework problems without getting entangled in your other problems. Let me send you some flowers to apologize when I’ve been snappish, without having a real conversation.

Being with is riskier. If I wait and listen and show you what I’m really like, my life becomes implicated in yours: we are no longer separate. And I might get changed by our relationship.

Recently, I was at home working on a deadline. It was a beautiful warm day, and all the windows were open, and I was trying to focus on my writing and not get distracted. And then from the street I heard someone loudly wailing: “Help, help, help, help…” I looked out the window but couldn’t see anything. I waited, thinking that maybe a neighbor, or a teacher from the school across the street would respond. The wailing continued. “Help, help, help.”

“Oh, man,” I thought. “I bet it’s just that drunk lady who hangs out on the corner, but I guess I should go down and make sure everything’s OK,” and I went outside.

It was that drunk lady on the corner…a puffy, bruised, middle-aged woman who bounces back and forth between the street and the hospital and the county jail without ever getting sober; who mostly either sits on the sidewalk and moans, lies on the sidewalk in a stupor, or passes out.

I’d talked with her a few times before, when she was a little more alert and had been able to walk down the block. Once she wanted to chat about the baby she was expecting—this was a total fantasy, as far as I could see––and it occurred to me that she might be really demented or mentally ill, as well as suffering from alcohol poisoning.

But now she wasn’t talking. She was just moaning. “Help, help, help.” I asked if she wanted me to call an ambulance for her. No, the drunk lady said. Did she want me to get food for her? No, she said. Then she started wailing again—not even “help,” this time, just moaning. “Wo, wo, wo, wo.” She was crying. She was impossible. I couldn’t do a damn thing for her. And so I just sat down with her while she wailed. I think I said something stupid like, “I’m sorry you feel so bad.”

And after a while she stopped, and closed her eyes, and we sat there some more. I got up to go home, and crossed the street, and she started crying again, and a neighbor came out of her house and addressed me. “This is very upsetting,” she said, crossly. “I have little kids, and I don’t want them to hear this. Can’t we call someone to take her somewhere they can do something for her?”

“No,” I said, “I don’t think so.”

The neighbor introduced herself to me, and she said again how messed-up and upsetting this was, and I agreed, and we talked together for a while as she walked with me back to my front steps.

Sometimes there is nothing to do for anyone. I hate that. I can’t tell you how much I want to make things better by doing something for people, and how little it turns out I want to just be with them. Because if I have to be with them—well, then someone is drunk and crying, and she just wants another person to be with her in her unhappiness, and I have to sit there. Or she’s upset and worried about her kids, and she just wants another person to be with her in her anxiety, and I have to stand there and let her see how useless I am. Or I’m scared –about meeting my deadline, or not doing the right thing, or being snappish, and I have to let my own weakness and neediness show to all kinds of other people.

Being with people means I can’t leave messages for them on their phones, at a time I conveniently know they won’t be there. I can’t do good deeds for them and go home. In fact I can’t do anything for them: I have to abide with them––even if for ten whole minutes––and allow them to abide with me.

The most important word in the Bible is the most important word in our lives: and it is a word made flesh. God lives with us, just as Jesus lives with the Father, and we with one another, and the Holy Spirit, the very breath of life, lives with us all. Amen.

Sara Miles is Directory of Ministry at St Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco; she's the author of Take This Bread, Jesus Freak, and City of God (forthcoming January 2014.)

Into the Woods: installation of a Vicar

by Anthony "Bud" Thurston

I’ve chosen some words from the Broadway musical, written by Stephen Sondheim, entitled, “Into the Woods.” This musical is essentially a parable about foreboding wilderness and bright hilltops; about superficial deceit and deep human compassion; about terrifying wolves and giants and warm and engaging children—and at one and the same time this musical has dark implications as well as a sweet simplicity.

In other words, “Into the Woods” is a musical about what it means to be an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church and what it means to serve the people of God in this community. What is happening to all of you tonight---vicar and parishioners—if we’re willing to tell the truth--brings with it both foreboding wilderness and bright hilltops, superficial deceit and deep human compassion, terrifying wolves and giants and warm and engaging children—both dark implications and sweet simplicity.

Remember the words sung by the whole cast at the end of the play? It goes like this:

Though it’s fearful,
Though it’s deep, though it’s dark,
And though you may encounter wolves,
You can’t just act,
You have to listen.
You can’t just act,
You have to think.
So it’s
Into the woods
You go again,
You have to
Every now and then.

Into the woods,
No telling when,
Be ready for the journey.

In many ways, Patricia, I think this installation puts you into the woods…and, as the song says, at times “the way is dark, the light is dim, but now there’s you, me, her and him…so you are not alone. No one is alone”.

What I have to say to you and to this community gathered here tonight is nothing fancy, nothing pious, nothing really very new. It’s just some good advice from a friend, a fellow priest and a person who wishes you all the best in your ministry…and someone who has come to know you and appreciates your many unique gifts and talents --and someone who personally and professionally admires you.
So here we go…….

First, be who you are. There is a lot of mythology in our church that says you are a “role” before you are a person. You are not here to be a thespian or actor—this parish is not theater—this isn’t make-believe. This is real life. And you are the right person to be able to give who you are to this congregation and community.

Secondly, a lot has been said about the importance of clergy providing leisure time for themselves. My suggestion is that you worry less about leisure time and concentrate on hard work. Edison was right: Genius is one part inspiration and nine parts perspiration. This parish will take work and all of the skills that you posses to decide which issues are the most important. Since the church is only the church in community, it will take effort to know how this church can continue to be alive in the community of Nehalem/Manzanita and beyond. I’ve already said that you have some particular and special talents to use in being a co-creator with God, but it will take much work and effort on your part and the part of the people of St. Catherine’s.

Third, related to this…you have to pick your battles. Probably enough said on that one.

Fourth, don’t waffle on the issues. Doug Fontaine who used to be the Dean of St. Mark’s in Minneapolis told me more than once, “Often wrong, but never in doubt.” Unlike the Apostle Paul, we can’t be “all things to all people” without speaking out of two sides of our mouth. Call ‘em the way you see ‘em…be loving (and I know that you are), but be clear.

Fifth, everybody will tell you that you are called as a vicar to be a prophet. It’s important to be a prophet. But a modest caveat: I’ve found that it is prudent, for the most part, to reserve your prophetic instincts to when you have been invited to preach at someone else’s parish. So invite “visiting prophets” here...and do it around the issues that you, yourself, wish everyone to be clear about.

Sixth, don’t take yourself, or anyone else, too seriously. When people tell you that you are the greatest priest they have ever know, thank them, and remember the sinner that you really are. Then, when people rail at you and suggest that you are the singular curse upon Christendom, thank them, and remember that you are made in the image of God, you are absolutely unique, and you are intimately and forever loved by God. I know that you have a wonderful capacity for fairness and humor. God knows this place will need it, you will need it, and this community will find it refreshing.

The musical, “Into the Woods” concludes with these words:

Into the woods—
You have to grope,
But that’s the way
You learn to cope.

Into the woods
To find there’s hope,
Of getting through the journey.

Into the woods—
Each time you go,
There’s more to learn
Of what you know.

Into the woods
Into the woods
Into the woods
And happy ever after.

Patricia, this is what I hope and pray your journey here at St. Catherine’s will be like: “Into the woods, then out of the woods and happy ever after.”

I say this with full recognition that all of the woods are not necessarily bad; and that to emerge from the woods is not always necessarily good; and “happy ever afters” are sometimes far between.

But let me offer a final word”
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise…think about these things.

God bless you my friend, on this new journey. And know that you have blessed each of us by your calling and by your love and friendship.

Amen

Excerpt from a sermon preached on the occasion of the Celebration of Ministry and Installation of a Vicar at St. Catherine of Alexandria/Santa Catalina de Alejandría, Nehalem OR by the Very Rev. Anthony "Bud" Thurston, former Dean of Trinity Cathedral in Portland OR and currently serving St. Barnabas Episcopal Church as Interim Rector.

Spring has sprung

by Linda Ryan

Back in the Dark Ages, when I was a kid, we had a goofy little rhyme that went, "Spring has sprung, the grass has riz, I wonder where the flowers is?" It used to be fairly true when I lived back east where there were really four seasons of varying lengths each year, hence the rhyme. This year in many parts of the country, people are probably wondering if spring will ever arrive since the snow keeps falling and the temperatures hover somewhere between cold and d*** cold. Here in Arizona we're enduring the all-too-brief spate of lovely temperatures that mean the summer heat isn't far behind. Oh, well. We enjoy it while we can and remember what it was like to live elsewhere where the weather was a bit more unpredictable.

Spring usually has the connotation of things waking up from winter sleep, a time of growth change and renewed activity. Ecclesiastically, this spring has marked an expected change or two along with some rather unexpected ones. Last year the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, announced that he would be retiring at year's end which meant the selection of a replacement who would be elevated early in the new year. A surprising turn came with the resignation of the pope, Benedict XVI, an occurrence that hadn't happened in 600 years, and the rather quick calling-together of the college of cardinals to elect his replacement. It was rather odd, having the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, enthroned the same week that the new Pope, Francis I, assumed the throne of Peter. It was like seeing spring suddenly opening the door and making an appearance. Hopefully, it won't be a false spring.

They are very different men in very different circumstances. Archbishop Welby might be able to go jogging without too much hassle from ordinary folks, but the pope's short forays outside the Vatican are the cause of his guards' discomfiture not to mention the raised eyebrows of those more used to a secluded pope who only appears at specified times and with extreme security. Still, both have groups of people looking to them to bridge the gaps and set change in motion, change that will be for the growth of the kingdom and the benefit of the people.

Both men face challenges, of that there is no doubt. Both seem to have liking for a less rigid, more simple lifestyle and way of doing things. Both have had experience in pastoral settings with people in the real world as opposed to a more academic, enclosed experience. Both have assumed leadership of religious groups that are far from tranquil and running smoothly through the days. Both churches face the problems of existing in and actually being part of a modern world while still holding on to ancient traditions and beliefs. Membership is declining despite some claims to the contrary. Giving is down, there are clergy shortages. Issues seem to be focused around the subject of sex and sexual orientation, one involving the rightful place of GLBTs in society and the church, the other the seeming tidal wave of pedophile cases which seem to keep appearing. Some issues are discussed openly and fairly widely, some very secretly and securely behind closed doors. There are parties in both churches who want to pull up the drawbridge and keep the tide of change out while others want to do exactly the opposite. Both churches seem to be balanced on a teeter-totter, and the respective church heads, the ABC and the Pope are the fulcrums.

How both churches face their challenges and respond to them will mark how successful a spring they have had, just like the fall harvest is dependent on the spring rains and the summer sun. Too much or too little rain, too much or too little sun and the crops will fail and there will be people starving by winter time. Spiritual famine is a deadly thing, and it isn't always that far away. If Jesus preached a gospel of hope, some of those who follow him seem to have lost the message somewhere.

But there's a stirring of hope in both churches as a result of the new leadership they have chosen, or rather that the Holy Spirit has chosen and nudged the selectors/electors into confirming. The starts look promising, but the honeymoon period is still in effect. The test will come all too soon when a bit of the newness wears off and we see how they handle the various problems they have inherited from their predecessors. A question too is how well and how closely they will work together to help bring about the kingdom Jesus proclaimed.

So spring has come and with it new hope and promise. It will be interesting to see how things develop on both fronts as summer comes on. Hopefully we will not see an early winter coming before the leaves begin to fall from the trees. Meanwhile, prayers go up for both, that they have the strength and courage to face the challenges ahead and the humility to accept that change may and even should be necessary.

May the light of Christ shine on them, and on those of us who look to them for hope, guidance and a reflection of Jesus in the world that sorely needs that reflection.



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

Cleveland: where there is life there is hope

by Rosalind Hughes

Gina DeJesus went missing not long after we moved to Ohio, and her name stayed with me. Every so often over I would hear it used as a marker for loss, a symbol of the decline of our neighborhoods, the unravelling of the fabric of fellowship between those living in the same village, the rifts between us that let people fall between the cracks in the sidewalk and disappear.

I came home to Cleveland on Monday night and heard her name again. Amanda Berry had called 911, and with her were Michelle Knight and Gina DeJesus. It was incredible.
It was incredible because no matter what we told ourselves, we had as a city honestly given up hope that they would be found, much less alive, and here they were, astonishing our expectations.

I wrote on Tuesday about the difficulty of this strange good news, coming as it did on a wave of grief for the years lost, a decade of despicable actions; for the lives lost, the innocence destroyed, the pain and heartache suffered, the trust worn away; for the grief for those still waiting to be found.

Those who held on through the decade waiting for this moment of release were not hoping for this: that they had been abused, kept prisoner, that a child had been born and raised in captivity. This was a strange way to fulfill the hope for restoration.
Remember the fairy tales and their happy endings, in which "they all lived happily ever after"? They can only take place on the last page, fixed in place by the hard back cover, because as long as life continues it will continue to be complicated by conflicting joys and sorrows.

“Where there’s life, there’s hope,” goes the saying, paraphrased from the philosophical Ecclesiastes, but hope takes effort and endurance, which is why we so often give it up. Our salvation stories teach us that good news is rarely the same thing as a happy ending; yet where there is life there is hope.

I hope that out of this, a man may recognize the evil in his deeds and repent. I hope that those who turned away will find their eyes opened and their voices raised against cruelty and oppression. I hope that we may find ourselves driven to rebuild our neighborhoods, our communities. I hope that one little girl may grow up stronger than anyone might expect. I hope that where there is life, there is room for healing.

Good news is not the same as a happy ending. While we celebrate what has been found, we cannot restore what was lost. But we can go on living in hope.


Rosalind Hughes is a transatlantic transplant and recently ordained priest serving the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio. She blogs at Over the Water.

See Hughes Tuesday reflection below:

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Cloning faith and hope

by Maria L. Evans

All my hope on God is founded;
he doth still my trust renew,
me through change and chance he guideth,
only good and only true.
God unknown,
he alone
calls my heart to be his own.
--"All my hope on God is founded," #665, The Hymnal, 1982

I'll let you in on a strange little secret. If I could be given free rein and the intelligence to do any mad scientist sort of activity, I'd clone a dodo.

Yeah, I realize all the "Jurassic Park" arguments. I'm pretty sure that cloning a wooly mammoth or a saber tooth tiger or a T. Rex or a velociraptor would be a really bad idea, since the ecosystem has changed so much since the time they were around. But the dodo has only been gone about 350 years, and it's gone because it was easy prey for all the invasive species that sailors brought to their natural habitat, along with the fact humans scavenged and ravaged that same habitat.

You might ask, why a dodo? Why not a Passenger Pigeon, or a Carolina Parakeet, or a Labrador Duck, or for that matter, the Pallid Beach Mouse, or my favorite on name alone, the Syrian Wild Ass?

Well, I think it's because the dodo's so...well...legendary. It would be fun to see how much of the legend was fact, and how much of the legend was legend. Also, if it's true that the dodo only laid a single egg, and put an egg-shaped stone in the nest as a decoy, it seems that it was a wonder a bird that doesn't even recapitulate its own population managed to be around as long as it was. In a roundabout way, the dodo is a story of hope.

Hope is a strange critter. At first glance, it's so delicate and oddly shaped, that one would think tossing it out into the air would simply cause it to plummet to the ground and shatter. Sometimes, that's exactly what happens to hope--it's a flightless as a dodo and appears, at times, to be just as extinct. I think that sometimes, like the dodo, we place a rock next to our eggs of hope as a decoy--because we certainly don't want anyone to think that we really are investing in such a delicate species that is incredibly hard to rear in the hostile, invasive environment of war, poverty, and greed. It is, in some ways, also a wonder that hope has lasted this long.

It's been said that Christianity itself is a dodo--mostly in the light of the statistics of declining enrollments of mainline Christian denominations. Part of the legend of the dodo is that it was a clumsy, awkward, unattractive bird--and honestly, the non-theistic detractors of Christianity have alluded that Christianity is, too. Well, frankly, if we only considered all the evil that has been unleashed on the world in the name of Christianity, its detractors have a point.

Yet, we are still here. Still standing. Maybe, our Christian hope is a little more like the large-billed reed warbler--believed extinct for over 150 years--but as it turns out, there are still communities of them, and the most optimistic folks studying them wonder if some of those colonies are just shy of being stable populations, despite their small numbers.

Interestingly enough, biologists have a name for species once thought extinct that turn out to be very much alive--they call them "Lazarus species."

What part of our faith and hope this Easter season could stand a little cloning?


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

Shroud of Turin and physics of resurrection

by Julian Sheffield

Mr. Fanti's hypothesis cited in "Turin Shroud Going on TV, With Video From Pope" (New York Times, March 30), that the image on the Shroud of Turin resulted from "a very intense burst of energy" recasts the Shroud as a testament to Christ's Resurrection, and not, as currently revered, a relic of Christ's passion and death. This is a crucial reconception, one that makes sense of the scriptural record, and suggests that the morbid, and ultimately destructive, fascination of Christianity with the suffering of Christ is misplaced.

The scriptural record of the Resurrection of Christ has been interpreted as hoax, mass hypnosis, metaphor, and fact. While we live, none of us will know for sure which interpretation is closest to truth, but assuming arguendo that it contains fact, assuming arguendo that there is a God who became human in an extreme act of solidarity with humanity, the question of how it can be true demands to be explored.

Assuming arguendo God, the God of Christianity set up a universe with laws that God's self is committed to respecting. God does not violate God's laws. We haven't yet discovered all those laws, and we don't fully understand the ones we have discovered, but we have discovered enough to make sense out of some of the events described by scriptural record of the Resurrection.

The Resurrection is described as occurring with a great burst of light and sound (Matthew 28:2, I Corinthians 15:12). The resurrected body of Jesus is described as being in two distant places at the same time (Emmaus, Luke 24:13-31, and Jerusalem, Luke 24:35-36) and being able to pass through solid objects (doors, John 20:19). It is characterized by a changing, unrepeated aspect or physical appearance; the disciples, even those who have experienced the resurrected body once, never recognize the resurrected Jesus except by spoken words and gestures (Mary in the garden John 20:16, Thomas John 20:26-27, the disciples fishing all night John 21:1-13, and many more).

We now have a concept in physics that could account for these descriptions of the resurrection appearances: the risen body of Jesus conforms to the physical laws of something traveling beyond the speed of light. It can be at multiple places simultaneously, can pass through slow matter, can appear as it wills when it wills (coming perilously close to attributing volition to an object).

Further, Mr. Fanti's hypothesis of "a very intense burst of energy" burning the image on the shroud would describe precisely the mechanics of a body moving from a state of rest to beyond the speed of light. Just such images were burned onto walls by atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Which points to why Mr. Fanti's hypothesis matters. So much suffering is endured by so many humans and creatures in this world, it is understandable that people take comfort from a God who suffers with them. But the church has glorified suffering in such a persistent way that it tends towards and has actively articulated justification of inflicting and enduring suffering in the name of holiness and sacrifice, acceptance of the so-called will of God.

In fact, the will of the God co-opted by this kind of thinking, is not towards suffering or redemption by suffering. The will of this God is towards resurrection.

Physics can explain the accidents of the resurrection, the outward appearances and anomalies. But physics cannot explain, as yet, how God raised Jesus from the dead. And therein lies the hope of Christians, and perhaps of the world. If the catholic church chooses to appropriate it, the Shroud of Turin can be a locus for it to turn from worshipping suffering to worshipping the God who raises the dead - even a dead church may be raised.

Julian Sheffield is married to Deirdre Good, works as Business Manager at the Brooklyn Youth Chorus Academy, has an MPhil in New Testament from Union Theological Seminary, and was trained in liturgics and priestcraft by Edward N. West of blessed memory.

Hope of the resurrection

by Maria Evans

O God of grace and glory, we remember before you this day our brother (sister) N. We thank you for giving him to us, his family and friends, to know and to love as a companion on our earthly pilgrimage. In your boundless compassion, console us who mourn. Give us faith to see in death the gate of eternal life, so that in quiet confidence we may continue our course on earth, until, by your call, we are reunited with those who have gone before; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
--from Burial, Rite II, Book of Common Prayer, p. 493

Every time I thought my late friend Debby was about to rope me into one of her...um...strange and unusual good works, the conversation would go like this:

"Debby, that's the craziest thing I ever heard of."

"Well, you have to remember I had one parent who was an alcoholic and one who was a schizophrenic. It's just how I think...but can you say that it doesn't need to be done? Can you say it's not the right thing to do?"

She always had me there. I couldn't come up with a reason.

Enter the intersection of another improbable saint--Sterling, the town eccentric.

Every small town has a Sterling. The Sterlings of the world write letters to the editor and hand out self-published materials that, at one level, look legit, but as you get deeper into the prose, you recognize there are underpinnings of serious mental illness. They attend all the city council meetings and the school board meetings and every meeting in town that is a public meeting, often demanding their right to be heard "because it is a public meeting." Sometimes they run for office. I suspect Sterling ran for at least seven or eight public offices in Adair County--and he always got a few protest votes. They often carry improbable or even slightly elegant names--like Sterling. Their rantings and their missives also have religious undertones. In Sterling's case, he often equated the time he was given 96 forced hours at Mid-Missouri Mental Health Center with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and his homebrew pamphlets decrying the evils perpetuated by the govermental authorities of Kirksville often carried the hand drawn iconography of the three crosses on the hill at Calvary, complete with an arrow pointing to one labeled with his initials, where the "good thief" would go. He claimed he had been excommunicated from his home church, but I was never sure he really had all his facts straight on that one. I never challenged him on it because I knew it was real to him.

For some reason, through the last fifteen to twenty years of Sterling's troubled life, I had somehow managed to have a passingly friendly acquaintanceship with him when I saw him in public space--and for some reason, Sterling liked to talk to me about Jesus. Not to "convert" me, but for some reason (even well before I had returned to church life and was in my own spiritual wilderness,) but to talk to me about Jesus "because I would understand." Well, quite frankly, what Sterling had to say about Jesus was quite reasonable. Jesus cared for the people no one cared about, and in Sterling's mind that included the politically powerless, the marginalized, the poor, and the schizophrenic. He would tell me that these are all today's Gentiles, and that is who we were all called to serve. Of course, Sterling liked to think he had special clarity in these analogies, and when this moved to agitation, I would take my leave--but always with a short hug and "God bless you, Sterling--now you take care of yourself." When I was president of the Board of Governors at Truman State University, I used to give Sterling five minutes at the beginning of the meeting to exercise whatever rights he wanted to exercise as a person who had a right to speak at a public meeting, but made it clear he was on the clock, and that if he went over his time he would be escorted out by security. Only once did he get out of line, and had to be shooed away, and even then, at the break, he came to me and asked my forgiveness.

Of course, the day came that Sterling met his end in much the same way many folks of his caliber do--as a ward of the county, alone, estranged from his family, and in less than optimal conditions. Debby worked for the County Administrator's office, and it was clear that his family had no plans for Sterling's remains other than donating them to the osteopathic medical school for Anatomy class. I still remember Debby's phone call to me: "Don't you think it just seems wrong that Sterling isn't getting a church funeral?"

"Well, yeah, I do, but you KNOW no one in his church is going to grab the ball on that."

"I do--and that is why I think WE need to do it. No one is even writing him an obituary, can you believe that? So here's my plan. You write well--you write his obituary. You know he played tennis in college here so the Alumni office and the athletic department will have stuff on that. You will be able to think of a way to help people see Sterling as a person worthy of being mourned. I'll talk to our priest associate and I'm certain I can get her to officiate. The body's already been released so it will have to be a memorial service. But he is a part of the fabric of our town and he deserves a send off like everyone else, don't you think?"

She had me there. I wrote the obituary, and actually, it was one worthy of any citizen of our town. It included his prowess at college tennis and his service in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War period. It said that he was an avid listener of National Public Radio. My favorite lines from his obituary were these: "He was keenly interested in local politics and strongly believed in the power of individuals to shape government. He attended countless events at Truman State University, and enjoyed the company of the many students, who, over three decades, ran errands for him, gave him rides, and engaged him in spirited discussions about politics, religion, and history." I just sort of left out that he had been thrown out of many of those events when he got a little too wound up.

As it turned out, a tiny handful of people did show up to the memorial--the most striking being two of those college students I alluded to in his obituary--two college-age women who sat together and sobbed profusely through the entire service. Debby looked at me, pointed under the pew towards them and whispered--"See, we did the right thing. Somebody needed to mourn him."

Since that day, Debby herself has gone on to her reward. It has been three years since my friend Debby died, but I can't seem to take her birthday off my Google Calendar or her number off my cell phone, although I'm certain it's been assigned to someone else. Every year, on her birthday, I always think of several unusual events she and I shared in the life of the church, Sterling's funeral being front and center. Debby's birthday happens towards the middle to end of Lent, in that time we ache for a glimmer of the Resurrection, and I often think of how she was the only person I've ever known who really understood what the hope in the Resurrection meant for the Sterlings of this world. I think often of the company of Heaven as being a place where the people we've assigned sainthood share the table with the Sterlings and the Debbys, the impossible or improbable saints of my time on earth. It's a place where Sterling never has to suffer being tossed out of the meeting ever again. When I have trouble wrapping my head around the Resurrection, I remind myself of Sterling's resurrection, and in it, Christ becomes as real as if he were seated next to me.


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

Resurrection: my story

by Jocelyn Tichenor

George Carey, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1992, said that the resurrection is not an appendage to the Christian faith---it is the Christian faith.

This is my story of resurrection.

It all started September 27, 1979; I was born. I was born to two loving parents who wanted me to succeed in all aspects of life. They knew the re would be challenges for the three of us to go through, but nothing could pre pare them for the shock we all were about to receive.

Mom took me to the doctors for a check-up at eighteen months. At that point, I was not walking. My pediatrician suggested that my parents take me to a neurologist and make sure I was developing according to the way I should be. My parents thought nothing of it and assumed everything would be just fine. The doctor evaluated the way I grasped objects, how my eyes followed them and my overall coordination. He then stepped out of the room and consulted with another doctor. My parents were pleased at how well I had completed the tasks set before me. When the doctor returned, he told my parents that I had cerebral palsy.

This was quite a time of sadness for my parents as I was the firstborn and they did not know what to expect in terms of my development. And so, their perfect baby was to be different. They went through a mourning period as they adjusted to the news. Finding out that I had cerebral palsy was quite a difficult pill for them to swallow. To assist me in making up for lost time, I went to physical, occupational and speech therapies at various times in my young life.

At therapy I was requested to complete difficult tasks, such as buttoning a shirt, walking on a balance beam and trying to speak so that people could understand me. Even to this day, the letter "R" vexes me! I really struggled in the early days to have people understand me and even today people mistake me from originating from a European Country! This time I was the one with the hard pill to swallow! The therapists challenged me to complete tasks, which were tremendously difficult for me.

Cerebral palsy, like all other difficulties, has its good things as well as its "undesirable things". Cerebral palsy has given me a different perspective on life and I am more in tuned to people's feelings. In addition, I have met people that I might not have otherwise met due to my cerebral palsy. I am a patient person; always willing to help people if they need it. Having cerebral palsy has demanded that I have self-motivation and perseverance (although my parents claim some of the credit for themselves) all qualities which, I feel, are needed to be successful.

Accomplishments, though they may be small, are always appreciated a lot more because of the tremendous amounts of energy necessary to complete the task.

There are always two sides to every story. There are several not so good things about cerebral palsy. Because I have a competitive edge about me, I am always comparing myself to others in terms of physical tasks such as riding a bicycle or having two hands that work together instead of one being significantly better than the other. Those comparisons sparked a real sense of jealousy in me. I would get wrapped up in the trivial things of life and not worry so much about academics, because when we are young, athletics is valued so much more. Because of my slow rate of speech, people would comment and tease that I was mentally impaired. That was a major blow to me because I had really struggled to speak well and articulately. When activities looked easy to complete, they always found a sneaky way of turning in to being almost impossible, such as cutting a juicy piece of steak. It is even more frustrating when your mind has been set on that steak for days on end!

As we gather for this special Christian holiday, I am reminded of the suffering that Jesus went through when he was crucified on the cross. Gloriously three days later, he was resurrected. My life story and yours can be likened to that of Jesus. Each one of us has a Good Friday in our life, a day we discovered something was not the way we wanted it to be. For me it was finding out that I had cerebral palsy. Yes, there was a time of mourning and asking the all too popular question, "Why me?" but there was the promised resurrection which is the Easter for all of us. For me, it was discovering the things I excelled at, such as working with people and speaking publicly. We try to mimic the way Jesus led His life, the successes and failures He went through to make Him a stronger person. Discovering our resurrection means going through the ups and downs as Jesus did when He was here on earth. Let us go forth and not only celebrate Easter, but try and live it the way He would. Amen.


Jocelyn Tichenor, former Deputy to General Convention, lives in Alexandria, Virginia. She graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 2003, with a degree in Communications. She likes to travel and spend time at the beach. Jocelyn works in Washington, D.C., for the federal government. She is a member of St. John's Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, in Washington, D.C

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.

Something…

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

Meeting the Messiah

by Linda Ryan

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

Elijah replied, "Go and ask him yourself."

"Where is he?"

"Sitting at the gates of the city."

"How shall I know him?"

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

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

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

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

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

So how does the story end?

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

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


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

(2) Found at Sacred Texts


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

Strange exorcists

by Marilyn McCord Adams

Mark 9:38-50
In Jesus’ time and ours, many people work hard to eradicate the worst evils: evils that gerrymander societies into rich versus poor, haves versus have-nots, people that matter versus others who don’t count; diseases and traumas that bi-polarize, dissociate, and twist psyches; physical maladies that make life difficult and full community participation impossible.

In Jesus’ time, not only systemic social evils, but also mental illness, blindness, deafness, crippling paralysis, seemed super-human, humanly insuperable. In Jesus’ time, people reasoned: if the causes were something humans could handle, conquest would be within human reach. In Jesus’ time, they concluded: since life’s worst evils are overwhelming, they must be traced back to super-human malevolent powers. Because life’s worst evils do not simply erase, but distort and caricature, such powers must be personal, cruel and deliberate in mocking what creation was meant to be. We have to admit, they have a point. No matter how much we know about biochemistry and systems dynamics, don’t we still call the most insidious evils “diabolical” and “demonic”?

In Jesus’ time, the cure for individual and social demon-possession was exorcism. The exorcist “channeled” super-natural power to rout demons. Mark’s Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, a fortiori a powerful exorcist who strides into ministry to send the demons packing. Mid-course, Jesus ordains disciples with the authority to proclaim Kingdom-coming and to cast out demons. Onlooker exorcists perceive that the name of ‘Jesus’ is--more than ‘abracadabra, please and thank you’--an efficacious magic word. The disciples are indignant, want to sue the copycats for trademark infringement. But Jesus counters: “don’t forbid them!” Using the name of ‘Jesus’ and finding that it “works” could well be the first step that slippery-slopes them into discipleship!

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus and the disciples are the insiders and the “strange” exorcist is the outsider. In today’s pluralistic America, the situation is reversed. Many lefties here work overtime to uproot social injustices, to provide for the poor and homeless, to defend prisoners and the powerless, to open up educational opportunities. Many take for granted that a core allergy to human degradation, a deep revulsion at environmental exploitation, are part of what it is to be a decent human being. For many, religion is at best a non-starter, more likely superstitious nonsense, worse still, pious irrationality that could easily turn divisive and do more harm than good.

So, there they are, secular humanists in the best sense, speaking truth to power, championing what is good and wholesome. And here come the Christians, working alongside them, standing up for the homeless, supporting transitional housing and drug treatment programs, sponsoring prisoners on work leave. To secular humanists, we are the strange exorcists. We are the ones who, despite seeming normal, hold silly religious beliefs. (I remember sixties activists who compared faith in God to believing in fairies!) Political theorists scramble to figure out how people with deeply contrasting world-views can fight for the same causes or live and work together in the same town.

One approach popular among political scientists is to forbid us to use the name of ‘Jesus’ (and for that matter to prohibit Catholics from wearing crucifixes or Moslem women from donning the hijab). We are told to compartmentalize, to cordon off our religious convictions from our humanitarian sensibilities, to base our social-justice work on “public reasons,” on motivations that all decent human beings can be expected to share. Compartmentalization tells us: people with different world views can live and work together in the same place, so long, and only so long, as we ground our public life on the least common denominator of shared commitments.

If we agree to this, we may still give our secular social-activist partners pause. They will have to ponder how our passion for justice can co-exist with deep-seated religious delusion. They will be challenged to consider whether it is really possible for the same people to be so rational and high-minded and yet so crazy at one and the same time. It is barely possible that for some the question would flicker, whether religion is only (in the words of Tony Blair) for “nutters” after all.

Nevertheless, compartmentalization is a bad bargain for us, first, because it is an invitation to psycho-spiritual fragmentation that puts human decency in one cupboard and the “God-thing” in another. Compartmentalization not only invites us to see, but calls on us to make sure that our faith is separate from our deep-seated social and political convictions. This move turns faith in God into a fifth wheel that does no work, into something irrelevant to what we most care about in our lives.

Compartmentalization is an unfaithful and spiritually misleading strategy. It is not as if our passion for justice is one piece and our supernatural beliefs are a different piece and the one has nothing to do with the other. No! Remember St. Augustine’s famous exclamation: “O God, you made us for yourself. Our hearts are restless until they rest in you!” Our passion for justice, our hungering and thirsting for righteousness, are rooted in our hungering and thirsting for God Who is the source of all righteousness. Our heart’s revulsion to cruelty, our anger at oppression, our rage at the rape of the land: all of these arise from our natural bent towards honoring God by honoring God’s likeness in all God’s creatures.

Compartmentalization is tempting, because we can be aware of our passion for justice and of our belief in God without being conscious of the deep-structure rooting of the one in the other. To experience the connection, we have to “act out” our longing for God in fervent prayer. Prayer awakens us to God deep within us, stirring up our longing for God, rearing us up into family-resemblance that shares God’s loves allergies.

Praying our way into recognized connection, cancels fragmentation, and reveals God to be the ground of our personal integrity. Prayer exposes how there is not enough to us on our own to fight the good fight. To revert to biblical language, our social-justice battles are not with flesh and blood but principalities and powers. What keeps us from “burning out” is that our zeal is rooted in the fierceness of God’s own passion for justice. In this sense, we “channel” it. The Power that is with us is stronger than the forces that are against us. And, so, come hell or high water--and we know, they do come--the struggle will go on! Mother Teresa and her nuns understand the importance of prayer in consciously connecting us with our ground. Every day, they spend as much time contemplating the Blessed Sacrament as they do on the streets.

But isn’t there a danger that digging down to recognize God as the root of human decency, will alienate us from our allies, make us intolerant and intolerable?

Not necessarily. Prayer and reason agree: if God is the root of our passion for justice, God is its root in each and every human being. Roots are below ground. God is sneaky. People do not have to believe in God, for God to be at work in them, stirring them up to love what God loves and to be revolted at what God cannot stand. Everyone is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Marvelous as it is, the gift of faith is no occasion for “holier than thou.”

Neither does recognizing God at the root have to turn us into obnoxious ‘are-you-saved-brother’ evangelists. Holy Spirit works to bring people to the knowledge and love of God according to unique individual syllabi. Everywhere and always is not the time to make our faith explicit. Happily, abstraction is an alternative to compartmentalization. If I tell you that my study is rectangular, I abstract from its exact size or wall-color, but I do not thereby imply that its shape exists without any size or that its walls have no color. In fact, shape could not exist without a size; walls, without a color. But I can explicitly call attention to one without mentioning the other. Likewise, we can at times abstract various aspects of our beliefs from their theological roots. We can join secular colleagues in declaring that torture is wrong everywhere and always, that people are too entitled to food, housing, and healthcare just because they are human beings. Unlike compartmentalization, abstraction is not spiritually fragmenting. Not always mentioning God is compatible with our being fully aware that God’s own passion is what drives us! And in the long run, integrity, not fragmentation, may pique other people’s curiosity enough to ask: why do you stick with this? What is your bottom line? Our faithfulness will have earned the right to tell them, to use the attention that our deeds have earned to point to God who makes it all possible!


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

Credo

by Lawson Wulsin

Three years ago, after being served communion once again by my brother, the priest of St Andrew’s Episcopal Church, and reciting the Nicene Creed with my usual questions about what I really believe, I came home and wrote a creed I could believe. Last month, while talking to our atheist son about his marriage in a Catholic church, I reread my “Credo,” and shared it with him. Though it does not make me a Christian, this “Credo” has clarified what I do believe. And it has helped me understand why it’s still okay to recite the words of the Nicene Creed with those who, like my brother, believe it more literally than I do. For any believers with doubts, I recommend the exercise.

I believe

That before the Word there was no God,

And the beginning of God was the Word,

And with the Word came the new reach,

The reach first of one imagination to another,

Then of two imaginations to the same beyond.

I believe

That once one Australopithican,

Bewildered on an empty day

High on the rim of the Rift Valley,

Found another Australopithican,

Both ripe for a word,

And the insemination began with the insistent Who?

And later the When?

And the Why?

Again and again and again,

Asking against the thunderstrikes

And the ways of nature’s game

And the ecstasies of wonderchildren

And all that dashed and dazzled them.

I believe that Man made God in his image,

And, as Man makes the child,

Made God the Maker of Man.

This was the procreation of God to save Man.

For we are so wired that alone we die

But together we scratch out our fighting chances.

And once we knew this about ourselves,

That mythmaking could save the tribe,

That sharing a God could bind us through blight and catastrophe,

That loyalty to a common God allowed us

To endure the fickleness of our own flesh and kin—

Once we knew this about ourselves,

The race was on.

Among the toolmakers it was the mythmakers who survived.

So now no tribe survives without its gods,

And now wherever two gather to beat bad odds,

God may show up too,

Through Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, who knows—

Often appearing to the bewildered to save the day,

Which is good for faith, hope, and love,

And may be why we hold our gods so dear,

So worth dying for.

Through the Word we find God,

And through God we find Love,

And through Love we find each other—

Which only proves the truth of our folly when we say

That God finished making our world on Saturday.



Lawson Wulsin lives in Cincinnati, Ohio

Nihilism as defense mechanism

We are the first generation to live in world where belief in God is considered a lifestyle option. We are the first to live in a world in which many people admit the possibility of human flourishing without turning to God. Mainstream Protestant churches are losing people because we suddenly finding ourselves in competition with a flourishing new religion called nihilism, and nihilism allows you to watch ESPN on Sunday morning. Nihilism is an elitist religion, however. You have to be smart to prefer Nietzche. And that's why the Protestant denominations who historically have been constituted by the most educated of our citizenry are suffering losses disproportionately. We are relatively more vulnerable to nihilism. If we want to fight this, we have to incarnate the antidote to nihilism.
--From Craig Uffman's response to Ross Douhat's NYT article on the decline of the Episcopal Church

Out of all the responses to the rash of articles predicting the demise of the Episcopal Church, supposedly for various reasons mostly related to that old canard of "liberalism," I think Craig Uffman might have hit the symptomatology closest to the real core of what's going on.

We really are one of the first (if not "the" first; I suspect this has been evolving for 30 years) generations to live in a world where a God-based social network is not a "given" in our shared life together. I suspect it is as much a function of relative societal wealth in America and Western Europe as much as anything, and in America, coupled with that old myth of self-sufficiency. (A quick trip to the Global Rich List is a real eye-opener--for example, someone who makes $30,000/year is still in the upper 7.16% of the world's "wealthy scale.") In terms of straight dollars, we are wealthier as a society than we like to believe, despite the very real disproportional nature of the distribution of that wealth. With a certain societal baseline of wealth comes a notion that there is a magic number or magic formula that allows a person to truly be self-sufficient, and free from fear or threat. What is clear, though, is the age old struggle between wants and needs is still with us, as is that old struggle with what makes us, as individuals, happy or content. Nihilism allows us to avoid being challenged by a hurting, broken world. Christianity forces us to look at it.

Existential nihilism makes a great defense mechanism. It's tempting to find a comfortable fulcrum in a world where the center of the universe is one's own thoughts, and the need to feed or care for, or even cast our eyes at those less fortunate than ourselves loses steam in a world where certain individuals lack intrinsic value. It's a well-established statistic that with a certain level of income, even with the tax breaks in this country, comes a decrease in charitable giving. Data from the research group Independent Sector from 2001 showed that a household making $25,000 gives away an average of 4.2 percent of their income to charity; a household making $75,000 gives away 2.7 percent.

A side effect of nihilism can be anti-theism as opposed to a simple atheism or agnosticism. What I see, at least trolling the comments in the Religion and Spirituality section of Huffington Post, is that the most active anti-theists don't seem happy when people with decidedly progressive Christian viewpoints post articles. In fact, I sometimes wonder if they don't come after them with their "evangelism of snark" even more determinedly than they do Christian evangelicals. It's almost like progressive Christians represent some sort of traitors to them, and they push their reactions (which seem to be mostly a pointed version of "There is no Santa Claus") with a special kind of aggression.

It's an intriguing voice, a voice in which I often wonder if what I really hear behind it is not its superficial tone of, "I am smarter than you and I have the arrogance that comes with my belief that I am the top intellect in this conversation," but "I have been deeply hurt in the name of institutional religion." I am certain that, if some of their pain truly comes from that place, it's not without good reason. It's a simple fact that for two thousand years, the institutional church has certainly done as much wrong as it has done right.

As a result, I find myself feeling compassion for the voice I perceive behind the strident voice--the voice that betrays that maybe, just maybe this whole nihilism thing is a lonelier place for which that person bargained.

It becomes even more complicated when one realizes that some of the voices that challenge the shrinking numbers and the theology and the polity of the Episcopal Church, the ones who cry that we've lost our way and have strayed from the Bible--are in fact, voices with an undertone of nihilism disguised as theology. I'm in. You're not. Them? Oh, they're DEFINITELY not in. I'm right. You're wrong. I worship a God based in the Bible and truth. You? I'm not so sure about you. Allow me to explain it to you.

We, as a culture, are so surrounded by nihilism, to even begin to extricate ourselves from it seems a near-impossible task--how do we even begin to address Craig Uffman's call to incarnate its antidote? Perhaps the seeds of this antidote lie in the most uncomfortable stories of the Gospel and the maddening parables that seem to make no sense whatsoever to our modern sensibilities. What does it mean to constantly strive to get in a boat and long to go away to a deserted place, only to find that what we were trying to escape, beat us to our destination? What does it mean to take nothing for the journey but a staff--no bag, no bread, no money, and no extra change of clothes? What does it truly mean to save our lives by losing them? Perhaps the answer begins in sitting with these discomforting messages as a community, rather than alone--and perhaps that also means to find what is living and breathing within a community that the naysayers insist is dying.


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

Why ARE youth in church?

By Jacob Nez
with help from Jeremy Blackwater and Jay Begay

Every time someone whines about youth not being in Church I feel like dirt, like we who do go to church don’t exist.

I am 18 and I and 41 more of us go to the Episcopal Church. We don’t always go at the same time because we don’t have transport. We also have to pick and choose a Church that will welcome us. We are youth and we are Native Episcopalians. There is a lot of racism in some of these churches.

None of us live on the Reservations. We live in five border towns in N. Arizona. We are from four Native Nations in Arizona and New Mexico.

All of us came to the Church through the Spirit Journey Youth group in the Diocese of Arizona. When we began 12 years ago as a group, we were a lot of trouble. We would go to Church as a group and squirm around a lot. Kaze Gadaway, our youth minister had to tell us when to sit and kneel. A lot of the congregation complained about our being there.

I don’t know how we changed. Kaze took us to different churches until we found some who wanted us there. Now there are three main churches who always want us there and let us be acolytes and read the scriptures. Saint John’s Episcopal/Lutheran in Williams, Az.; St. Francis in Rio Ranch, New Mexico; and St. John’s Episcopal Church in LaVerne, CA. They all welcome us and go out of their way to tell us that they are glad we are there. They let us do some of our Native rituals with sage.

We don’t go to Church every Sunday. We meet in small groups in homes, parks, the van or a fast food place. We do our group worship service based on the Episcopal service. We pray and we do service projects for the homeless. We go to Church when we can afford the gas. We spend a lot of time together studying the Bible and talking about faith questions.

There are 17 young adults over 18 who are on the leadership team. We are learning about the ways of the Church and how to read the Book of Common Prayer. No one is over 21. Kaze checks out the churches we attend and makes sure that they will welcome youth and Natives. We are looking for churches who will accept us in their congregations as we move away from here. This is not easy.

Let me tell you why we go to Church.

It’s not the sermon. Sermons are usually not about anything we can relate to.

It’s not the music. The music is horrible.

It is the sacrament of Baptism and the Eucharist.

It is very important to us that we are in a ceremony that connects us to the Holy. It is important that we see the Christ in each other and that we work against injustices. It is important that people in a Church are serious about the ceremony and treat it with respect. Almost all of us have been baptized and have taken our first communion as the highlight of our spiritual life.

The way we know that it is a good Church to visit is when we pass the peace. If a congregation really treats us as one of them when they pass the peace, then we know we are in a holy place.

We go to Church when we can and when we are welcomed. We will continue to invite other youth to Church when we find one who welcomes us.

We are youth and we do go to Church whenever we can.

Jacob's bio: I am an Episcopal Native young adult with the Spirit Journey Youth group. I live in Albuquerque with other members of the Journey Youth Leadership team. I am in a community college and want to be a teacher.

~ed. See essays by Kaze Gadaway at the Café and here for more on Spirit Journey Youth. Some poems from Spirit Journey Youth are on Art Blog

"Re-calc-u-lating"

By Maria Evans

"Silence has become God’s final defense against our idolatry. By limiting our speech, God gets some relief from our descriptive assaults. By hiding inside a veil of glory, God deflects our attempts at control by withdrawing into silence, knowing that nothing gets to us like the failure of our speech. When we run out of words, then and perhaps only then can God be God. When we have eaten our own words until we are sick of them, when nothing we can tell ourselves makes a dent in our hunger, when we are prepared to surrender the very Word that brought us into being in hopes of hearing it spoken again--then, at last, we are ready to worship God."

~Barbara Brown Taylor, from "When God is Silent"

One of the most basic, crucial parts of my job, in terms of what matters to the patient, are the words I speak into our dictating system that create the written record of the surgical pathology report. Until the moment my thoughts and impressions leave me and become words that can be shared, they are useless to the patient. Once spoken, dictated and signed, the patient and I have entered into a covenant. The patient has offered up a bit of flesh and I honor that by creating words that name it.

So you can imagine the office-wide consternation a little while back when my transcriptionist met me at the door with what I call the "Now, don't blow a gasket," look.

She took a deep breath and blurted out, "All your 'grosses' from yesterday are gone. They can't find them in the dictating system anywhere!" She was referring to what's known as the "gross dictation"--where I actually open the various biopsy and specimen containers, describe what's in them, state what is submitted for processing, to be turned into paraffin-embedded tissue blocks and, subsequently, slides for microscopic examination. We had been suffering massive computer woes in the office and the files of what I had dictated had disappeared from the server, beyond retrieval.

Needless to say, it was incredibly frustrating that words I've come to depend on, were suddenly absent.

One of the things we discover after we've grown in our Christian faith for some time, is that there will suddenly be a time that the words we've come to depend upon in the Bible, from the pulpit, and from each other in the gathered community, are also suddenly absent. Perhaps we've encountered a tragedy that has shaken our faith. Perhaps it is the departure of a rector whose homiletic skills hooked us in an authentic way to God. Perhaps our best friend in the parish died or moved away. Perhaps it's simply that little edgy gnawing that our prayers seem to be going nowhere and God is silent. We look up and realize the screen on our spiritual GPS is blank, and the little voice in it is going, "Recalculating...recalculating."

For most of us, our first reaction is panic, and all the subsequent actions that go with it--fight, fright, or flight. "Sit still and work with this" is generally NOT the action we take.

I know what I would probably be doing if that were my GPS. I'd be yelling at the little voice, for one thing. I would project that it was displeased or irritated with me. I would be calling it some rather foul names (I've been known to do that with my GPS)--and I'm pretty sure when it got absolutely intolerable, I'd grab it from its cradle and bang it up and down on the dash. But I also know I'd never have stopped the truck--I'd have kept on going in whatever direction I was headed and possibly be endangering other people with my multitasking. Not exactly the brightest move in the world, is it?

I would have been carrying on at how IT is not talking to ME, yet not hearing what it WAS saying to me..."Re-calculating," as it dug into its memory and got instructions from the satellites.

On the day I lost all my gross dictations, I had to re-create my "grosses," relying on my memory, coupled with what I could perceive from what I had available. Now, with the larger specimens, that's fairly easy--I could always go back to what's left of the actual specimen and do things like re-weigh, re-measure, and re-look. But with the smaller specimens--the small biopsies that were entirely submitted for processing--I could only look at the slides we made, and estimate the number of pieces and the size of them, which isn't entirely accurate. Tissue shrinks about 10-15% during processing. They are no longer the color they were at the time I saw them. I am trying to recall them in three dimensions based on a rather two-dimensional slide. I could only make my best guesses based on that and my memory, and the factual truth is that these re-created dictations are not as accurate, but luckily that level of accuracy is not all that germane to the diagnosis.

In short, once I signed the report, the "truth" about those gross descriptions was no longer their actual physical measurements and appearance of the tissue; it was the memory of them that went into the signed record and became the legal and medical truth.

Recalled truth--a truth forged from memory--has transformational power. In fact, we engage in such an exercise each time we celebrate the Eucharist. We hear in the Words of Institution, "Do this for the remembrance of me." The times we are spiritually dry or blank invite us to enter into an ever-growing collective memory that stems from the memory of the Last Supper and continues to expand each time the Eucharist is celebrated. We are not required to remember anything on our own--only to trust its own power to transform--and accept the revelations that emanate from it. Are we brave enough to sit still and let it re-calculate for us?


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

A living hope

By Bill Carroll

In this season of resurrection, we are reminded again and again of this new birth and this living hope. For Christ has been raised from the dead, trampling down death by death and giving life to those in the tomb. And we, having become his People by water and the Holy Spirit, are called to live in the power of his risen life. We are called to live as if death were not.

True, we see the work of death all around us. We Christians are realistic enough to know the power of sin and death in our lives. All we have to do is watch the news or reflect quietly on our own experience. We know limitation, scarcity, and fear. We know that ultimate limit--death--and it haunts our every step. And sometimes, truth be told, we allow our limits to define us. We settle for something less than the fullness of Christ and his death-defying love.

But we are called to something different. We are called to a living hope. Hope which trusts in what our eyes can't see. Hope which expects great things--new things--from God, rather than more of the same, day after day. Hope opens up new horizons for us--new possibilities in Christ--possibilities that are not merely latent in the past, but grounded in the sovereign freedom of our God.

True hope is the gift of the Holy Spirit. In the Scriptures, it is closely allied with faith and love, which are infused by grace rather than acquired by effort. We can exercise these gifts and open ourselves to the Spirit's work, but ultimately they are just that, the gift and work of God within us, rather than our achievement. Peter alludes to baptism, the sacrament of new birth. There's something to that metaphor--birth is something that happens to us, not that we do for ourselves.

But--and this is an important "but"--(as Kathryn Tanner and Karl Rahner, among others, have pointed out) our absolute passivity before God does not imply a passive existence in the world. Hope changes things. God is not like an especially powerful creature, but is the ground of our very being. When we come to new birth in Christ--when we stop presenting an obstacle to God's mercy in our lives--we grow in our freedom. The more radically we depend on God, the more fully we become ourselves.

In the Gospel appointed for the Second Sunday of Easter, we see the disciples huddled away for fear. There they are, locked in the Upper Room. Even though they have heard the Good News from Mary Magdalene, they have not yet seen Jesus for themselves. For them, his death still limits their horizons. It confirms the way of all flesh--the ultimate power of fear and despair. His cross remains a sign of bitter defeat.

Then, Jesus himself appears among them--ALIVE--showing them his wounded hands and side. Peace, he says, and their fear turns to great joy. His death becomes for them the gateway to eternal life, and his cross a sign of victory. Then, Jesus commissions them for missionary service, conferring upon them a share in his own authority to forgive or retain sins. Receive the Holy Spirit, he says, As the Father has sent me, so I send you.

This passage has often been called the Johannine Pentecost. In John, the dying and rising of the Lord sets loose the Holy Spirit, who empowers the Church to participate in Christ's own mission of mercy. In the Upper Room, Christ comes to us through locked doors and commissions us to share in his work of forgiveness and love.

We do so by preaching the Gospel, celebrating the sacraments, and serving others in his Name. We do so whenever we put forgiveness into practice, beginning with those nearest to us. If we are sent by Christ, just as he is sent by the Father, we share in his ministry, centered as it is on the forgiveness of sins. This is about letting each other go. It is about setting each other free from the burden of the past, so that we might keep watch and work, expecting great things from God.

The wounds of Christ, which he shows first to all the disciples, then later to Thomas, remind us that forgiveness is costly. His scars, which others might use as an excuse for vengeance, instead identify him as God's suffering servant--God's Paschal Lamb, in whose mercy lies our hope and by whose love God casts out fear.

For the Spirit of new birth impels us beyond the Upper Room, with its locked doors and false promises of safety. The resurrection is not about safety--but new life in God. It's about our participation in the risky venture of Incarnation. It's about the victory of Christ's mercy--both in our lives and in all the lives we touch.

For we have been born again to a living hope by his resurrection from the dead.

The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

"Met Jesus on Pilgrimage, still walking."

“Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”
Luke 24:27

By Paul Fromberg

My friend Andy – he’s the bishop of Texas now – wrote a six word autobiography a couple of years ago: Met Jesus on Pilgrimage, still walking.

Andy was 11 year old when he spent nine days walking 168 miles across Mexico from San Miguel de Allende to San Juan de Los Lagos with his father. He didn’t know what he would find. And he found Jesus.

To be a pilgrim is to be ready for surprise.

Cleopas and his companion are walking the road away from Jerusalem. They had seen so much in the prior days. Death and life had been mashed together and made into something they had no way of understanding. It’s possible that the person walking the road with Cleopas, the unnamed individual he is pilgriming with is his wife. And it’s possible that the woman called Mary the wife of Clopas, one of the women who watched as Jesus was executed on the cross and then went to the empty tomb is the same person. So Cleopas is walking the road with someone who has seen the death of Jesus and has seen the empty tomb of Jesus.

And still they have no clue that the stranger they meet on the road is Jesus. Which suggests that witnessing the empty tomb is not the same as witnessing the resurrection. The absence of death isn’t the same as the presence of life. Death isn’t an end in itself. The death of Jesus isn’t the end of the story. There is something else that needs to fill that empty space.

A stranger joins these two pilgrims on the road that leads away from the cross and the tomb, and in one of the most famously unrecorded sermons of all times, he explains himself to them in such a way that their hearts burned within them. Or as you might have experienced, they put their hearts in something that was simply beyond their experience.

Baptism begins a pilgrimage. We put our hearts into an experience that is simply beyond our experience. And like my friend Andy, it may change our lives.

Paul Fromberg is the rector of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco.

Larger than life, or not

By Marshall Scott

Once again, there they were, flanking the stage, huge and bright.

I was at a conference, a gathering of almost 800 chaplains from almost every tradition you might imagine. Many of our meetings and workshops were small – usually fewer than fifty. However, for plenary lectures and banquet meals we were all gathered in a large hall. And in the hall, on either side of the platform, hung two large screens. Indeed, the hall was long enough that a third screen was hung for the back third of the room. Some of the lectures and events included slides or films, and the screens allowed us to see them. However, most of the time projected onto the screens was the image of the speaker.

At first, I found myself thinking the screens provided a clear view of the speaker, and a sense of immediacy, even intimacy. I could remember conferences in years gone by, before the screens were there. To sit in the back of the room was to see almost nothing of the speaker. Oh, you could see that there was a person at the podium, and even some details of a face; but you were conscious of the distance, and of how little you could actually see.

With the screens you saw, if not everything, then great detail. It was not exactly like sitting across the table from the speaker, but certainly in the same, much smaller room. Sure, there were two cameras, and periodically the angle of view would change. But you always saw things clearly.

But, when for a couple of events I sat down front, close to the dais, I found the experience disconcerting. I could see the speaker herself at the podium – in a natural perspective, with enough distance to lose some size, perhaps. Still, I could see the person as a person, in human scale. At the same time, there above us was the projected image, large almost beyond imagining. Even across the table, the speaker would never look that huge. The projected image was distracting, pulling attention away from the real, live person. We had made the real person literally larger than life.

It seems so often that we make folks larger than life. Perhaps that's because we want to see and to feel that we are close. It can be hard to feel that close when the person is in natural scale, yet visibly so far away. That's true in our conferences and in our concerts. It's true in our church conferences and many large churches (which suggests, I suppose, that it's rare in Episcopal churches; but I digress). I was, after all, at a conference of chaplains. We find ourselves looking more often at the projection than the person. Whether we’re honoring or lampooning, we have this tendency to make the person larger than life.

Which I found ironic, at least for me as a Christian. As often as God’s action was literally cosmic, many times God's activity was not larger than life. Abraham’s lunch with the three men wasn’t larger than life, nor was Moses’ birth, and look what came of them. Vain and petulant Elisha was all too rarely larger than life (think about those poor boys!), and he was one of the great prophets of God!

Indeed, God's most important act was specifically and deliberately not larger than life. "The Word became flesh and lived among us;" and among us Jesus was not larger than life. Born in a barn, hungry and thirsty, tempted and tired, and hanging on a cross, Jesus was not larger than life. Even resurrected, he was not larger than life. If he had been, Magdalene would have known him from the gardener. Cleopas would have known him on the road to Emmaus. Surely there would have been no breakfast by the lake if Jesus had been larger than life.

We are in a season when we contemplate all that God has done. We set the Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection in the context of “the mighty acts of God.” However, central to our faith – indeed, central to our salvation – is the fact that these events were not larger than life. It was God in human scale who came among us, to sit at table and welcome even the least. It was not a projection but God seen with our own eyes who accepted that most universal and most terrifying of human experiences, suffering and death. When Jesus rose that that we might rise with him, we encountered it not in the shaking of the earth or the parting of the skies, but in one mistaken for a gardener and in a companion on the road. For all our temptation to the larger image and the false intimacy of the big screen, that was not God’s way. Instead, our salvation was accomplished in events that, for all their cosmic consequences, were recognizably, almost frighteningly familiar – and certainly not larger than life.

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.

What if it’s all true?

By Kathleen Staudt

As I prepare to lead various Lenten experiences inviting people into prayer and deepened reflection, I have been noticing how the season offers us, if we wish to embrace it, a “time out from doubt.” Not that doubt or questioning are in themselves bad things – an openness to questions is part of what has kept many of us in the Episcopal Chuch. But I’m thinking that Lent is a time to stretch our faith -- to live with these familiar stories, which we’ve called Good News. Take a break from questions about what may be “factual” or accurate and ask “What if it’s all true?”

What if it’s all true? What if (to begin), the Ground and Source of our being, our life, our connections with one another and the earth, is real and alive, though beyond our ability to name it. What if this Reality is best described and apprehended in personal terms, through our human images of love – mother-love, father-love, the love of devoted friends, the love of an artist or a gardener for what she has made or nurtured, the love that desires, above all things, the well-being of the beloved. What if it’s all true? What if the heart of Reality is that love?

And what if it’s true, as we Christians claim (set our hearts to – as the word “credo” implies) that this Love became human, took on fully our experience of bodily life, limiting itself (himself/herself – for this is a personal Reality) to a person in history, with parents, friends, enemies, a culture, a community.? What if Jesus is the Word made flesh, “Incarnate,” as we say. A mystery beyond our understanding, perhaps: but what if it’s true? What if, fully human, he experienced what it is to be loved and cared for, and to be oppressed, rejected, betrayed, killed. And what if the witness of all those early disciples is true – that death could not contain him: that the life Jesus lived and brought and called us to is actually eternal life, and has already begun, even in a broken world?

And what if it’s true that that Life and Love cannot be killed. What if, in the life of Jesus, in companionship with him, we can re-learn that love at the heart of Creation, and embody it in our lives here and now?. What if he really does live on in the gathered worshipping community (ekklesia/) that we call the Church. It seems so unlikely, and yet what if, through all our divisions, abuses, human distortions, abuses and misunderstandings of the good news, his life still lives in us. What if we are held, despite it all, in something that could be called “the Divine Mercy”?

And what if it is still possible to somehow be, in this world, that risen body of the Holy One, through our life together, through our relationships, through the choices we make for ourselves and for others. And what if there is power available to us, beyond what we can find within ourselves, to become what we were made to be – whole, and just and loving, bearers of the divine Love. What if there is a Holy Spirit, working through us, that really can transform and change? What if the whole thing is a whole lot bigger than we thought? What if it’s all true?

What would it be like, truly to live in the hope that it’s all true?

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

Faith and the entrepreneur

By Margaret Treadwell

Entrepreneurs practice the art of turning ideas into a marketable product or service, then assuming the risk and management of the resulting business enterprise.

At this point in our lengthening Great Recession, many entrepreneurs are born out of necessity. This column focuses on the thinking and action that has brought one particular entrepreneur, “Gabe,” to a better place during this recession.

In retrospect, Gabe sees that he began his business career when he graduated from college. He worked hard to become known as an honest, forthright, organized professional. He advanced to responsible jobs in television production and media entertainment at excellent companies, both of which eventually downsized, cutting out his successful broadcast design and animation departments. In the second situation, while employed but pending layoff, he sought full time work until he decided to use his sizable energy and commitment to launch his own design company.

Gabe says, “I focused on three main topics that are the backbone of my business philosophy: the mechanics of starting a successful design business; a business strategy of collaboration rather than competition, which means that I’m always striving to be an active participant in the artistic and production community; and the ‘steps to avoid’ pitfalls in an effort to answer the question, Why do some companies succeed while others fail?”

First Gabe created a lengthy list of questions along a timeline. He identified his business opportunity – the value, practicality and uniqueness of product/services provided – and the necessary financial, legal and people resources. He acknowledged the competition. He broke his questions into smaller “doable do’s” to avoid feeling overwhelmed and eventually realized the questions sorted themselves out without being roadblocks to success. Friends who wished him well contributed their services of web and logo ideas, and previous bosses and peers offered sage advice. He selected a venue for his launch and threw a fantastic party that drew colleagues and other supporters from near and far.

He says, “Above all, if you lose your job remain an active member of your industry’s community and/or professional associations, become a volunteer in your field, take or teach a class, gain a certificate, learn a new piece of software – all networking experiences where you can share your passion for what you do.”

Staying connected to combinations of dynamic, always changing people became the backbone of his business and a motivator for persistence and stamina despite the natural setbacks that always accompany growth. Now he seeks out opportunities to mentor. One secret: “When you ask someone how they are, really mean it and listen well.”

Once the mechanics of establishing his business were accomplished, Gabe’s joy has been managing his business as he gains clarity about what kind of company he wants and what type of leader he is. He believes his ability to change focus, shift gears, push the business in the direction of the skid (what his clients need) is key. Able to rent studio space after his first year profits, Gabe’s dream is to continue creating established pipelines of work as he functions as an offsite art department for clients.

“My business strategy answers the question: How are we all going to win?” he says. “I’ve created my mission statement to reflect my collaborative leadership… a broadcast design and animation studio for creative people on a mission to amplify and unify the design community.” He believes this collaboration will be key to his company’s success.

And what do faith and family have to do with entrepreneurship? Gabe says, “I gained valuable insights when I stopped blaming my tumultuous childhood and took responsibility for my own destiny. … I support reason and tolerance in our communities and embrace a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. I respect my wife’s religious background; we were married and had our children baptized in her church.”

His wife, an entrepreneur in her own right, stands back to let him do his thing without becoming too anxious over his progress or setbacks; he does the same for her. They share parenting and housekeeping responsibilities and try to foster each other’s personal and professional growth.

“Optimism is the recognition that the odds are in your favor; hope is the faith that things will work out whatever the odds. Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up. Hopeful people are actively engaged in defying the odds or changing the odds.” – David Orr, Hope is an Imperative

Margaret M. “Peggy” Treadwell, LICSW, is a family, individual and couples therapist and teacher in private practice.

Stage fright

By Marshall Scott

“See the man with the stage fright,

Just standin' up there to give it all his might.

He got caught in the spotlight,

But when we get to the end

He wants to start all over again.”
(From “Stage Fright” by The Band)



I am commonly amused, and sometimes surprised, by the music that pops into my head. So, I had to wonder what it was going on when, as I thought about the arrival of Lent, the refrain from “Stage fright” popped in my head.

Perhaps it was that thought that I am accountable, and in that some stage fright. I know that I’m progressive, and open to historical critical interpretation of Scripture and all of that; but I still retain, if only for my own reflection, a pretty classical image of being accountable. I still think about literally “standing before the Throne” – yeah, literally. I trust in God’s mercy; but I still have this expectation of uncomfortable reflection on some events in my life that I’m not proud of, with perhaps some uncomfortable conversations with others who were involved. Talk about being caught in the spotlight!

And I’m there with the thought that I need to give it all my might. There is a thought I hear often enough from patients and family members: “I don’t go to church as often as I should, but I try to be a good person.” And I’m certain each of them is trying to be a good person, as am I. If perhaps we’re not always giving it all our might, we’re certainly trying for consistency. At the same time, every time I hear that, I think I hear an undertone of, “And I’m self-conscious, even anxious, when I think of how many times I fall short.” I know I hear that undertone in my own thoughts.

So, perhaps what I’m most aware of is that desire at a point of transition to start all over again. I long ago gave up resolutions at New Year’s Day, and yet year after year I stop to think about my discipline for Lent. I feel the need to stop, and to start over again.

That makes sense with the music, doesn’t it? Music has been an important part of my life, whether I’m participating or simply enjoying what I’m hearing. I have been part of various performing groups through my education. That has given me a clear memory of how one learns music. There is that old joke of the tourist who asked the street musician how to get to Carnegie Hall; to which the busker answered, “Practice, practice, practice!” That’s how we learn music: we practice over and over again. And, we don’t just practice whole pieces, whole songs. We break them down into pieces, and each piece gets its own attention. Piece by piece, and again once we have put the pieces together, we practice and practice – which is to say, each time we get to the end, we start all over again.

Growth in our relationship with God is like that. Indeed, any relationship is like that. I love, and in loving try to listen. All too often, I don’t listen well enough, whether from distraction or sleepiness or, to be honest, a moment of indifference. And with each little slip, no matter how brief, I have, in some sense, to start all over again. Some small part of the trust has been lost, and I have to step back, to recover some lost ground. My beloved wife and I say often enough, “Marriage is one negotiation after another;” but we might just as well say that it is “one rehearsal after another.” So, with each small slip, and also with the regular renewals of birthdays, anniversaries, and other family celebrations, we step back and start again, to practice and practice and so do better.

So we find ourselves in our relationship with God. The great Christian spiritual writers reminded us of this. I think especially of Walter Hilton’s Stairway of Perfection. He leads the reader up steps in the relationship with God, beginning with that “chiefest of sins,” pride. He notes, though, that the “stairway” is more a spiral than a straight line, and that sooner or later we will be brought back again to our pride, and need to begin again.

Hilton only confirms our contemporary experience. Not long ago, on that rare Eighth Sunday after Epiphany, we were called not to worry, translating a Greek word, merimnaw, that suggested just this splitting of our memory, our attention. We are all prone to find our consciousness, our very lives divided, and to allow our attention to our life in Christ to slip. It happens however hard we try for consistency, and once again we’re not listening as well to the words of Christ, to the call of the Spirit. By God’s grace, at that point we have the opportunity to step back, to start all over again, and by rehearsing go father than we had gone before the slip.

And we have Lent. As in our relationships there are those special events, those birthdays, anniversaries, and family celebrations, so in our life in Christ there are special events. We might have these thoughts at Advent, or even at each baptism, when together we repeat the Baptismal Covenant. However, the most pronounced of those annual family celebrations, if you will, is Lent. We are called to “a devout and holy Lent,” not to wallow in our wretchedness, but to stop, go back a few measures, and start again.

So, perhaps it wasn’t so strange that as I thought about Lent the refrain of “Stage Fright” popped into my head. Certainly, when we are honest and reflect on our accountability, we can be uncertain, anxious, and perhaps a bit resistant. We might fear that bright light in which God sees us, and our realization that in that light even our best efforts are punctuated by our moments of distraction, inattention, and indifference. And we can also embrace and appreciate God’s grace in Christ, so that, knowing that Christ is forgiving us, we can also forgive ourselves. We can literally practice our faith, rehearsing those passages where we struggle until we do better. We know we will not see perfection, except in and through Christ. But with each difficult passage, and with each completed song we can go farther; even if when we get to the end we need to start all over again.

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.

Spirit’s work in the slaughterhouse

By Donald Schell

Much that I’m seeing and hearing outside church makes me look back to celebrate (or worry at) what we’re doing in church on Sunday and in our faith communities. Could these unexpected prophetic voices hint at how the Spirit blows where she will to make all things new? And when we meet the Spirit outside church, is she challenging how we do church work? What I see outside makes me wonder where the Spirit moves (and doesn’t) in our church practice of mission, community-building, and adult formation.
Recently these glimpses of the Spirit at work outside church moved me:

- HBO’s award winning biopic ‘Temple Grandin,’ on the hard life and huge gifts of the autistic Ph.D. who overturned a whole generation of experts’ settled conclusions about autism while she radically altering our treatment of cattle in the U.S.

- the NPR story of the Vipassna Buddhist meditation program for lifers in Donaldson Prison in Alabama

- National Geographic’s documentary on atheist neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky’s research on stress in baboon communities in Kenya and his wholly unexpected discoveries when a disaster moved one baboon community toward a active teaching of compassionate, collaborative behavior

- “Fresh Air’s” interview with Matthew Alexander, author of Kill or Capture, How a Special Operations Task Force took Down a Notorious Al Qaeda Terrorist.

These stories have come back to me again and again as I participate in ongoing conversation on NAECED’s list-serve (NAECED is the National Association of Episcopal Christian Education Directors) and have been helping shape and lead a workshop/training series for ECCC’s (Episcopal Camps and Conference Centers) summer camp directors. These two conversations about Christian formation, like many other conversations elsewhere in the church, have us talking about human development and how God shows up in human experience. Naturally we’ve had kept an eye toward the Charter for Lifelong Christian Formation that was adopted at General Convention in 2009 and naturally the Baptismal Covenant in the Book of Common Prayer comes up repeatedly.

Listening to witnesses of godly experience outside church, I feel glad the Charter asks us-

- To study Scripture, mindful of the context of our societies and cultures, calling us to seek truth anew while remaining fully present in the community of faith.

- To develop new learning experiences, equipping disciples for life in a world of secular challenges and carefully listening for the words of modern sages who embody the teachings of Christ.

- To prepare for a sustainable future by calling the community to become guardians of God’s creation.

For a generation now our Prayer Book has put a central emphasis on baptism with the 1979 Prayer Book’s innovation of a Baptismal Covenant. I have some questions and reservations about that innovation and may write about them on another occasion. For me I’m glad to say how grateful I am that the Baptismal Covenant points us toward serving ‘Christ in all persons,’ and striving for ‘justice and peace among all people,’ as we learn to ‘respect the dignity of every human being.’ Directing our attention to ‘all persons,’ ‘all people,’ and ‘every human being’ steers us back to God’s startling work outside any tidy bounds of church or religion, just what Jesus does in his teaching and his practice.

With the collapse of Christendom, I’m grateful whenever our liturgy invites us to be alert for the work of God in the lives of the unbaptized, in skeptics, in unbelievers, and in the faithful in other traditions, people whose experience we’re only now coming to acknowledge and value.

I think the Charter for Lifelong Formation and Baptismal covenant both ask us to see Christ in people like Margaret Sanger, Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Nelson Mandela, four people who are, to the best of my knowledge, an atheist, a Hindu, a Buddhist, and an agnostic humanist. How does remembering these help us see and hear the Spirit’s work outside our Christian and Episcopal box? And within our communities, do these lives help us see and hear the Spirit’s work among us differently?

First their stories remind us to look for the Spirit beyond our border because God is at work everywhere. And then their lives remind us that God who is at work in unexpected places may also show up in unexpected ways within our communities.

I also find that looking and listening for God’s work outside the boundaries of church enlarges possibilities for grateful conversations on the borders of faith. Who do we talk to on the border? Some, of course, are people seeking community who bring their own experience to join with ours. But the border is also where we encounter people who aren’t looking for church. Their stories bless us because we know their best committed work is holy, whether they’re people of other faith or none. Their stories ask us to listen to experience and only then wrestle with the questions of theology.

So,

In an interview with Dave Davies on NPR’s ‘Fresh Air, and in his book, Kill of Capture, Matthew Alexander who served as a senior military interrogator in Iraq, insists we get demonstrably unreliable information from ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ our euphemism, he says, for torture. Then he contrasts that kind of information with what he and those he trained found they got – even in battlefield interrogations under huge time pressure – by deliberately acknowledging the humanity of the prisoner under interrogation, making an honest promise not to hurt them, offering them steady human respect, and asking questions to find what hopes, dreams, and vision the prisoner and the interrogator actually shared. Matthew Alexander found, to his surprise he could find common ground in a prisoner’s hope for a better, more peaceful life for the next generation, or respect for Islam’s legitimate place as a voice for compassion and order). Even from an admitted, violent terrorist, extending respect and asking and listening to what had motivated the person usually made them much more willing to give accurate, life-saving information that ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques never reached. With a war raging the Spirit of truth and reconciliation shows up when someone makes a commitment to listen.

Stanford University professor of neurology and neurosciences, Robert Sapolsky was astonished to discover in a baboon community he’d observed for over ten summers in Kenya that when the Alpha males’ hoarding and consumption of tainted human garbage killed them all, the surviving members of their baboon group created and carried forward an unprecedented new baboon culture. The recently terrorized non-dominant males didn’t take claim the oppressor’s place in the new hierarchy like the old one they’d known. Instead the surviving males and that band’s females worked together to re-socialize the male adolescents who found their way to the band so the group perpetuated an adaptive, ongoing baboon culture of collaboration, mutual concern, and kindness. Even in our primate cousins, community can shape creatures for goodness and make peace.

Teaching Vipassna meditation in the Donaldson prison in Alabama, Vipassna teacher Carl Franz could document a twenty percent reduction in disciplinary action among the 430 inmates who have gone through the intensive meditation-training program. Evangelical chaplains, deeply suspicious of this foreign, non-Christian meditation practice, attempted to close the program and failed. And then Vipassna’s success won their grudging respect. Chaplain Bill Lindsay says it’s “kind of strange- something different,” but, “What’s a life worth in this business? If you can get just one, who knows?” And as inmate Grady Bankhead said, "Before I went to a Vipassana meditation…I was probably the angriest man in this prison." Now, recruiting others to take the very challenging course, he says, "We have to have some kind of balance back in our lives from the horrible things that we've done." The Spirit is present wherever hearts are changed and people are turned from hostility.

In 1950, when she was three years old Temple Grandin’s doctor told her parents that their autistic daughter would never speak and would need institutional confinement and care for life. Temple’s mother refused to believe that and found teachers who would work to free Temple’s spirit and help her find her voice. They found a remarkable voice, though along the way she was the shunned kid in school, an outsider who couldn’t read others’ cues and struggled to figure out what people might mean by their ‘feelings.’ Temple Grandin herself says the HBO film gives us the picture of her literalistic hearing of every metaphor. The director and cinematographer flash onscreen pictures and patterns and diagrams Temple Grandin would see directly as she grasped design and pattern and movement in machinery or even in patterns of animals’ movements. And they take us to feeling how her painfully attuned senses guided her to sensing the fear in the mooing of cattle in feed yards and slaughterhouses. We watch her put that organizing vision to work to design new ways of handling fellow creatures so we can ‘kind to them as nature is not.’ And we begin to see how her almost crippling empathy for cattle made her more able to speak her autistic experience to brain researchers like Oliver Sacks and to the teachers and parents of autistic children. The little girl without speech became the creative Word for others without speech.

Years of hearing and telling our Christian stories, years of praying with the community and sharing in Christ’s presence at his table opened my ear to hear Spirit in these stories. And that’s what makes me so glad to find many in our church pursuing our new focus on formation while encouraging us to share Jesus’ vision for God at work in Samaritan strangers, a Canaanite woman, and a lot of people whose religious credentials weren’t in good order.

As important as it is to find richer and more provocative ways to tell our Christian story inside our communities, we need to keep our ears and eye open and alert. Scripture and Tradition both point to reason/experience and invite us to see the Spirit at work all over the place. I pray that our new urgent commitment to Christian formation will help us discover in all human formation, God’s unrelenting work making us more compassionate, more awe-struck, kinder and more loving, and more open to graceful surprise.

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

The patch

By Todd Donatelli

The patch is about one inch by two inches. It covers the burn mark. I touch it at least once a week.

In an episode of The West Wing President Bartlet is standing in the nave of Washington National Cathedral having a vigorous argument with God. He has cleared the space in order to be alone and is smoking a cigarette while making his complaint to the Holy One. His long time, dutiful secretary has been killed by a drunk driver and he is in deep anger. As well he is wrestling with whether or not to run for a second term. He wants to run but is torn by a promise made to his wife not to. He is also torn by other political realities about which he is not pleased. As he is making his final pronouncement, he drops his cigarette on the Cathedral floor and rubs it out with his shoe.

I remember being engrossed by the scene. I greatly appreciated the honesty and integrity of this prayer clash with God. Too often these types of scenes are predictable and simplistic with some character wondering if God is present because of something they don’t like in their life. For President Bartlet there is no wondering if God exists, he is only too convinced of that. He is simply less than enamored with the way God’s world seems to function. He is only too ready to tell God what he sees as the shortcomings of this universe and God’s incompetence. It is honest. It is the kind of conversation I think a mature faith finds itself having on occasion.

It was only later on a trip to the National Cathedral that I learned the scene was not done is some studio but in the actual nave. As well the cigarette snubbing was not computer generated but done on the actual floor of the Cathedral. The show’s producers had not told the Cathedral of their plans to grind the cigarette on their floor. Suffice to say the Cathedral was less than enamored with the action. As I listened to the Cathedral folks speak of the scene, as I heard their anger about what they experienced as a defacing of the Cathedral, I thought to myself, au contraire, what a great opportunity to show that faith is not simply all sweetness and light. I felt the scene a great moment of evangelism; a scene exploring the hard side of faith, the moments when we run into the frailty and limitations of our world and our rage about it. I felt it actually made faith more compelling and less trivial. I remember thinking, these poor folks, they don’t get the grittiness, the earthiness of faith. Faith is not simply pristine and polished, it is dark and messy at times. Where better for folks to express themselves honestly to God than in our sanctuaries.

A few months later I was in my office at All Souls Cathedral. A call came to me from the reception desk. “The docent has just come to the office as there is a gentleman in the church shouting out loud and knocking things over.” I entered the Nave to find the gentleman had already left. I found booklets and some prayer books tossed about. As I walked up to the altar I found the cigarette butt. It had been mashed into the top of the altar burning a hole through the linen into the wood. The burn is right in the center on the side of the altar where the presider stands. For some moments I was the proverbial liberal who had been mugged. I was angry with what I was seeing. I was angry about this random act of vandalism.

About thirty seconds into my rage, I recalled my judgment of the folks at the National Cathedral. I began to laugh at myself. So, what’s it like to have someone come into your space and express themselves like this? I had to step back and listen to my earlier thoughts. Why had this gentleman chosen to come into the space and act this way? Was it simply that we were open? Was there something in him that needed to be in this space acting this way? Was God not big enough to take what this gentleman had to offer? Is God not big enough to take what we have to offer?

After gathering myself I wondered about the reaction of our altar guild members. The cloth cover over the fair linen was not an issue, but the fair linen under the cover is of some value. Their response was better than mine. “We’ll simply sow a patch on there. It will remind us of the gentleman. He is now a part of us.”

Each Sunday and at liturgies through the week we gather around this altar present with the patch. When I am presiding it is clearly visible speaking in concert with the words of the Eucharistic Prayer. I often find myself touching the patch. It has become a channel to mystery. It reminds me of the way we are all burned, torn apart, patched, and sown back together by God. It reminds me the point of relationship is not perfection or pristine appearance but the real experience of being fractured and restored. It reminds me that all my moments, the ones I would like displayed and the ones I would like hidden, are known and embraced by God, all our moments are Eucharistic: the broken becomes the food.

I don’t recommend handing out cigarettes in churches as a means of experiencing honesty in prayer. Yet the patch keeps me honest. It is a doorway.

The Very Rev. Todd Donatelli is dean of the Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville, N. C.

You cannot serve two masters

By Bill Carroll

Over the past five years, I've presided at a dozen funerals. More often than not, perhaps because of the name of the parish I serve, families choose the Good Shepherd reading for the Gospel. But, even when they don’t, we tend to use the twenty-third Psalm. Like other Christians, we draw strength from the Lord our shepherd as we make that final journey across the Jordan. As we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Jesus guides, feeds, and protects us. We are reassured by the Psalmist’s vision of still waters and green pastures--and the divine abundance that makes our cups overflow. Many of us know these words by heart. What a powerful prayer they become in times of anxiety, grief, or fear.

In the forty ninth chapter of Isaiah, the prophet presents a similar vision of God shepherding Israel. To a people in exile, God offers sure and certain hope of return. But it's more than that: God promises Israel they will be a sign of God’s own faithfulness—that they will be given as a covenant to the people. Nevertheless, the heart of this prophecy concerns the shepherding of sheep. Speaking to a people who have suffered violence, captivity, and extreme want, God promises that

on all the bare heights shall be your pasture; you shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike you down, for he who has pity on you will lead you, and by springs of water will guide you.

In the Book of Revelation, the risen Christ makes similar promises to us. When God makes all things new, the slain Lamb will become a Shepherd and guide us “to the springs of the water of life.”

It's against this backdrop that we must hear the Gospel about the lilies of the field. When Jesus asks us not to worry about our life…when he asks us not to be anxious about what we should eat or drink or wear, he is not embracing a naive optimism. He's nothing like the prosperity preachers who invoke his name, certain that God will provide for the faithful as a reward for righteousness.

If the Bible is clear about anything, it's that God's People are seldom more righteous than their neighbors. God’s People have never lived up fully to our calling. Indeed, in times of calamity, the prophets are prone to interpret exile and defeat as signs of judgment, which begins with the household of God. Even in better times, whatever holiness we possess is the gift and work of God. God didn't choose Israel because they deserved it, but because they were poor and oppressed in the land of Egypt. God took wandering, landless tribes of Hebrew slaves by the hand and made of them a great nation.

When Jesus invites us to look at the birds of the air or consider the lilies of the field, he is inviting us to adopt the perspective of faith, which means radical trust in God and God's coming Kingdom. Jesus is inviting us, in other words, to shed our defenses, to rely more fully on God and each other, and to become once more the creatures we were made to be.

That brings us to the difficult saying in the Gospel. "No one can serve two masters," says Jesus, "for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth." Too often, I think, we read our own resentments into this Gospel. We make it sound like it's a sin to have money or be concerned about it.

The poor have no such illusions. They know better. So too do those working families who have taken to the streets in Madison and Columbus. These teachers, cops, and firefighters are members of the vanishing American middle class, fighting to keep from being pushed into poverty. Polls show that most Americans, whether or not they happen to like unions or agree with everything they do, do support their right to exist.

Many church traditions would agree that people have a natural right to assemble and organize to promote their interests. Pope John Paul II, for example, in words that came out of his experience in Poland, wrote that unions "are indeed a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights of working people in accordance with their individual professions."

The Episcopal Church has a similar teaching, though not all our members would agree. Meeting in Columbus in 2006, the General Convention reaffirmed the "right to organize and form unions as a means to securing adequate wages, benefits, and safety conditions for ALL workers" and encouraged "all levels of the church to be informed about, and act accordingly, when rights of workers to associate is being jeopardized." Voluntary poverty may be a powerful witness some of us undertake in a world rife with injustice and excess, but the poverty that most of us work so hard to avoid is contrary to the will of God.

What Jesus condemns is not wealth per se, but rather the injustice that lies at the root of so many fortunes. He also condemns the attitude that serves wealth as our master, rather than using it to meet human needs. This attitude springs from our denial of death. We want to have so much that death cannot touch us or those we love. We want to accumulate enough, so that our children will never want for anything and our achievements will live on beyond the grave. After a while, the pursuit becomes an all consuming passion, perhaps destroying even those good things that led us to want money in the first place.

The birds and the lilies have no guarantees. They all will die, and some will die before their time. But they are beautiful. And, by and large, they enjoy being themselves. Animals may know sorrow, but it is a natural sorrow—an intrinsic part of what it means to be God’s creatures. Animals love and praise their Maker by their very being. Humans alone know the sorrows of injustice and broken fellowship with God. We alone choose to be less than what God made us to be.

When we truly serve God (and we do it best by serving our neighbor), we can enter into that self-forgetfulness that characterizes children at play, before the violence, lust, and greed of adulthood set in and limit our imaginations. And in that harmonious alignment of our will with God's will, we can experience a deep and lasting peace. We can come to place our trust in God’s coming Kingdom.

This is a profound mercy, and it comes as a gift or not at all. According to Jesus, it will not be given to those who choose any master besides God. Indeed, the service of mammon--wealth personified as a kind of god--against which Jesus warns us so sternly today, has hardened many a heart and blinded many a would be follower of Christ to the just claims of our neighbor.

So seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and do not worry about the rest.

The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

The literally life giving power of stories

By Marshall Scott

It won’t surprise anyone that I peruse medical journals for entertainment. I don’t claim to understand everything I read; but I still find fun in it.

And sometimes I find something that particularly catches my interest. During one such session not long ago, I actually found two. One was this title for a research study: “Culturally Appropriate Storytelling to Improve Blood Pressure” (Annals of Internal Medicine, 2011; 154:77-84). The second was another study with a title apparently similar, but subtly different: “Effect of Preventive Messages Tailored to Family History on Health Behaviors: the Family Healthware Impact Trial” (Annals of Family Medicine, 2011; 9:3-11).

Now, in my business both storytelling and family history are important things. So, I was certainly interested as I read the articles. As I said, the titles seem alike. However, there are differences, and the differences are important.

In “Storytelling,” a team was looking for a way to provide both information and encouragement for changes in behavior for African Americans with hypertension. African Americans are more likely to have high blood pressure, less likely to get it under control, and more likely to have serious complications. The team thought of storytelling.

Now, at first blush storytelling might seem well outside the frame of reference of modern allopathic medicine. However, for more than a decade now some medical schools have offered courses in narrative medicine. There is some appreciation that we understand ourselves and our lives, not only in light of facts, but also in light of the stories within which those facts have meaning.

So, they began with a number of focus groups made up of African Americans living with high blood pressure. From participants in those focus groups they selected a number that told their stories well. They recorded them telling their stories, and put the stories on a DVD, along with additional information on hypertension. They then provided DVDs to African American patients with hypertension. Study patients (both those with controlled and uncontrolled hypertension) received study DVD’s. Patients in the control group (whose hypertension was also not controlled) received a DVD with basic health information. Investigators hoped that study patients whose hypertension wasn’t yet controlled would show improvement, and that patients who hypertension was controlled would sustain their existing control and behaviors.

And it worked. It didn’t make a big difference for the patients whose hypertension was already controlled. However, for those for whom hypertension wasn’t controlled, those who watched the DVD had a significant improvement (lower average numbers) in their systolic blood pressure (the first number in blood pressure) over the control group at three months. In fact, the patients were followed for nine months; and while the average pressures for all patients went up between three and nine months, there was still a significant difference for those who had watched the study DVD.

What made the difference? Well, the investigators suggest (and I agree) that personal stories about living with high blood pressure were more powerful than a straight lecture, and especially when the person telling the story looked and sounded like them. As a result, they were more likely to embrace and maintain the lifestyle changes that led to better control of blood pressure.

The second study seemed to suggest the same point and yet had different results. The article “Family History” reports on the Family Healthware Impact Trial. Family Healthware is a software program developed by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) as an interactive tool to allow patients to record information on family history for six common diseases and for related health behaviors. When the user has completed his or her entries, the software generates a health risk assessment for the various diseases based on family history. It also provides health messages and suggestions for healthy behaviors. The thought was that because these health messages were customized and based on the patient’s individual family history the patients would find them easier to adopt and maintain. They selected 2,364 subjects in the control group, and 1,422 in the control group, and followed them for a series of good health behaviors (smoking cessation, eating more fruits and vegetables, getting more exercise, taking aspirin daily, tracking their blood pressure, and getting cholesterol and glucose checked regularly). Study subjects received the report with risk assessments and health messages connected to their individual family histories. Control subjects received a set of standard health messages, not individually tailored.

Surprisingly, investigators did not see the results they had hoped for. Study patients did show increases in eating fruits and vegetables, and in getting exercise; but for the other health behaviors results were small to insignificant. For most of the behaviors, the fact that the recommendations were based specifically on patients’ family histories didn’t seem to make much difference.

As I read the article, I realized that there was a significant difference between the studies. In the first study communication with the patients was not only customized, but specifically reflective of their community, and, really, of their own lives. In the second the messages were customized the family history, but were not specifically reflective of the patients’ communities. They were the standard medical messages, and not personal stories. While the messages in “Family History” were arguably just as useful, the stories in “Storytelling” were more meaningful, in that they were more related in their expression to the lives and experiences of patients.

Now, this is one of those moments where we notice the differences in how we see the world. In modern medicine, “if it didn’t get documented, it didn’t get done;” and if it hasn’t been documented in a formal research study, it can’t be approved. For the rest of us, and especially for those of us in the church, the reaction is likely to be, “Well, duh!” Our most important information is rooted in story – specifically, in the story of what God has done for us. Moreover, as any person in the pew can tell you, it is shared more effectively in story than it is in simple discourse.

Fact is, this is at the center of our lives as Christians. We are committed to receiving and passing on the Gospel; and since we receive it in and through story, we are committed to passing on the story, and not just the principles and conclusions that we derive from the story. Even in passing on the principles and conclusions, it is in story that we find them meaningful. That makes it important that we find ways to pass on the story that are culturally relevant for those we pass on to. I have said over the years that central to the task of theology is translation of the truths of the faith into a language understood by those we seek to reach. That is simply another way of saying that as we pass on the faith, we do best to do so in ways that are, as the study says, “culturally relevant.”

We know, really, how this affects our evangelism. From the first efforts at translating the Scriptures in to a language understood by the people – arguably, we could go back to the Septuagint, and even farther – we have been making our efforts to share the story in ways that are culturally relevant. At times in our history we have not only identified new languages, but even created alphabets for the purpose (Cyril and Methodius come to mind). We wrestle with it within our congregations (how shall we teach our children?): in our communities (what will reach Gen X or Gen Y?): and across the Body of Christ (as one example, just what do we all think about the Chinese Three Self Christian Movement?).

At the same time, it also raises some anxiety: is there a point where cultural relevance begins to dilute, even pollute, the faith we seek to convey? How many times did European missionaries feel that they had not only to translate the language of the faith, but also to make faux Europeans of the evangelized? How well otherwise do the stories we receive translate? How well do our stories, the experiences in which we find the meaning of the faith confirmed, translate? I have noted that one of my favorite books is Martin Palmers’ The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity. In that work he translates a number of documents, produced by Chinese Christians over a couple of centuries. By the later of those documents, the effort is clear to translate the stories not only into Chinese characters, but into Chinese terms. When the stone stele of the Religion of Light, produced in 781 CE, speaks of Jesus in much the same terms as a bodhisattva, is that a culturally relevant meaning, or is it a step too far?

By the same token, we know just how central this anxiety is in our current Anglican difficulties. Each side finds points at which the other side addresses and embraces the culture; and each side asks whether the other has gone too far. I have written before here at the Café of one cultural difference – whether one lives in an individualist or a “communalist” culture – that I think makes our communication difficult. Another is between those who feel that what God wants us to know is conveyed in the contents of Scripture; and those who feel that God also wants us to know what we learn through scientific study, and to wrestle with how both can be meaningful in our lives. This difference is critical because the details of what we learn through scientific study also shape the stories that we use to make meaning. In the case in point, we do have different understandings of what it means to be human when some of us want to quote only Scripture, and some of us also want to include information from medicine, anthropology, and psychology.

In that case, it can be tempting to try to turn again to specific tenets, to distill from the received stories concepts that transcend the limits of our languages and our stories. That, too, has been an ongoing process, from Augustine to Aquinas to Tillich. Yet even then we discover that cultural relevance lurks in the wings. Each academic theologian is working with a philosophical language that reflects its own time and shapes its future – in my examples, Neo Platonic to Aristotelian to Existentialist forms. As much as some might try to see them as more pure and more abstract, each theologian and the language the theologian seeks to use is shaped not only by concepts, but by cultures and the stories through which those cultures make and find meaning.

And with each generation we discover it anew, or at least we think we do. We discover that our efforts to abstract concepts and convey them by discourse – as in, for example, modern allopathic medicine –don’t help people live in the way that we might hope. In a very real sense they aren’t meaningful, because they don’t relate to our experiences and our perceptions. We return again to stories and storytelling. It is how we make meaning in our lives. It is how we connect our past with our place in the world now, and how we shape our hopes for the future. Critically for us, it is how we live in Christ. It is how “the faith once delivered to the saints” becomes our faith. It is how we discover that faith can live in our own lives. It is how we pass on the faith we have received to those who come after. It is how we know what Christ has done for us, and is doing in us; and how we know that he will be with us even to the end of the ages.

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.

Dementia and the language of the soul

By Martin L. Smith

How many years do I have left with a clear mind?—a question I asked myself a few days ago after I had phoned to check how my godmother is doing in her nursing home in Toronto. Her Alzheimer’s has been progressing over 15 years. One of the most poignant losses is the total eclipse of her religious awareness. She had been a faithful Christian all her life, indeed, she was the only religious woman my father knew, which is why I ended up with a godmother who lived 3,000 miles away. Rising to the challenge, she nurtured my faith wonderfully well from a distance, with books, letters and prayers. And now the disease has taken away every conscious vestige of the faith that had sustained her. It could happen to me. It could happen to you. It may have already happened to someone you love. As life expectancy grows, more of us will live under its cloud than ever before.

I have been thinking how important it is not to lose the language of soul in our faith today. You hardly ever hear about our souls. The concept is commonly regarded as antiquated, tied up with an obsolete notion that our bodies are inhabited by a kind of entity that floats away to heaven when we die. But if that concept is misleading, it doesn’t mean that we should stop referring to soul. To talk of our souls is to point to an ineradicable core to our being. In the ‘innermost person’ our lives are ‘hidden with Christ in God’ (Col. 3:4) in a bond that no loss of brain function, however ravaging, can diminish. Far from being obsolete, deep faith in the soul is a vital assertion of our absolute human equality in God. When it comes to our souls, we are all equals and remain so. At the core level of soul, the man or woman who has succumbed to complete dementia is equal in dignity and worth and spiritual standing to the brother and sister whose brains (so far) are in brilliant form.

If we let the language of soul fall into disuse, a malign sense of inequality can creep in. Just because a woman or man has lost the ability to remember or recognize those she or he once knew, we might be tempted to think of them as blighted lives best put out of sight, out of mind. We may find ourselves tolerating horrible clichés about people ‘becoming vegetables.’ We may look down pityingly on those whose brain functioning is compromised as our inferiors. But the souls that God holds in life are not diminished, even though the brain is injured. In God their suffering, and the eclipse, partial or total, of awareness, diminishes them as persons not one iota. Rather they might be the special objects of God’s tender and compassionate regard. My godmother refuses the offer of Holy Communion as something incomprehensible to her, even irritating. But her soul’s union with Christ cemented by decades as a communicant is as real and solid as it ever was, isn’t it, though accessible to us only by the second sight of empathic faith?

Where the language of soul has not been lost, those with dementia are cherished within the community, not abandoned. For years I used regularly to celebrate the Eucharist in convents and the nursing homes they ran, and learned the ropes of including those with dementia in the act of worship. I remember a mother superior looking at me with a searching smile to see how I would react when a rumpled but feisty old nun would start to scream obscenities as I gave her communion, whether I could muster both humor and respect in this incongruity. And I remember one contemplative convent where one of the oldest sisters would frequently interject into the services an amazingly penetrating rendition of “Hickory, dickory, dock, the mouse ran up the clock.” I got the impression, from the equanimity with which this was woven into the service, that her sisters believed that God lovingly accepted her song as her way of worshipping, a language that God had no difficulty in decoding.

The thought that I myself may enter dementia eventually is not new to me. For some years I served as a volunteer subject in Alzheimer’s research in a Boston hospital, so I am aware that dementia is not something that just happens to someone else. Tests revealed a brain in fine form, but if dementia is my destiny I hope I will be surrounded by people who have faith in the reality of my soul, and acknowledge that within the confusion and fog is that intact and abundant inner man whose life—here’s that priceless verse again from Colossians—is “hidden with Christ in God.”

Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba’s, D.C.

Opposing the "cultured despisers of religion"

By Derek Olsen

Just the other day on NPR I heard a report that alternately amused and annoyed me. The spot reported on two studies by social scientists. The first was a psychologist who determined that children who believed that an invisible—supernatural—being was in the room with them cheated on an impossible task the same low amount as when an actual, visible, person was with them. The second was an explanation for the growth of the human trait of cooperation. It posited that humans used the idea of a supernatural omniscient being with a set law code as a means for social control that avoided problems of authority and retributive revenge. That is, in early human societies, a leader could say that he wasn’t making up rules and imposing them and be liable for retribution, instead he was simply enforcing the rules already laid down from above. The point of the report seemed pretty clear to me: it attempted to demonstrate that human religion began as simple—and simplistic—means of social control. The unspoken but seemly logical conclusion was that since humanity had moved past the need for such primitive controls, it was time for us to move beyond religion as well.

Schleiermacher named so well the “cultured despisers of religion” in the title of his book from 1799. Despite the passage of two hundred some years, they are still with us and—to their bewilderment—so is religion…

And that’s precisely what amused me so about the report—the complete bewilderment present. Oh, they were careful and no one made any clearly disparaging remarks, but the impression that I received was that both the scientists and the reporter were completely baffled concerning how apparently reasonable people could still believe this religion stuff. How could we account for it? Why would people have ever dreamed it up? Perhaps if its origins could be exposed as primitivistic, then modern people would realize the childishness of the whole endeavor and give it up for good. The report seemed to be grasping for some straws that it could use to topple the ancient edifice. Alas, the straws remained ineffective, at least to my ears.

What annoyed me about the report were the assumptions made about religious belief and, subsequently, about religiously-motivated behavior. One statement in particular sticks with me even now. It made reference to the fact that, even now, millions of people around the world are motivated by religion to not do certain things. This statement is true. Yet when I heard it, I felt a flush of irritation and frustration. Why, I wondered, is the emphasis on what religion makes people not do? Why is religion always portrayed as a negative force—either that it has negative effects or that it acts by preventing people from doing certain things?

What about the positive aspects of religion? As I sit at the computer and type this, my internet radio station is cycling through works of Tallis, Palestrina, Byrd and others. None of this aural beauty would exist if it were not for religion. The hospital at which my nephew was recently born would never have existed but for the order or nuns who founded and first staffed it—indeed, would modern healthcare as we know it even exist without the religious hospitalling orders who tended the sick and pilgrims? When I at my most cynical consider joining the cultured despisers myself, I consider those who have been transformed by the fire of love through purely religious means who have then shared that love with the world. Religion—true religion—is far more than a series of “thou shalt nots,” yet this is what seems to stand front and center in the caricatures of the cultured despisers.

Where have we failed?

Because, in truth, it is we who have failed. It’s our job to make the work of the cultured despisers all that more difficult. It’s our job to provide concrete, embodied examples of how religion, faith, spirituality—anything and everything that transcends a materialistic empiricism—make this world a better place, and humanity the richer for them. Are there things done in the name of religion that we don’t approve of and don’t agree with? Of course. Are there times when we join the cultured despisers in their bewilderment at the actions of those who call themselves religious? Most certainly. But rather than throwing up our hands, we need to throw ourselves into the fray keeping always before us the cornerstones of our revealed religion: faith, hope and love.

How we act matters. How we embody our faith in the world matters. I’d try and frame it in a neat little epigram but someone beat me to it: “Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.”

Derek Olsen recently finished his Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

Why I go to church

Summer hours continue. Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.

By Ellen Painter Dollar

Recently, I’ve read a handful of articles about clergy burnout. In The New York Times, G. Jeffrey McDonald traced high burnout rates to congregations demanding that their pastors entertain and soothe them (with short, amusing sermons, for example), rather than counsel and challenge them. On Sojourners’ God’s Politics blog, Eugene Cho cites depressing statistics about the stress and low pay that come with being constantly “on call” and beholden to congregations that may feel they own you because they pay your salary. And in a humorous take, retired UCC minister Richard Floyd named Ten Highly Effective Strategies for Crushing Your Pastor's Morale, including telling your pastor to choose between a salary raise and the mission budget, and referring to your pastor’s attendance at conferences or retreats as “vacation.”

Although I’m the daughter of an Episcopal clergyman, I primarily read these articles from the perspective of a layperson. Here are a few of my reactions.

We’re not all looking for feel-good affirmation. Going to church is a pain in the neck much of the time (as I wrote about this summer for Christianity Today in an essay that has garnered many responses and taken on a life of its own). I’ve got three kids who aren’t that enthusiastic. I’m often tempted to make Sunday morning the one day that I don’t have to don my drill sergeant hat to get everyone fed, dressed, and out the door on time. Hearing the “thump” as the Sunday New York Times hits my front walk makes my heart rate quicken; I’d honestly rather spend a few hours with the paper and multiple cups of coffee than go to church.

But most weeks, I forego my preferences and head to church because I need what it offers. And what it offers—what I’m seeking—is not cute stories or pats on the back. I do enjoy a good joke in a sermon. My dad is an expert sermon joke-teller; he puts the congregation at ease and makes us more receptive to the substantive message, which is always simple but vital.

That simple, vital message is what I go to church for. As someone who lives daily with pain and disability, I want to hear about the One who heals. As someone struggling to be a good mother in a culture that stands ready to judge my every parenting decision harshly, I want to hear about the One who accepts me (and my less-than-perfect kids) unconditionally. As someone haunted by all that is wrong with the world (the floods, the jihads, the limbless soldiers, the rootless children), I want to hear about the One who will bring about a new heaven and a new earth—and about what part we play in that re-creation.

Not everyone goes to church for the reasons I do. I’ve worshipped alongside a number of “cultural Episcopalians,” who admit they don’t believe much in the resurrection and all that hoo-ha, but love the music, the ritual, the outreach projects. I’ll gladly worship with anyone who wants to worship, for whatever reason. But when the church’s mission and ministry are dictated more by programmatic needs than core Gospel values, then both clergy and parishioners will get burned out running all those programs without sufficient spiritual sustenance.

Our former church had a highly regarded music program. When I was on the vestry, I always commented on the size of the music budget compared with other areas (the Outreach Committee I chaired got something like $600 a year), and asked why we hired professional singers. People responded that paid singers provide a strong core for the choir, allowing them to sing more difficult works and do things they couldn’t with a volunteer-only choir. I argued that other ministries would likewise be able to do things they otherwise couldn’t if people were paid to be there on Sunday mornings (our chronically understaffed church school came to mind). Then people looked at me blankly and said, “But we don’t have the budget to pay people to teach Sunday school.” I would sigh heavily and resist the urge to lay my head down on the nice, cool tabletop and go to my Happy Place. The point was not that we should start paying church school teachers, but that our budget and programming reflect our values, and what does it say about our values when our budget caters more to those who come to church for the music than for those who come to church to teach their kids to follow Jesus?

A church needs programs; of course it does. If faith is to be something that undergirds our lives, rather than something that takes up a few hours on Sunday morning, then we need Christian education for all ages, and opportunities for mission and ministry. But it seems that congregational life is often focused more on sustaining programs than feeding spirits.

One result is that during the summer, when most programs are on hiatus, going to Sunday morning services feel like going to school when there is a substitute teacher. We’re all just biding our time and doing the bare minimum until we get back to business. The pews are nearly empty, the sermons from substitute preachers are of mixed quality, and we gulp down cups of lemonade before making an escape. Apparently, most of the congregation feels that, without church school, adult education, and rummage sale planning meetings, there’s no reason to come to church. There’s something wrong when the presence or absence of programs, and not the Gospel message, dictate church attendance.

Church programs, of course, are precisely the things that contribute to clergy (and parishioner) burnout—the planning, budgeting, staffing. How might pastors’ and parishioners’ experience of church change if we examined programs honestly to see how they support worship and the nurturing of a vibrant common life, and cut or altered them to better support those core values? I, for one, could live without adult discussion topics only tangentially related to faith (church architecture anyone?) and dreadful “coffee hours” that are really just holding pens for parents waiting for their kids to get out of church school. My kids get more out of children’s worship than they get from inconsistently staffed and attended church school classes. What if we focused more of our volunteer and programming energy on providing the most authentic, life-changing children’s worship experience possible, and less on begging people to teach church school?

One of the most vibrant, volunteer-driven ministries in my current church is a healing ministry. Every Sunday, all year long, two parishioners are available in the back of the church to offer hands-on healing prayers to anyone who asks. I plan to join this ministry once I’m beyond the young-child stage of motherhood, when we really need both parents on deck to handle emergency potty trips and ward off meltdowns in the pews. The healing ministry is directly related to the church’s core mission of sharing the Good News, and it shows. Although the healing team is always interested in new members, there are no pleas from the pulpit to please consider stepping up and helping out.

Most of the clergy reading this have probably thought much longer and harder than I have about the relationships among burnout, church programs, and vibrant spiritual lives. Maybe this essay will elicit only a “tell us something we don’t know” weariness. But I hope it also offers worn-out pastors some encouragement. I want clergy who are tired and discouraged to know that many of us sitting in your pews on Sunday mornings want to be both challenged and comforted by the Good News, much more than we want to listen to high-quality music, drink good coffee, or find cutting-edge entertainment for our kids. Some of us are as frustrated as you are with the feel-good, pick-and-choose, personal fulfillment focus of modern spirituality. Speak to us, because we’re listening.

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work focuses on faith, parenthood and disability. She is writing a book on the ethics and theology of reproductive technology, genetic screening and disability, and she blogs at Choices That Matter and Five Dollars and Some Common Sense.

Why NPR's Story Corps makes me cry

Summer hours continue. Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.

By Donald Schell

Listening to NPR’s Story Corps makes me cry. No, the stories don’t always make me cry, but yes, because of those tears rather than despite them, I look forward to hearing Story Corps on Friday mornings.

Even when the couple of minutes of ordinary people telling their stories doesn’t make me cry, what they tell and how they tell it will often stay with me long after the broadcast has ended. And even when the two people’s storytelling conversation falls flat for me, I’ll still find myself thinking about them and their story throughout the day.

Story Corps' editors appear to be doing more than just listening to ordinary peoples’ stories. Somehow in their couple of minutes offering week by week, the editorial team asks us to discern how these stories matter matter. The stories don’t just invite us to hear and think about events, they draw us into feeling and sensing of well. I wonder if feeling and sense are neglected parts of how people, stories and events matter.

NPR obviously isn’t promoting religion or religious practice, but something I find listening to these stories feels reminiscent of praying.

Frequently their stories are of love, friendship, and compassion – Below are just a few examples of the many emotional and powerful stories that appear on Story Corps:

"How come I didn't scare you?”
Hilda Chacón and her husband, Pedro Morán-Palma, remember when they first met twenty years ago.

“When did you and Dad decide to adopt?”
Scott Miller talks to his mother, Jackie, about her decision to adopt him.

“I saw this guy with a head of black hair and white, white, teeth...”
Joan DeLevie (R) tells her daughter, Sharon (L), how she met her husband, Ari at a party in 1959.

Sharon DeLevie also interviewed her dad, Ari, about being the primary caregiver for her mother.

“Before they would see a doctor, the families in the community would come to see her.”
Graciela Kavulla tells her husband, Timothy, about her grandmother, who was a midwife.

“I was sick; I had no job; I was lonely—and then Felix called me.”
Rob Sanchez (R) and his friend Felix Aponte (L), who both served time at Sing Sing Penitentiary, talk about Rob's diagnosis with an aggressive form of kidney disease.

Immigrant single mom finding love, a husband caring for his wife with Stage IV lung cancer, a gay adoptee, an illiterate midwife that community counts on, ex-cons bound in a friendship. The stories have the broad texture of life and are full of heart. But there’s more to how these move me than sentiment and my (admittedly) being a sucker for heartwarming stories. There are tough ones too, like this –

“We'd known death but not like this.”
Hector Black remembers the murder of his daughter, Patricia Nuckles, by an intruder in her home.

“I can't even begin to tell you the misery of rain.”
George Hill remembers being homeless. Hill has been off the streets for 10 years.

I’m noticing how much some of these Story Corps’ personal vignettes are like Jesus’ parables. The stories create a mosaic proclaiming the work of God in all kinds of human lives, all without the declared or even hidden presence of church or religion.

Like Jesus’ parables, these stories are of ordinary people finding their way through life – sometimes they reflect on the big occasions and crises, but often center on the most ordinary events. Like Jesus’ parables, these stories are emphatically not religious stories, nor are they vignettes of distinctly doctrinal spiritual discovery. They are, however, stories of love, of forgiveness, of generosity, of faithfulness, of humor, of kindness, of change of heart, everyday markers of. . .
- the Spirit that blows where it will
- God’s work in every human life.

My work gives me the privilege of seeing and experiencing congregations and church leaders who act boldly for mission, who care deeply about Christian spiritual formation, whose life and work shine with Hope. Again and again, I find myself grateful for seeing how unrelentingly God pursues us and how eagerly God joins God’s self to accomplish holy work.

I also hear and consult with discouraged clergy and congregations suffering devastating decline or bitter conflicts over disagreements that may be hard to define or strangely disconnected from the everyday work of God. And among clergy in their late 50’s and in their 60’s, I hear many asking if the church is dying, many wondering whether their work in ministry was just a waste.
In these dark, broken-hearted wonderings, I’m grateful to recall Gregory of Nyssa’s bold declaration that it’s all of humankind together that bears the Image of God. The Church can’t contain God’s work. Even if we fail utterly, even when the church voice our society hears is repressive, condemning and the opposite of Good News, God continues to work among and with all humanity.

When I read statistics of the rapid, generation-long decline of the kind of Christianity that proclaims anything we’d hear as good news, sometimes I find courage and hope in the innovative work of a surprisingly brave and open-hearted generation of younger church leaders who keep showing up almost despite our efforts to hold tightly to the church and keep it for ourselves. But are there enough of them? Will our children or our children’s children have faith?

Story Corps takes me to an unexpected place to answer that - the utter ordinariness of the people in Jesus’ parables: their fallibility, their lack of religious standing, their faith with no institutional trappings or sanction at all. Jesus’ voice speaking those parables blesses Story Corps vignettes, declaring, often beyond the reach of church where the Spirit (the mighty wind blowing where she will) is at work. With no evident religious intent, the stories proclaim God’s prodigal showering of blessing on all (‘the just and unjust alike’), redemption and hope breaking in heart-by-heart and touch-by-touch.

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

Jesus throws me out

Summer hours continue. Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.

By Adam Thomas

On a certain Saturday in late July of 2006, I found myself sitting in the pastoral care office of Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, waiting for a ten-year-old boy to die. I had sat with his mother by his bedside earlier in the day. We had cried the Rosary together. We had held hands and gazed upon the face of the little boy. When his mother asked for some private time with her son, I returned to the office and waited for the pager to ring. And as I waited, I jotted down the first verse of a song that took me the next three years to write. The words of John 10 echoed in my mind as I wrote the lyrics because for weeks I had been telling the Godly Play story of the Good Shepherd with children on my floor of the hospital.

Almost four years to the day, I sit at my computer. None of the urgency or the heartbreak of that day remains, and I am aware of the complacency that has crept in over the years. And once again, the words of John 10 return to my mind: Jesus is the good shepherd who calls his sheep by voice. They hear their names and he leads them out of the sheepfold. But a closer look shows that Jesus doesn’t necessarily lead them out (as many English translations say). Rather, he throws them out of the sheepfold. Here’s what I mean.

Jesus begins his discussion with something as close to a parable as the Gospel according to John gets. In the other accounts of the Gospel, Jesus often speaks in parables, but not in John. Instead, Jesus himself is the parable of God — the way God is made known in the world (John 1:18). Here in chapter 10, Jesus speaks in a “figure of speech” about shepherding and sheep and wolves and bandits. Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd who calls his sheep by name and “leads them out” (NRSV). The word for “lead out” is one of my favorite Greek words: ekballo. This is a fairly prevalent verb in the Gospel according to John and in the other accounts, as well. In the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), when Jesus casts out demons, he ekballo-s them. In John 2, when Jesus drives out the moneychangers and animal sellers from the temple, he ekballo-s them. The man born blind is ekballo-ed from the synagogue at the end of chapter 9. And finally, in chapter 12, Jesus mentions that the “ruler of this world” will be ekballo-ed from it.

In each of these cases, the connotation of ekballo is to drive out or cast out or throw out. But in John 10, according to, say, the NRSV, the shepherd calls his sheep by name and “leads them out.” While Greek words definitely have ranges of meaning, I suggest that we should translate the instance of the word ekballo in chapter 10 not as “lead out,” but as “throw out.” Here’s why.

The first character Jesus introduces in chapter 10 is a thief and a bandit. This person climbs into the sheepfold rather than entering through the gate. The thief comes only to “steal and kill and destroy.” Furthermore, outside the sheepfold there are wolves waiting to snatch up the sheep and scatter them. Hired hands are no help because they run away when they see the wolves coming. With thieves, bandits, and wolves roaming outside the sheepfold, leaving the fold can be frightening and dangerous.

In contrast, the sheepfold is safe and secure — shepherds bring their flocks to these enclosures at night for safety. But the sheep can’t live their whole lives in the sheepfold, no matter how safe and secure they may feel. They must go out into the world beyond the gate to graze for food (which, as far as I can tell, is all sheep do). So the shepherd ekballo-s them. The shepherd throws the sheep out of the fold so they can eat and drink and run.

The sheepfold is a safe place, but everything outside the sheepfold is dangerous. Who would not want to stay in the fold? Being led out into the world can feel like being thrown out. What is my fold? What do I use to shelter myself from the world? Where do I feel comfortable to the point of intransigence? The answer to these questions is the thing from which Jesus throws me out.

Contemporary sheepfolds come in all shapes, sizes, and disguises. Perhaps my family is my sheepfold, or my work, or, yes, even my church. For me, my complacency is the fold from which Jesus constantly throws me. The fold of complacency is slippery and amorphous because it has no walls, no group of people with whom to identify, no action of its own. And complacency leads to complicity with all the bad things in the world. I am so entrenched in my complacency that Jesus has to throw me out of it. It is the demon in me that Jesus casts out, the ruler of my world that Jesus drives out.

And he throws me out of this fold with one simple word: my name. Jesus calls me by name and I hear his voice and I know that I have been in the fold too long. By calling my name, Jesus brings me into an intimate relationship with him. (Remember in middle school when you found out your crush actually knew your name? It’s a good feeling, isn’t it?) By calling my name, Jesus tells me he knows me, knows that I struggle with complacency, knows that I need a swift kick in the trousers (a new translation of ekballo, perhaps?) to prompt me to act in the world on his behalf.

When I listen for Jesus calling my name, I feel his hands continually throwing me out of the fold of complacency. When I hear Jesus calling my name, I know that he has given me life and given it abundantly. This abundance of life is made possible by the intimate relationship Jesus has founded with me by knowing my name. When I venture out of my sheepfold into the frightening, dangerous world, I know that Jesus, my shepherd, is guiding me with his voice. And I know that he will continue to throw me out of the comfortable folds I find myself in so I can, with his help, continue to do God’s work in the world.

The Rev. Adam Thomas, one of the first Millennials to be ordained priest, is the assistant to the rector at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Cohasset, Mass. He blogs at wherethewind.com.

Second thoughts about forgiveness

Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.

By Ann Fontaine

What purpose can “not forgiving” serve?

Forgiveness is a highly recommended spiritual practice. The benefits of forgiveness are supposedly less stress and better health. Forgiveness is recommended by the church as a way to wholeness.

I wonder, however, if this is always a good idea. In cases of sexual and physical abuse, I believe offering quick forgiveness can continue the wounding rather than offering healing. It encourages people to “be nice” rather than find the wholeness of accepting the depth of one’s rage. When might it be good not to forgive?

I was reading the Daily Office the other day and this line stood out for me:

Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. Hebrews 9:22

The passage made wonder about the process of forgiveness. This verse says to me that forgiveness does not always help the process of healing or result in restoration and reconciliation. It says something has to happen before sins are forgiven and relationship returned.

Two stories:

1. A man was sexually abused as a child by his priest, with the tacit consent of his mother. Once he was grown enough to resist and speak out they had him committed to an institution for incorrigible teens. He could never get the church to act against the abuser. He was shuffled off from one office to another. The canons of the church designed to prevent this were not in place. By the time they were – the bishop said the statute of limitations had run out. Forgiveness for him would have been the last straw – one that took away his dignity and the rage that kept him alive to battle a cold uncaring institution and help to change things bit by bit.

2. A priest was often observed crossing boundaries with women – touching them in ways that made them uncomfortable. Some said, “Oh he is just friendly and does not mean anything by it.” For many who were the victims of his touching, it evoked memories of rape and powerlessness. One day he was hit by a car and broke both arms. Some victims felt their wounds had been assuaged and they were able to forgive.

In each of these cases there was an offense or offenses. People dealt with the issues of forgiveness in the ways each felt was best for them.

The church’s demand to forgive can make victims feel guilty and blame themselves for what happened to them. Persons unable to offer forgiveness feel shut out and re-victimized.

I believe we should be offering wholeness that comes from acknowledging the wounding and sitting with that woundedness for as long as it takes for the victim to come to the right place. Instead of demanding instant forgiveness of a perpetrator by a victim, offer to listen and find ways to make amends for what has happened. Help the victim become a survivor by discovering what he or she desires for his or her own life.

Listening shows the person that he or she has a right to be heard. I believe no movement to wholeness can occur until the story is told from the point of view of the victim and the victim receives assurance that it was terrible and should not have happened no matter what else was going on. Acceptance of the event and the knowledge that no amount of revisiting it will change the terrible nature of what happened is the first step to choosing the future one desires. It may or may not involve forgiveness but gives power back to the one who has suffered.

A reflection on the reading from the book of Hebrews

withholding forgiveness from those who have offended may be a time of waiting to see the blood

What sort of blood is needed?

As our daughter, a wise woman, says:

The most important thing I've learned about forgiveness is that it can't be forced. It must flow naturally from where the victim is in their healing process and frequently marks the point at which one has decided not to let the event be a distorting effect on one's life. Justice is a part of forgiveness. If someone did something wrong that was under their control and they show no remorse, then it is very difficult to forgive. If remorse is shown (not just said)-- or one feels that 'fate' has provided justice (as in the broken armed abuser story)-- then it is easier to let go of the protective anger and move on. Anger can a protective shield-- perhaps it is like a cold-frame for seedlings -- protecting a vulnerable person until they are strong enough to live on their own, but confining if left in place too long.

Withholding forgiveness may be a way to retain one’s power in a situation of powerlessness. I believe it can be a first step to regaining a sense of self that has been destroyed by abuse and exploitation.

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

What scares you?

By Greg Jones

What scares you? Except for heights, waves, snakes, car accidents, and all sorts of things I never used to think about before I had three kids and turned 40, I'm not scared of anything.

But what about you? What terrors you? What scares you? What freaks you out and makes your blood run cold? Can you think of anything?

In the stories of Elijah and the widow, or Jesus and the widow whose only son has died, we see some very scary circumstances. Stories of fragile households suffering from hunger, defeat, grief, distress, death and isolation.

In Paul's story there is something scary also - he tells us of a different sort of terror. Of how he used to be a religious terrorist, killing folks in the name of God. How in his zeal for his faith, he was willing to murder. A terrifying and confusing disposition to say the least.

Yet, one not strange to religion. For fear is real, is a powerful motivator, and the power-hungry of the world know it.

Has anybody ever tried to motivate you to do or accept something with scare tactics? Of course. And I'm not talking about life insurance, having a will, or driving a car with air bags. No, I'm talking about the intentional exploitation of what scares you for the purpose of getting you to do or buy into something.

Believe, me, its tempting to say this is what American Politics has come to. To this place where we hear a chorus of nattering nabobs on internet, tv and radio trying to scare everybody into adopting their interests; and the folk in government either leading or following waves of anxiety and self-interest. It's tempting to say this, but clearly this is nothing new or particular to America.

No, even Christians have and do this sort of thing; using fear to motivate, and claiming God's glory all the while.

Have you ever felt threatened by Christians? Or their message? Or approach? I hope not, but plenty do. In my family, we have many refugees from abusive religion.

Which is tragic because when spreading the faith of God in Christ, the use of scare tactics is just not the way to go. How could it be? Yet, there it is. Scaring people into believing in Christ, threatening, cajoling, browbeating; this just can't be what the Spirit wants. Terrifying and putting down those who we already don't like and justifying it from Scripture, perhaps those who are gay, or those who are foreign, or those who are simply 'different' -- obviously this is absolutely anathema to the Gospel. And yet, how many times has it been presented as if it were the Gospel?

No, I believe in the fear of God -- but the fear of God is a different kind of fear than the fears exploited by those deceived by powers and principalities.

I believe the fear of God is a fear utterly unlike all other fears, and is entirely seeking to gather, to invite, to attract people to God, not out of terror but awe, not anxiety but wonder.

The fear of God is not about being scared, but being amazed; the trembling that comes from hope. It's the fear which causes folks to stop, to pause, to gape, to marvel, and to want to make a change in how we're living. This fear of God must be experienced to be trusted, I think, and it can't be forced -- or passed on by threat.

And in my life, most frequently, I have experienced this sort of godly fear among those who have chosen to live with Jesus as their Lord. Folks who care about the weak, the oppressed, the forgotten, the widowed, the orphaned, the poor in spirit - and the low on cash.

I have experienced this fear of God in those whove been to hell and back in this life, from loss, or suffering, or anguish, who changed from closing to opening hearts, and who are looking to give love to those around. I sensed this fear of God in those who can say, "I know Jesus, he loves me, I love him, and we love you, no matter what". That's the Gospel the world needs to hear.

There's lots to be afraid of friends, and I can worry myself into a tizzy if I try -- but I am convinced that Christ is an eternal wellspring of hope in a big bad world. I believe God raises the dead, cherishes the humble, and pours out grace enough that we needn't truly fear anything but separation from God.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ('Greg') is rector of St. Michael's in Raleigh, N.C., a trustee of General Seminary and the bass player in indie-rock band The Balsa Gliders — whose fourth studio release is available on iTunes. He blogs at Anglican Centrist.

Kipple drives out non-kipple

By Leo Campos

Kipple is a fundamental concept in the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick which was made into the movie Blade Runner. It is basically a restatement of the Law of Entropy, where "kipple" means disorder. The interesting thing here, subtle as all of PKD’s concepts are, is that "kipple" seems to be the fundamental reality with non-kipple being the absence thereof. It certainly seems a pessimistic conclusion, but fitting for a dystopian future as painted by the author.

Anyone who owns children of any sort: pets, husbands or actual small humans will be familiar with the Kipple Law as stated above. Our household consists of two cats, two children and two adults. There is an impossibility of keeping anything ordered for longer than about 15 minutes, especially if my smaller child walks into a room. I am beginning to believe that he is some sort of human equivalent of Taz, the Tasmanian Devil from the Bugs Bunny cartoons - a less grumpy version, but one with equivalent destructive powers.

Then there are the cats, whose sole job it seems is the production of fur. They are generous souls and willingly spread their wealth all around the house. They are also aesthetes and will try to rectify any fur imbalances - that is, they will congregate on the cleanest room and proceed to bring it to the same level of furriness as the others.

My older son is a plopper. You know the type - 'Plop!' goes his school bag about one step in the door. "plop, plop" go his shoes about a half a step later. "Plop" goes his jacket a few steps further.

You bring clean clothes to his room and place them on the bed, so he can properly hang them, and "Plop" to the floor they go. There are two piles of clothes in his room a clean one and a dirty one - often it is hard to tell the difference. And equally often I lose patience and throw everything in the wash, only to be confronted by an annoyed 10-year old.

"Where's my favorite shorts?"

"Don't know,” I say.

"They were in my room"

"Were they put away?"

"They were on the floor," by which he means they were "organically organized."

"Well I took all the clothes from the floor and put them in the wash."

"But they were clean!" an exasperated tone in his voice.

"How was I to know?"

This usually ends the conversation, because frankly I have the "patience of the prophets" when it comes to this topic.

We are all constantly, it seems, creating, even exuding, disorder. Much of what the work of the spiritual life is about fighting these natural tendencies, it is very much a work against nature. When it comes to human life, alone or in community, kipple does indeed drive out non-kipple.
This can be seen in our theologies. One fundamental reversal is the claim that evil is the absence of God. It would seem that from the Kipple Law above it would make more sense to claim that God is the absence of evil. Clearly, if we were going to base our theology on dispassionate observation of the world and of history, it does seem to make more sense to say that all of civilization is a fight against natural barbarism, natural chaos and anarchy. Civilization is an artificial construct which can only be maintained through artificial means.

This is why we need revelation. It turns out this picture is fundamentally wrong. In the deep reality of Creation it is God who exists, and all that is not God does not, or to put it more poetically “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1).

As we go through our days, diligently combating kipple, we can be certain that this is godly work, and is God’s work. The Opus Dei, it seems, has a lot in common with house cleaning.

Brother Leo Campos is the co-founder of the Community of Solitude, a non-canonical, ecumenical contemplative community. He worked as the "tech guy" for the Diocese of Virginia for 6 years before going to the dark side (for-profit world).

Schooling Nicodemus

By Adam Thomas

In the film Men in Black, Jay discovers that aliens exist and many of them live on Manhattan Island. When he confronts Kay about this unnerving new detail, of which he (Jay) was previously unaware, Kay deadpans: “A thousand years ago everybody knew, as a fact, that the earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on it. Imagine what you'll know tomorrow.”

The season of Lent invites us to examine what we know, or, put more precisely, what we think we know. When we tackle this examination, we open ourselves up to encounters with Christ, which tend to augment, rearrange, and expand our knowledge with the addition of deeper faith. The Gospel contains myriad stories of Jesus blasting people with new knowledge, so we should expect nothing different in our own lives. One such story co-stars the Pharisee Nicodemus (read up on John 3 before you continue).

As a general rule, if someone in the Gospel besides Jesus says “I know” or “we know,” then that person either knows a small fraction of the whole or, more commonly, nothing at all. Strangely enough, knowing nothing at all can even manifest itself when the statement made is quite true and correct. Such is the case with this leader of the Jews, who comes to see Jesus one night.

Nicodemus uses his “knowledge” displayed at the beginning of the conversation as a weapon to corner Jesus into a particular set of expectations. The Pharisee says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Apparently, so far so good. This statement is true: Jesus has come from God and most definitely stands forever in the presence of God. But there’s irony in the statement, also. Nicodemus calls Jesus “teacher” twice — once in Hebrew (Rabbi) and once in Greek (didaskalos, from which comes the word “didactic”). But at the same time, Nicodemus’s conversational opener allows no room for Jesus to teach. Instead, Nicodemus is the one attempting to teach Jesus, to pigeonhole him into what Nicodemus and his colleagues have labeled him.

But Jesus refuses to be put on the defensive. In usual fashion, he completely ignores Nicodemus’s opening salvo and immediately expands the conversation to a depth and height that Nicodemus is not expecting. Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above/again.” There’s a delightful ambiguity here: in Greek, “from above” and “again” are the same word (anothen). They both work in the context, and Jesus probably means both when he says the word. How better to jostle someone loose from his rigidity than with a small helping of ambiguity?

But Nicodemus grasps at the more mundane of the two meanings and responds: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” This may seem like a sarcastic response, but at least this Pharisee, who has always been the one answering questions, is now (albeit haltingly) beginning to ask some of his own. But Jesus doesn’t seem interested in staying on the terrestrial plane, so he ignores Nicodemus questions and pushes him to a new level of understanding. “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” At this point, I imagine Nicodemus’s brain starts hurting.

But Jesus keeps pushing him. Nicodemus’s opening “we know” now sounds empty in comparison to the mysteries Jesus is revealing to him. To begin to absorb these mysteries, Nicodemus must turn this empty “we know” into an “I don’t know” full of desire and curiosity. With his next words, Jesus gives Nicodemus license to let go of what he thinks he knows: “The wind/Spirit blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (Here’s another delightful ambiguity—in Greek, “wind” and “spirit” are the same word, pneuma.) Nicodemus must now consent to trusting in things he can never quite figure out. Indeed, he must realize that the truest things that have ever been or ever will be can be believed without being adequately explained. In a word, Jesus asks Nicodemus to have faith that the words he speaks are true, no matter how difficult, preposterous, or confusing they may sound.

And Nicodemus takes a tentative step into the shallows of faith in Jesus. He asks one of the sincerest questions in the Gospel: “How can these things be?” With this question, Nicodemus allows the cognitive dissonance that has been cresting to break on him like a wave. This dissonance is the necessary distress that happens when he realizes he doesn’t know something he thought he knew. But dissonance isn’t a bad thing. In music, dissonance is the interesting part, the part that pushes the piece onward. A pleasing harmony (called “consonance”) can hang in the air indefinitely, but a dissonance begs to move forward to the next consonant chord.

So it is with Nicodemus and anyone who opens up himself or herself to the possibility of the unknown. Allowing the cognitive dissonance to enter our comfortable worldviews pushes us to grow into the next consonant chords in our lives. When Jesus confronts us, like Nicodemus, with the mysteries of the faith, we can either step backward into the comfort of what we think we know or step forward, fully expecting the boundaries of possibility to be far wider than we can perceive. This confrontation goes by another name: revelation.

Every encounter with Jesus, whether in the text or in life, promises an opportunity for revelation, which obeys no boundaries of possibility. Revelation is that thing you know, but don’t know how you know it. Revelation is visceral as well as mental because the brain alone is ill-equipped to handle it. Revelation infuses us with an odd mixture of peace and exhilaration—peace because we know God is there, exhilaration because we know God is calling us to serve. Cognitive dissonance is the birthplace of such revelation. The dissonance reminds us that what we know is far less than the whole. When we can acknowledge that we don’t, in fact, know where the wind comes from or where it goes, we are primed for receiving the revelation of God’s love that Jesus is forever revealing to the world. This is a scary proposition, for if we do, indeed, remain attentive we might actually hear God calling us to serve in a way that doesn’t fit our plans.

But revelation bursts our ability and our desire to control because it blows where it chooses on the wind of the Spirit. When Nicodemus says to Jesus, “We know,” he is seeking to control the conversation that will follow. But he immediately discovers he’s in over his head. When we acknowledge that Jesus has things to reveal to us that we couldn’t possibly imagine, we discover we’re also in over our heads. The trick is to learn to breathe in the wind of the Spirit while underwater (to grow gills and fins) and to find a new natural state submerged in the revelatory love of Christ.

When Nicodemus says to Jesus, “How can these things be,” he allows the possibility for revelation to strike him in his head and in his gut. His cognitive dissonance jettisons his need to control. He is open for Jesus to reveal new and wonderful things to him. And Jesus does — things about the Son of Man ascending to and descending from heaven, things about the Son of Man being lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, things about eternal life and self-giving love and believing and salvation.

I imagine Nicodemus left his encounter with Jesus in a daze, his heart and mind on overload attempting to process all he had seen and heard. Is he able fully to put his trust in Jesus, to allow the dissonance to resolve into a new and deeper consonance? Not quite yet. But we are lucky enough to meet Nicodemus twice more in the Gospel (check them out! John 7 & John 19). His journey towards the consonance of a life of faith following Jesus models for us our Lenten journeys of self-examination. If we open ourselves up to encounters with Christ during this season of Lent, then (as Kay says), “Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

The Rev. Adam Thomas, one of the first Millennials to be ordained priest, is the assistant to the rector at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Cohasset, Mass. He blogs at wherethewind.com.

Seeing gasoline rainbows

By Adam Thomas

Sometimes, I am too young to hear Jesus’ words in the Gospel. Or too old. Or too naïve. Or too refined. Often I wonder if God is holding a particular set of words in reserve for a particular time in my life — when I need those words I will finally hear them. Or perhaps I already have, and they have settled into the bedrock of my faith.

The words of Jesus are beautiful and dynamic. They grow in depth of meaning as I grow in depth of experience, emotion, and faith. Many of Jesus’ words mean something new to the disciples after the resurrection because the disciples are different after the resurrection. Likewise, the words of Jesus are the same, the chapters and verses are the same, but I am different every time I read them. In the novel, The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield says a similar thing about the natural history museum:

The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finishing catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole…Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you’d be so much older or anything. It wouldn’t be that, exactly. You’d just be different, that’s all. You’d have an overcoat on this time…Or you’d heard your mother and father having a terrific fight in the bathroom. Or you’d just passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them. I mean you’d be different in some way – I can’t explain what I mean.
Both small differences in me from day to day and large changes in me from year to year can affect my reading of scripture and my encountering the words of Jesus. The climactic change in the lives of the disciples was the resurrection; for me, the changes tend to be small, the differences subtle. But a new encounter with Christ can erupt from even the smallest change, the subtlest difference. When I open myself up to seeing gasoline rainbows, when I realize I am different than I was before, I discover the power of the words of Christ working within me.

In a recent bout of nostalgia, I read some of my old writings and found that I had discussed the same verses on three occasions. After he washes the disciples’ feet, Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). The words were the same each time, but I was different. Here’s what I mean.

It’s May 9, 2004, and Easter season blooms on the domain of Sewanee. I’m a junior in college. I’m two or three steps into the exhaustive process towards ordination. Classes are drawing to an end; exams are approaching. With flagging energy, I am writing lectionary-based reflections on xanga.com (before people ever used the word “blog”). And Jesus’ words encounter me:

“Wow. [Jesus] could not have put it more succinctly, or more beautifully. It does not take mighty acts or wondrous miracles to show people that we are followers of Christ. Just love. But I would argue that love is a mighty act, it is a miracle. Loving with the love Christ taught us – the only true love – is more powerful than anything. […] When we love with the love Christ taught us, we bring Christ to others. This love is powerful, transformative, life-changing, irresistible. Paul tells in his letter to the Romans that nothing can separate us from it. And it is our duty, and it should be our joy, to spread this love to others.”
It’s March 7, 2005, and fog rolls into the domain along with Lent. I’m a senior in college. I’m a postulant for Holy Orders, and I’m waiting for my bishop’s decision about sending me to seminary next school year. I’ve broken John’s Gospel into forty passages, one reflection per day for my Lenten discipline. And Jesus’ same words encounter me again:
“This is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian – to love one another as Christ loves us. We are capable of love because God loves us. Indeed, Paul tells us, ‘God is love.’ So how do we love? I think that is an impossible question to answer succinctly. In a past reflection, I called love the ‘conscious or unconscious search for God in other creatures.’ Searching for God means searching for all that is good, right, true, and graceful about another. However, this does not mean looking past all the other stuff. When we love truly, we see the good and the bad and continue to be in relationship. Contact (spiritual, emotional, &c.) is essential for love – only by staying in contact with God and others can we feel the love that purges our iniquities from us.”
It’s March 20, 2008, and Maundy Thursday comes impossibly early this year. I’m a senior in seminary. I’m a new deacon in the church, and I’m preaching at my field education parish. But the flu keelhauls me for five days, the middle of which is Palm Sunday. Being ill is all I can think about, and Jesus’ words encounter me a third time through that illness.

Life is only worth living when it can be shared with others. This sharing is another word for love. And love shatters the illusion of self-sufficiency. When the flu knocked me out, my friends served me. I had no choice but to let them serve me because I could not serve myself. And I am better for it. They showed their love for me by bringing me medicine and food. In their act of loving service, they washed my feet. I have a share with them, and we all have a share with Jesus Christ. We are his disciples because we have love for one another. There is no such thing as self-sufficiency. An inability to accept the service of others masquerades as self-sufficiency. But this masquerade is a dismal half-life. Christ came that we may have life, and have it in abundance. Washing each other’s feet, serving one another, and loving each other with the love of God brings this full, abundant life in Christ.”

It’s January 26, 2010, and I’m seeing through the eyes of my old selves. On each day when I read those verses from the Gospel according to John, Jesus encountered me with the same words. And each time, Jesus used my gasoline rainbows to transform me into a new vessel for those words. Over the years, the same words have helped me change into the new person I am continually becoming.

I invite you to look for the gasoline rainbows in your life. You are a new person since you last picked up the Bible. How are you different from the last time you read a particular passage of scripture? What is new about you? How have Jesus’ words made you new? What are your gasoline rainbows?

The Rev. Adam Thomas, one of the first Millennials to be ordained priest, is the curate of Trinity Episcopal Church in Martinsburg, WV. He blogs at wherethewind.com.

I believe in the communion of saints

By Bill Carroll

The English word “communion” comes from the Latin word communio, which is often used to translate the Greek word koinonia. English translations of the New Testament also use the word “fellowship” to describe this important reality. In other contexts, the best translation might be “sharing” or “participation.”

Koinonia has to do with what is shared in common. It has roots in shared property, as in a marriage, intimate friendship, or religious community. It also refers to shared life and activity. It connotes the free sharing of gifts, as opposed to barter, the market, and other forms of quid pro quo. The New Testament speaks of the way in which the koinonia of the Church is grounded in the koinonia of the blessed Trinity (see 1John 1:1-4). Because the three persons share equally in the properties that make God divine, God is communion. Indeed, God just is the three persons and the loving relationships among them. Christians also speak of holy communion. In this sacrament, God’s good gifts are freely and abundantly shared in the body and the blood of Jesus. These gifts both reconstitute and strengthen the Church, which God brings to birth in holy baptism.

This is a fundamentally egalitarian vision. It contradicts the rugged individualism and isolation of American culture, even as it calls to mind values of interdependence and community that characterize our nation at its best. But koinonia involves a far more radical vision of community than any society has ever achieved. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read the following:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common (en autois hapanta koina). With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35)

Such a vision of shared property led one nineteenth century Anglican, Stewart Headlam, to comment that “These who partake of the Holy Communion therefore are necessarily pledged to be Holy Communists.” That’s not a direction many of us are willing to go (and the Church as a whole has seldom done so), but it accurately reflects New Testament teaching. Religious communities often appeal to this “primitive communism” of the early Church as they seek to live out the implications of the Gospel. Alluding to the same passage from Acts, the great Church Father, John Chrysostom, once lamented in a sermon that "It is not for lack of miracles that the church is stagnant; it is because we have forsaken the angelic life of Pentecost, and fallen back on private property. If we lived as they did, with all things common, we should soon convert the whole world without any need of miracles at all."

The communion of saints, sanctorum communio, is a phrase found in the Apostles’ Creed, an ancient baptismal confession of faith. The phrase is ambiguous. Grammatically speaking, the word sanctorum could be either masculine or neuter. It might refer to holy people; it might also refer to holy things. With regard to holy things, we are a people constituted by the gift of the Holy Spirit in baptism. We share in the gifts of common prayer around a common table. We share our material resources with one another and with those in need. We also share in a common mission and ministry. With regard to holy people, we are members of a worldwide community made up of “every family, language, people, and nation.” Christian community breaks down barriers of class, race, and gender. It transcends even the distinction between the living and the dead. Whenever we gather in Jesus’ Name, especially when we break the bread and share the cup, all the Holy Ones are present. Prophets, apostles, and martyrs, as well as holy men and women of every generation, are here with us as we gather for the Supper of the Lamb. For Jesus is the “first fruits of those that sleep,” and in him we are all alive. We are bound to each other in the communion of saints. We share in God’s good gifts, in the graces God has given to our brothers and sisters, as the Holy Spirit moves among us and makes us holy, forming us into the image of Christ.

The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

Food, namely herbs and stewed rabbit, for the journey

By Adam Thomas

The hobbits Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee arrive in a heather-strewn woodland between the River Anduin and the mountains that border the dreaded land of Mordor. After some walking around and griping about the knavish Gollum, who is their deranged hostage and guide, they sit down for a meal, as hobbits often do. They eat herbs and stewed rabbit and then…

…I have no idea what happens next.

I’m twelve years old, and I have made it nearly two-thirds of the way through The Lord of the Rings. But I can no longer bear it, and I shelve the book. It’s just so boring. All they do is walk! They start in one place, walk for a bit, meet someone and chat, and then walk some more! I just want them to get somewhere! I want to yell, “Get to your destination, Frodo – don’t stop to eat herbs and stewed rabbit, which the author has described in painstaking detail! Just get to the mountain and be done with the ring! Enough of this walking…”

A year later, I’m thirteen (a much wiser and more mature age), and once again I pick up The Lord of the Rings. Maybe this year, I’ll finish it. I begin at the beginning, and they walk and meet folks and chat and run away from enemies and Frodo and Samwise reach the heather-strewn woodland and eat herbs and stewed rabbit and then…

…I have no idea what happens next.

My wisdom and maturity are no match for the walking. Again, I stop reading. The quest is just too long and arduous and their destination is still on the other side of the mountains and several hundred pages away.

A year later, I’m fourteen, and I pick up The Lord of the Rings again. On page 641, Frodo and Samwise sit down for a dinner of herbs and stewed rabbit and then…

…I keep reading. They find themselves in the middle of an ambush, Sam sees an oliphaunt, the hobbits are captured by people who are supposed to be on their side, and the story goes on and on. A few days later, I finish it. And I’ve read it at least eight more times since.

Finally, at fourteen, I could appreciate the journey, and let the destination take care of itself. Tolkien understood that a destination is more than a physical place. A destination is the culmination of all the shaping events of the journey that brings you to that ultimate location.

Every year, after the tryptophan has worn off, we begin just such a journey in our walks with God. While secular Christmas disgorges itself out of shipping containers every year the day after Thanksgiving, we have the opportunity to let Christmas happen only after the four weeks of Advent have run their course. Christmas is the destination. And Advent is about not arriving at your destination before you are shaped by the journey.

Have you ever had the soup du jour at a restaurant? It’s not some fancy French dish. It’s just the soup made for that particular day. Likewise, my journey happens every day. Every encounter, every decision, every road taken or not shapes me. The season of Advent gives me a dedicated four weeks to notice the shaping influence each day has on my journey with God.

On the first Sunday of Advent, we heard the psalmist pray, “ Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths…All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness” (25:3, 9). This Advent, I’m adopting this prayer because I’ve always had trouble not skipping to the end of the story. Every year of my childhood, I wanted to open the windows of my Advent calendar all at once. I just couldn’t wait to open tomorrow’s window tomorrow. Now, at twenty-six (a much wiser and more mature age) I pray for God to give me the patience to notice each day’s impact on my life. When I ask God to “teach me your paths,” I’m not hoping for some inside knowledge about the destination. I’m simply asking for guidance along the road.

Some time ago, I heard this illustration (the origin of which no longer resides in my brain). Have you ever noticed that headlights only show you thirty or forty yards ahead of your car on a dark night? But they still get you to your destination. Likewise, God teaches me God’s path even as I am struggling to stay on it. As I walk towards Christmas on this particular Advent journey, Christ walks a few steps ahead of me, illumining the road to his own nativity, to his own unique and wonderful expression of love and faithfulness.

Despite my opening description, my love for Tolkien’s works of fiction is deep and abiding. They taught me the lesson of Advent: don’t arrive at your destination before being shaped by the journey. I pray that, during this season of Advent, God teaches us God’s paths, which are love and faithfulness. And I pray that we may meet someday on the road, about which Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins rhymes:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

The Rev. Adam Thomas, one of the first Millennials to be ordained priest, is the curate of Trinity Episcopal Church in Martinsburg, WV. He blogs at wherethewind.com.

Happy Thanksgiving from Episcopal Cafe

I wrote this column nine years ago for Beliefnet.com. Daily Episcopalian is taking tomorrow off.

By Jim Naughton

A few years ago, while I was on an academic fellowship, my family and I spent Thanksgiving with other fellows and their families. In religious terms, we were a mixed bunch: Christians, Unitarians, Jews, agnostics, and atheists.

A multi-religious dinner table always presents a bit of a problem when it is time to say the grace before meals. But Thanksgiving presents a particularly sticky situation, because it is the one occasion on which even the irreligious feel that some sort of invocation should be made. But who, or what, should we invoke?

After several minutes of communal hemming and hawing, one of the braver of our number delivered a prayer to the earth, thanking it for its bounty and seeking its forgiveness for our environmental sins. In all, it sounded more Green Party than pagan. Having crossed that hastily improvised bridge, we tucked into our feast.

But the moment stayed with me, for it illustrated what a peculiar, not to mention sneaky, holiday we were celebrating.

Thanksgiving is not a purely civic holiday like Memorial Day or Independence Day, although we are, in part, celebrating the fortitude of our Pilgrim forebears. Nor, like Christmas or Passover, does it come freighted with the content of a particular faith. Rather, Thanksgiving straddles these two categories; it is civic and religious. To paraphrase Jesus, Thanksgiving gives both to Caesar and to God.

In doing so, it discomfits believer and unbeliever equally. For giving thanks assumes the existence of one (One?) who deserves our gratitude--anathema to atheists. But giving thanks as a nation assumes that we stand before God as citizens of a country, as well as members of a faith. And that should offend anyone who believes that salvation flows from the church and not from the state.

Thanksgiving, in other words, assumes the existence of something that doesn't exist: an American faith.

On these grounds, I suppose one could argue that this holiday violates the establishment clause of the Constitution. I leave that task for some particularly dogmatic member of Americans for the Separation of Church and State. What interests me is the ubiquity of gratitude, the understanding, even among witnessing atheists, that it is important to be grateful for our good fortune.

For me, the desire to give thanks is evidence, at a minimum, that human beings are innately religious. The theologian Karl Rahner wrote that there is a "God-shaped hole" in every one of us. With Rahner, I believe that it is God who put it there.

You can take that argument or leave it. But if you leave it, help me to understand why we experience this particular species of gratitude. I'm not talking about the kind of gratitude we feel toward someone who has done us a favor. I mean the sort of global gratitude inspired by gifts we could not have known enough to ask for, or the kind we feel when matters beyond our control end well for us.

Who do you thank for your sweetheart's brown eyes; for growing up where it snows (or doesn't); for being alive at the same time as Bruce Springsteen; or for seeing your children born into a country that is prosperous and at peace?

You might argue that there is no one to be thanked. Maybe all our purported blessings are a matter of random chance. Perhaps the desire to extend gratitude beyond the human is an evolutionary glitch--a useful social trait that got too big for its britches.

Perhaps.

Or perhaps we awaken one day and realize that we are not now, and have never been, masters of our own destinies; that our successes were not entirely of our own making; that our souls magnify the Lord, whether we like it or not.

Again, you can take this argument or leave it. It is easier to believe in chance than in grace. Chance requires nothing from us. In fact, if life is a succession of random events, than any response to good fortune is superfluous.

Grace is different. In receiving grace, we are challenged to become channels of grace. This is more than a matter of a few good deeds (although those help); it is an invitation to place one's self in God's hands, and devote one's self toward what we perceive as God's ends.

Thanksgiving, then, is a call to action: a gentle poke to awaken our collective conscience from its postprandial slumber. To whom much is given, etc. etc.

In a county as religiously diverse as ours, we may never be able to express our gratitude in words that are acceptable to everyone. Fortunately, deeds work even better.

Jim Naughton is the editor of Episcopal Café.

Not important, but significant

By Marshall Scott

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”’ Mark 13:1-2

We are a people of the Book – in our case, as much the Prayer Book as the Bible, for all that we are Biblical. More to the point, we are a people of the Word, a people for whom words have meaning, and meanings are important. I have had for some time been reflecting on two words. They are words that we use similarly, if not interchangeably. The words are “important” and “significant.”

Now, for some full disclosure: my presenting sin is pride. Although I haven’t read it in a long time, I was convicted from the first time I read Walter Hilton’s Ladder of Perfection, in which he makes the case that pride is the foremost sin, and the prerequisite for all other sins. For that matter, I don’t use the shorthand “IMHO,” because I can’t claim to be all that humble about my opinions.

So, I have spent a good deal of time reflecting on the temptation to be “important.” But one day some years ago I began to think about being “significant,” and how that might be different from being “important.” I began to play with the words, and what they might mean for me.

We are surrounded by examples of what it might mean to be “important.” We hear about VIP’s – Very Important Persons - and often want to be in that category for the better treatment we think it includes. Don’t we all want to be part of the important decision, the important moment? Don’t we want to play the important role, to have the important job?

Of course, to be “important” is to have the capacity to “import.” And this is, to me, potentially problematic. After all, to import is to bring in from outside. It is to bring in, to add on our own, and not to listen, to appreciate what is already there. In my work we speak of meeting the patient without “without bringing an agenda” – that is, to refrain from importing my own stuff into the encounter. It is all too characteristic, however, for the “important” person to do just the opposite, and to come in to bring an agenda, sometimes to the point of taking over. After all, the capacity to import is the capacity to insert – to insert oneself, to insert one’s own purposes.

There are other words that aren’t related to “important” by etymology, and are yet related often in our usage. An important person can also be “imposing;” but that also suggest that the important person might impose upon others. An important person might be “impressive;” but there is more than one means of or consequence of “making an impression.” After all, most impressions happen by force, whether one is shaping pottery or printing a card.

In all these cases there is at least the implication of someone or something applied from outside to a circumstance; and with that there is the implication that it expresses power, if not brute force. It’s no wonder that we can be tempted with the thought of being VIP’s.

On the other hand, there is for me a different connotation to being “significant.” To be significant, and to signify, is to point beyond oneself. To signify is to represent, not oneself, but something or someone beyond oneself. It goes beyond making a sign to being a sign. Of what, of whom am I a sign? Whom or what do I present or re-present? It is an expression of service and humility to signify, for it is an act that points beyond myself toward something or someone else more meaningful.

Of course, you know where I’m going with this. I think we are called as Christians not to be important, but to be significant. We are called not to bring our own agendas, but the agenda of Another, of one who is certainly more meaningful.

That is certainly what we have heard from Jesus. We’ve heard it again and again in the Gospel lessons of these past few weeks. Each time he is confronted with something or someone the world deems as important or impressive or imposing, he calls his followers to a different standard. Whether he speaks of being servants instead of tyrants, of scribes who devour widows’ houses, or of getting camels through the eyes of needles, he proclaims that what is “important” will fall, as surely and as dramatically as the imposing stones of the Temple.

Instead, he calls us to be significant, and specifically to signify him and his work in the world. It is he who calls us and sends us out. He speaks of us acting in his name. He points out that the world will see us in light of him. We are to be visible, tangible signs of his presence in the world.

I’m one of those people who always seem to have a lot going on. I keep trying to convince folks I’m not a workaholic. I talk about setting limits, and then have to admit that it would be easier to set limits on my commitments if folks wouldn’t ask me to do things I thought worth doing. The temptation is always there to be important, to be impressive – in short, to live into pride.

So, I return again to a distinction that I think has great meaning. We are not called to be important, but to be significant. We are called to point beyond ourselves and to demonstrate Jesus. We are called to bring his agenda, and not our own – his agenda to receive and love and redeem the agendas of others. We are not called to import or to impress, much less to impose. We are called to be significant: to signify Christ’s presence in the world, and Christ’s agenda of service and healing, of wholeness and reconciliation for all.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of 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.

Have faith, friends

By Greg Jones

Suffering and pain. Shadow and darkness. Sickness and brokenness. Ignorance and falsehood. Sorrow and despair. They’re all connected.

In lots of places on Earth, this is visible. It is abundant. When you visit these places, it’s plain to see. Places found everywhere in Africa – Asia – South America – the Caribbean – the Middle East. Places we usually think of as the Third World. Places where sickness, poverty and oppression rule.

Of course, in our own place -- in our cities and rural hamlets, right in our own backyards, and at our front doors -- it’s everywhere.

We know that – right? Don’t we know that these things are connected?

There is a cloak of shadow which seeks to cover up people, to reduce people, to stifle and bury people - turning them into lonely, blind and beggared souls – dropped off from the way – the way which in fact we were intended by God to journey in full lives of joy -- diverted from the way God wants for us – by this force of darkness which does not love us, or what God wants, or God himself.

Friends, we were meant to be companions and pilgrims with God and each other in and through Creation and on toward a joyful eternity. Yet sin and death have set upon us – and this is the connection between suffering, brokenness, ignorance, and sorrow.

The connection between our sin and our sickness, between our lies and our blindness to the Way of God, this connection is a death-grip.

It is the death-grip -- and it's what Jesus Christ has come to break.

The Gospel of Mark is entirely about this.

Every healing act of God in Christ is total. In Mark – each story connects the total saving power of Christ to physical illness and spiritual illness. The paralyzed are healed of sin and physical paralysis. The lepers are cleansed of disease and isolation from God’s communion people. The Blind Beggar Bartimaeus emerges by faith in Christ – not only from blindness, but from a covered up life sitting empty beside the Way of God where people are on the go toward and with God and each other.

We were meant to be freed from the bondage of dying in the dark, and joined to the light in bonds of loving mercy.

Jesus is God-at-work, and He has come, and is on the move, and he is looking for you. Looking for you, listening for your cry as you sit in the shadow, covered in your sin and sickness, and he will be still for you to love you in mercy where you are – so that you may get up into the light of love and serve and follow.

If you’ve felt stuck, or silenced, or forgotten by a fallen world that doesn’t want you whole and on the go toward wholeness – and everybody on Earth has felt this way in First, Second or Third World – every addict, every lonely person, every soul at odds with broken lives and loves and dreams.

Have faith that God knows it, and doesn’t want it to be. The Son of David – the Son of Man – the Son of God – the beating heart of the Creator and the Creation now that he’s come – wants you to see, to love, to get up and go with Him and in Him and through Him.

Have faith, friends, that God wants you, and wants you better, and you can have it.

Have faith, friends, that your want to love and be loved is infinitely matched by God who wants to love and be loved. And not only matched, but heard and blessed so that it can and will happen.

Have this faith – this hope – this trust – this belief that God is not far off but has come near with the good news of your place beside Him in the Kingdom. This faith – in this reality which is Jesus Christ – it will make you well, to see, to live, to rejoice, and to spring up and go.

Amen.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ('Greg') is rector of St. Michael's in Raleigh, N.C., a trustee of General Seminary and the bass player in indie-rock band The Balsa Gliders — whose fourth studio release is available on iTunes. He blogs at Anglican Centrist.

Imagine no religion

By Donald Schell

Until yesterday morning, those billboard and bus signs had only annoyed me. I hated their cartoonish stained glass background and the smug large letters of the message. Of course, I also heard John Lennon’s line, ‘…and no religion too.’ Why’d Lennon have to add that? Then truthfully, somewhere in the back of my mind, I also thought, “Sorry, John, religion’s my work. You did your job; I’ll do mine,” but I hated that. I do not welcome my inner priest voice defending the religion business.

After seeing it so many times, this time I dropped my protest and simply read the “Freedom From Religion” ad as an invitation and got to work imagining.

Okay. ‘Imagine no religion.’ So, no Shakespeare. Ouch.

Biking through the traffic, I thought of Karl Barth and Rene Girard. Both argue that what we practice is no religion at all because Jesus refuses to tell us how to get our way with God and won’t bind us into stultifying groupthink. Good thoughts, but I was co-opting the billboard message. The red light stopped me, and I told myself no fancy dodges, no letting myself off the hook with religionless Christianity. What would be good riddance if we had no religion? I pedaled on.

No Spanish Inquisition.

No witch trials in Europe or Salem.

No Catholic-Protestant struggle in Northern Ireland.

No Serbia-Croatian War.

No Buddhists and Hindus fighting in Sri Lanka.

No 9/11? (but what warped Islam to get those guys flying the planes into the Twin Towers?)

The bus caught up with me at the next light. As I waited by the sign, I considered faces looking out the window above it. “Imagine No Religion.” Their minds were elsewhere. The light changed to green and pressed on.

No Religious Right.

No religious scorn for my gay friends.

No Aztec human sacrifice on the Pyramid of the Sun…but the sacrifices were done. So, just no Pyramid of the Sun. I remembered climbing it when I was fifteen.

I was pedaling uphill now.

No Genesis story of Ham to justify slavery.

Pushing my speed up on the hill, I thought again of Shakespeare. The imagining cuts both ways. What would we miss without religion? Immediately I noticed how personal this list was. What would make my world smaller without religion? The list is more idiosyncratic. What’s your list? Comments welcome! Here’s mine from the bike ride -

No Hagia Sophia in Istanbul,

No Bach Cantatas or Mozart’s Requiem,

No Gandhi,

No Peace Prize for Desmond Tutu, and no Truth and Reconciliation Commission,

No St. Francis,

No Teresa of Avila outwitting the Inquisition while she taught us how to be friends with God in holy community,

No Franciscan Third Order giving serfs religious basis to refuse their overlord’s call to war against neighboring dukedoms.

No Hospitals? At least we know Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims founded the first ones to care for the sick and indigent poor.

And Shakespeare? So am I certain Will Shakespeare was a Christian and that his glorious work speaks faith? I sense our faith in his plays, but some people don’t. But there’s no question that the Bishops’ Bible and Coverdale Psalter sparked his language.

No end to slavery? Ah, tricky one. Yes, religious justifications helped sustain slavery, but it was virtually universal in human history until priest and then bishop Bartolome de Las Casas made his heroic effort to outlaw it in Spain’s New World colonies. Like many good stories of religion, this one began in a muddle. Las Casas came to Cuba as young nobleman where, as a slaveholding landowner he surprised himself and his friends by becoming a priest, and when his prayers made him see the plight of his Indio sisters and brothers, he freed his own slaves and crossed the Atlantic almost a dozen times to convince King Philip II to do what no other monarch had ever done, outlaw slavery.

And our abolitionists? Two hundred years after Las Casas, Anglican Deacon Thomas Clarkson wouldn’t stop pushing, teasing, cajoling, demanding the church’s and Parliament’s repentance for the English slave trade. Clarkson plagued William Wilberforce when he gave up the fight. He berated John Newton and the Archbishop of Canterbury for the profits they made on the trade. He more or less invented community organizing, and in forty years got England to outlaw first the trade and then slavery itself. But bitter with the church’s long resistance he more or less became a Quaker.

I reached home out of breath from riding up the hill and parked my bike in the garage.
“Imagine no religion.”

No mystical poets. No Juan de la Cruz, no Emily Dickinson, no T.S. Eliot, no Mary Oliver, no Ephrem the Syrian, no Hildegard von Bingen.

Through the day I kept coming back to the billboard’s request.

Late morning I recalled 20th Century violence done in the name of Non-Religion. I decided a low death score in a Religion vs. No Religion doesn’t win any contest. Evenhanded remembering only gets to this – we’ve all got blood on our hands.

Just how do we imagine the dark side of this?

Dostoyevsky did it clipping news stories of the worst and cruelest things people did to other people. Believing Christ was drawing the whole world into God’s embrace, he felt the song of praise ready to spring even from humanity’s worst, but could he trust that without acknowledging

Readers – what would break your heart if we had no religion?

After lunch I remembered my widowed parishioner in Idaho who always brought a roast to our midweek Eucharist and potluck, saving up from her social security check to share something delicious with her friends. Communion.

Communion again holding the hand of the comatose, dying unbeliever, the father of two young children. “Even in coma, people hear,” I’d thought, so, speaking slowly with a confidence that came from something beyond me, I said he could continue loving his wife and daughters, but it was time to let go, and the next moment he took one long, last breath and died.

By the end of the day this priest was thanking the Freedom From Religion Foundation. FFRF’s invitation to imagine “no religion” puts us right back to the mystery of why we choose faith. Mixed bag? Amen! Religion has inspired the very best and much of the worst of who we.

In the end I remembered sweet moments of falling in love with Jesus again.

Keep our eyes open Lord Jesus. Make us truthful and humble. Show us how to repent of what we’ve done in your Name and make us grateful for what you do in, for and with us and for all humanity.

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

Washing away our sins

By Lauren R. Stanley

PETION VILLE, Haiti – The power went out – again – the other day, leaving me with little to do on the computer. No power, no Internet. No Internet, no connection with others.

So I did what I usually do: I washed my clothes.

Washing clothes in Haiti is arduous work. Most of us do it by hand, in round rubber tubs, sitting, in my case, on the edge of the shower stall. It’s not like washing clothes at home: There, we dump the clothes in the washer, add detergent, turn a few knobs, push a few buttons, and walk away. After a while, the washer stops, we take the clothes out, toss them in the dryer, turn a few more knobs, push a few more buttons, and walk away again. When the buzzer goes off, we take our clothes out, fold them and put them away.

Here, washing clothes is intentional work. You pour water in the tub, add soap, dump in the clothes (not too many at once), let them soak a bit, then start churning away. You try to replicate what the washer does back in the States, agitating and swishing and swirling the clothes around. You take the special bar of laundry soap and scrub at stains and dirt. You examine each article of clothing individually to make sure it’s clean. You rub the material together to get the clothes cleaner. Then you wring each piece out and put them in another tub. When you think everything in this batch is clean, you start the rinse cycle. Each piece of clothing gets dipped and swished and swirled through the clean water. You wring again and again. Then you hang up your clothes in your bathroom, or out on a line if you have one (but they’ll get dirty outside, hanging in the polluted air, so drying them inside seems to be the better option). Finally, you wait … sometimes overnight … for your things to dry. Haiti may be a hot climate, but in this rainy season, it’s also a humid one. Few things dry quickly here.

It can be a tedious job, doing the wash by hand, but even so, I’ve found some blessings in it. All this cleaning and scrubbing has become good prayer time. As I wash, especially those collars on my shirts, I find myself thinking about the people and places I love, and sending prayers to God for their well-being. I pray for the end of war and violence and oppression. I pray for others’ happiness. For peace in the world. For the people with whom I served for four years in Sudan. For my incredibly extended family, moving in my mind from place to place, hop-scotching across the country and around the world. I give thanks for the blessings of my life, and pray for guidance in my ministry. My hands do the work and my eyes watch for stains, but my heart and soul are with God the whole time.

And I reflect on how washing my clothes in this time-honored fashion is rather like being washed clean by God. You see, as I’m washing and scrubbing and agitating the waters, swirling the clothes around, I see all the dirt come loose. I watch the water, which is more or less clean at the start, turn gray, and then, sometimes, dark gray. Occasionally, the water turns almost brown. Haiti is not a clean place … we have dirt, we have dust, we have all the pollution from cars and trucks. It’s hot, and I sweat a lot. All that combines to make my clothes pretty dirty, sometimes after just one wearing. As I pour out the now-dirty water and watch it swirl down the drain, I think of how washing the dirt from my clothes is rather like washing the dirt from my spiritual life. Sometimes, I can leave my spiritual life to soak, and that’s enough. Usually though, I think God has to put me through a wringer, swirling and agitating and scrubbing hard at those sinful parts of my life, those times when I was not nice, when I hurt another person, when I have been frustrated and thought of tossing this whole ministry-in-another-country out with the wash water. I think that some days, God has to work especially hard to get me clean again, dunking me again and again into the waters of forgiveness, not because God has to work to forgive me, but because I can be so stubborn I don’t want to be forgiven, or I won’t forgive another for some perceived slight.

But God doesn’t give up on me. God keeps scrubbing away, keeps checking for hidden stains, keeps soaping up and rinsing and wringing me out until, when God is done, when I have finally acquiesced to all the God freely offers me, the stained, dirty parts of my life wash down the drain and God’s love and forgiveness make me clean again.

By the time I finish my wash, even a small load, I am exhausted. My arms get a great workout from all the wringing out, I’m covered in sweat and the clothes I wore to the do the wash are the next ones to go into the wash basket.

And each time, I am left to wonder: Does God have to work this hard to get me clean?

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an Appointed Missionary of the Episcopal Church serving in the Diocese of Haiti, where she works on the Partnership Program and Development. Her website is http://web.me.com/merelaurens/GoIntoTheWorld.net.

The God of open water

By Greg Jones

I am basically a first-class coward when it comes to boats on open water in bad weather. My grandparents sent me to sailing camp in Maine for years as a boy, and most of the time I dreaded it. On the Maine coast, where we sailed, we were on a large bay at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains, and the winds would just come whipping down and cause all sorts of trouble. Seems like we capsized our sail boats all the time.

We used to have drills where you'd have to jump in the freezing Maine water, fully dressed, and swim under a boat and come up on the other side, or swim under a capsized-sail, or take your pants off and tie the legs closed, and wave 'em in the air to create a make-shift life preserver. We had to get up early at one camp and swim 'Polar Bears' -- from dock to dock in freezing water.

All of this was sort of cool in retrospect, but at the time I was pretty scared most through most of it.

I remember at one camp, in addition to ragged long hikes through the mountains -- which I liked a lot more -- we also went on very long canoe trips in the Maine wilderness. When I was 12 or 13, we took a hundred-mile plus trip across river and lake, up near Canada -- and I almost died of hypothermia.

Yes, I was in my canoe with another kid in the scariest thunder storm ever, with giant waves, and literally miles to go, and I thought I was done. The boy supposedly steering our canoe had pretty much become catatonic from fear behind me, and there I was just paddling for dear life trying to drag us both to the other side of the shore. Our little flotilla of other canoes had become scattered, and the lead canoe was WAY ahead.

I recall looking overboard and contemplating jumping in -- somehow thinking that this would be preferable. I recall vividly staring at the water next to my gunnel, and considering how relaxing it would feel to just jump in. I was on the edge of hysteria, for sure.

What brought me back, was a song; a little song I learned at St. Columba's in Washington, D.C. when I was about 8 or 9 years old. Written in 1977 by Carey Landry, "Abba Father," saved my life. I sang it over and over until we made it, to the shore on the other side.

I say that little song got me through...but really, what happened was, God did. Yes, God got me to shore on the other side. Sure, I still had to paddle, but it was God that got me through. That's what I believe.

And aren't we all in situations like this -- one way or another? Aren't we all on the edge of hysteria sometimes, with fear of -- well -- death? Ours, or somebody we love's? Like the disciples on that lake that day -- aren't we all afraid of death? And isn't our response so often to go through life like that kid at the back of my canoe --- in a trance-like state, dragging our paddles, largely unresponsive?

Rings true for me anyway, even still. That is -- that is -- until remember that the Son of God is on this boat with us.

Until we remember that he is on this boat with us, our fear of the deep cannot be quelled. Sure, there are times when it looks like God is sleeping. After all, Genesis says pretty clearly that the Lord rested on the seventh day, and who knows, maybe that should be understood quite literally. But I don't believe that. No, I believe that God will get us through to the other side.

And that though we will be rocked by wind and wave, and we will have lots to fear, and that death is sure, God will guide us through. We need to keep on paddling, but the Son of God will get us to his eternal shore.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ('Greg') is rector of St. Michael's in Raleigh, N.C. and the bass player in indie-rock band The Balsa Gliders — whose fourth studio release is available on iTunes. He blogs at Anglican Centrist.

Faith that is stronger than an iron curtain

By Martin L. Smith

I was clearing out a drawer the other day and came across a stray slide from my travels to Russian and Ukraine in 1972. At this time the state was still relentlessly choking the churches to death with every kind of constraint and harassment and subjecting the entire population to atheist propaganda. Seeing the picture of myself as a rather nervous young man sporting his first moustache, I remembered my feelings of terror as I passed through customs in Leningrad with 20 copies of the New Testament in Russian concealed in my luggage, and my relief at getting away with my smuggling. It wasn’t until I reached Yalta that I finally passed them on, at the church where my grandparents had met. I suppose that impulse arose out of a grateful sense that I wouldn’t be here if my grandmother hadn’t left the family dacha to go to the service there one Sunday in 1914 and been noticed admiringly by my vacationing grandfather. But I could have left them in a church anywhere, since the state permitted so few Bibles to be printed that they were desperately sought after by spiritually parched Christians.

It’s hard for us to imagine the straits to which the church was reduced. Every kind of overt Christian activity was banned except the holding of church services. And what was most demoralizing were the consequences of the KGB policy of infiltrating its agents into the clergy at every level, from bishop to parish priest, in order to sap the church’s strength from within. Regular applicants to the few seminaries permitted to limp on were vetted to weed out the strong and bring forward the shaky, whose vulnerabilities could be exploited in due time. I remember comparing notes with an old mentor of mine, Dr. Nicholas Zernov, after he had returned from a visit. He told me he had visited a parish in Moscow and noticed after the service that everyone seemed to be very friendly to the young priest who had just been the chief celebrant, while coldly ignoring an elderly priest who had assisted. He asked one of the ladies of the congregation why this was so, and she replied that their new parish priest was an atheist KGB agent who had been planted on them, while the old priest was beloved, a man of God to his fingertips—but if they had appeared in any way to favor him, he would have been taken away.

Imagine worshipping week by week in the calm certainty that your parish priest had made hypocrisy a career and was a cynical enemy of the church! Perhaps we wouldn’t have the kind of faith that believed that the mystery of the Eucharist so entirely depended on the living action of the Holy Spirit that the celebrant might actually be an atheist and it wouldn’t matter!

Few people, however hard they prayed back then in support of their suffering fellow Christians behind the Iron Curtain, who had endured decades of persecution, could have predicted the reversal that lay just ahead. Now the churches are in full spate of revival, and it is the vast machinery of atheist propaganda and materialist ideology that has come crashing down into ruins. Not all is rosy: Russian Orthodoxy is always in danger of trying to gain a spiritual monopoly and revert to old authoritarian ways. But the historic reversal is staggering in its irony and its scale.

I think about these things under the heading: The Astounding Resilience of the Christian Faith. And they feed my reflections on a noticeable recent phenomenon, an outburst of books furiously denouncing religion as a toxic relic of the past and extolling the saving power of atheism. We all have seen them piled up in the mass market bookstores. Even those whose writers have the most intellectual credentials display a remarkably similar tone to those that are more propagandistic. They are strikingly shrill and caustic. They vigorously repudiate any kind of empathy with the religious impulse.

The content of these books have much to say that Christians must both hear and answer. But the tone is also fascinating in itself. Perhaps it is one sign that secularists are in fact baffled and exasperated by the fertility and resilience of religion. Shrewd observers are already talking of our contemporary world as the scene for a “crisis of secularism.” Those who dreamed that enlightened reason and science would be winning the day by now have to face a great deal of evidence that they have been just dreaming. In reality, spiritual belief and practice is proving to be globally resilient. The scathing tone of this “new atheism” might be the symptom of insecurity and frustration, rather than the confidence of those who have victory in their sights.

Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba’s, D.C.

The sacrament of the peanut butter sandwich

By Heidi Shott

My older brother Jimmy, who lives on an island in Southeast Alaska, is a mate and pilot with the state ferry system but he also makes part of his living by hosting fishing charters in the icy, capricious waters west of Ketchikan. The tourists who hire him and his boat hope for the big 200 pound halibut. He tells me that sometimes he has to go farther off-shore than he would like in order to find them. But that’s what his guests pay him to do. And for that reason, since a particularly fateful day, he always packs a couple of peanut butter sandwiches in his cooler.

A few years ago Jimmy took a party of young men in their early twenties on a charter. They were keen to have an Alaskan adventure and with dreams of catching the big fish. After an unsuccessful morning, they finally hauled up some big ones off a point that extends several miles out to sea. The return trip—rounding the point and heading back to the harbor—was rough. The wind came up and the current near the point worked to push them back. As the waves grew so did the uneasiness of his guests. The bravado of the early morning dissolved into seasickness and downright fear.

“I wasn’t so thrilled to be out there myself,” said my brother, one of the most affable, easy-going guys on earth. “I made sure everyone had their life-vests on. I was nervous but, as the skipper, I sure as hell couldn’t show it.”

That’s when he asked one of his guests to reach into his cooler and get him a peanut butter sandwich. Jimmy recalled, “I told him I was hungry, which I wasn’t, but I knew that doing a normal thing like munching a sandwich would calm everyone down. And it did.” After awhile they cleared the point, put the wind behind them and surfed the big swells to the safety of the harbor.

Eating a peanut butter sandwich when you’re not hungry...whistling in the dark when your lips are parched…those are visible things we do for the people who need us to be strong. Jesus, who calmed the seas with a word, was the master, of course – the Chief Whistler of the Faith.

The lives we lead, we Christians, are full of blessings and unexpected moments of grace: illnesses cured, joyful mid-life weddings, children who ride chairlifts down the mountain by mistake and by some miracle don’t fall off. How easy it is to whistle and feast on sandwiches at those times.

But the lives we lead are also fraught with sad news and hard truths - especially in these recent months of recession and uncertainty – lost jobs, troubled marriages, fragile children, tragic diagnoses, and bad choices by people for whom we care and are powerless to change. Those times and the troubled times we live in, can make us justifiably afraid.
But fear need not turn into despair. As that great theologian of children’s literature, Marilla Cuthbert, says to Anne in Anne of Green Gables, “Despair is when you turn your back on God.”

If despair is a choice, then it is one we most often reach for when we are alone. A way to keep fear from slipping into despair lies in choosing to be together as a community centered on hope and faith and by propping open the door to keep watch for others who might find comfort in our company. Our success in battling the despair we see in the world around us will be proved by how well we live together and by how freely we welcome others under the cover of our love.

There will always be some among us who are better and stronger whistlers in the dark, those who lighten our load and make us feel brazen and confident in our life and faith. But I think each of us should be prepared to eat the occasional peanut butter sandwich and hold the wheel steady when the winds of fear and change would drive us back, not only for ourselves but for those who need us to be strong.

Heidi Shott is Canon for Communications and Social Justice in the Episcopal Diocese of Maine.

Simply poetry?

By Kathleen Staudt

I was caught up short by the title of Bishop John Bryson Chane’s column in the latest Washington Window: “Prayer without Action is Simply Poetry.” It raised the ire you might expect from a poet. “Simply poetry?” The phrase was clearly dismissive. It seemed as if the title meant something like “faith without works is dead” – and actually, in reading the article, I didn’t find much I disagreed with – of course we are called, as Christians, to address injustice in the world, to examine and refashion ways of life that are draining resources from the poor, to keep in mind the mandate of Matthew 25. The statistics the Bishop offers are horrifying, numbing, about the level of human suffering in the world. And of course addressing these things is part of how we are called as Christians.

But I think we need poetry as we respond to the gospel’s call to action in the world. Talking with college students about vocation over the past year or so, I have been struck by the way that many young adult Christians are intimidated, overwhelmed, by the whole notion of the call of Christians to heal a clearly broken world. The task seems too great for them and they don’t know where to begin, and how they can contribute. It seems like a lot of pressure, trying to identify a vocation that will save the world. In these conversations it seemed to me that some imagination, some poetry, needs to be brought into our preaching and teaching about the call of Christ to a ministry of healing and reconciliation amid the world’s brokenness. Poetry can help us imagine our way to the particular ways we are called to heal a broken world, “wherever we may be”

It seems to me that there is a great deal of “poetry” in our faith tradition and story – the act of imagination that story and poetry invites is a powerful source of the energy and spirit that propels us to love and serve the world. And the practice of prayer, of receptivity to God, requires imagination – is a kind of poetry. Modern prophets Bishop Desmond Tutu and Verna Dozier both invite believers to an act of imagination as we attend to the brokenness of the world. They speak of the “dream” of God – a poetic expression of our common awareness that the world is not what it is meant to be – and that we are called by our faith to participate in its transformation. Tutu writes, in lively, imaginative mode, drawing on the poetic language of our tradition:

"I have a dream," God says. "Please help Me to realize it. It is a dream of a world whose ugliness and squalor and poverty, its war and hostility, its greed and harsh competitiveness, its alienation and disharmony are changed into their glorious counterparts, when there will be more laughter, joy, and peace, where there will be justice and goodness and compassion and love and caring and sharing. I have a dream that swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, that my children will know that they are members of one family, the human family, God’s family, my family.” ( God Has a Dream, pp.19-20)

Verna Dozier makes a similar point when she points to the poetry of the Biblical story, with it’s account of a God who loves us and calls us to return, and a Saviour who gives himself to that work and calls us to new life. It begins, as Bishop Chane implies out, with the ability to look squarely at the world’s brokenness and to see the huge chasm between the world as God desires it to be and the world as it is. But to address this without being overwhelmed, we need imagination, poetry and faith.

Dreaming with God requires ongoing discernment: we need to learn to look at the story God is telling about the world, known through Scripture and tradition, and also at the world as it is. Then we need to ask, “Where is my heart breaking; what is calling me here: what is my small piece of this great work of redemption and reconciliation that God is calling me to?” We need to be imaginative enough to “dream with God ” and to give ourselves to that dream.

No one of us can do it all. We can and should participate in large programs through our institutions; but each of us, as individuals and as congregations, need to look at the relationships, needs and communities around us and say “what is the dream of God for this situation, even if I can’t figure out how to realize it all by myself? What might be my piece of the work of reconciliation here?”

My point is, of course, it’s “both/and.” Prayer without action is passivity; Action without prayer can wind up being about more narrowly political and social agendas – it can lead us to miss the dream of God in the work we are called to do. Genuine prayer will lead us to action. But it is folly to dismiss either of these as “simply poetry.”

Walter Brueggemann has named the poets as the “prophets” of our time. We are required, in reaching out to the world, to learn compassion through imagination, to name suffering and to speak truth to a corrupt social order. And activist poet Denise Levertov described imagination as “the perceptive organ by which it is possible. . . . to experience God.” We need poetry, the expression of imagination, to name the brokenness and imagine the healing, to help us to dream with God, and to ourselves keep humbly open to possibilities we may not have imagined. True poetry, like true prayer, will call us to action, powered by the energy of the imagination, which enables us to touch the heart of God. It teach us, within whatever sphere of life we are called to encounter and name, to live into the dream of God.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

The Braided Leather Cord

By Donald Schell

Hanging thirty feet above the ground, I was only half way up the rope. My mind and every muscle in my body pulled up, up to the cliff top. From up there my son and five other pilgrim friends cheered me on. We were climbing this braided leather cord to see Debra Damo, the oldest church and monastery in Ethiopia.

I’d done vertical rappel in a ropes course. This was different - harder because climbing this line was all shoulder and arm work, and harder still because the monastery and church are at 8000 feet altitude,. My whole upper body ached for oxygen. Up on top an old monk and his young helpers drew up the safety line’s slack. They were ready to brace themselves and catch my weight if I slipped, but slipping would turn me into a pendulum weight banging against the cliff. Hand over hand, I pulled my way to the top. And I made it up.

If I’d had any breath left, the view across the mesas and gorges to Eritrea would have had been breathtaking, and yes, the thousand-year-old chapel of a fifteen hundred year old monastery was well worth the climb. But that braided leather line lingers in memory as powerfully as anything we saw at the top. Clinging to it, I looked up to the cliff edge and the sky’s intense blue, felt the rope in my hands, swayed with it, and smelled its long-handled age. Muscle memories fix a wild mixture of fear and excitement, elation and exhaustion. So now a month later, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve told myself that something was ‘hanging by a thread.’

- The future of the Anglican Communion hangs by a thread.
- The U.S. economy hangs by a thread.
- With new work of teaching, consulting, and leading workshops, my priestly vocation hangs by a thread.

Just as the three strands of interwoven flesh - animals’ skins - made a lifeline and a way of ascent, the sixth century Syrian monks who built Debra Damo, despite their fierce asceticism, confidently wove Pleasure, Desire, and Gratitude into a line sturdy enough to carry us up into God’s embrace. Most Christians of that time braided this same line.

In our consumerist culture, and especially in the present financial crisis (which we suspect was brought on by greedy desires and the pleasures and power that money can buy) it won’t be easy to renew the crucial strands of our life line. But who is trying? For a single sermon commending pleasure or desire, we’ve probably heard twenty urging us to give or share because we ‘should be grateful.’ We’re in the grip of fearful Christian thinking from those bitter centuries that came to mistrust pleasure and desire.

The 14th century the Black Plague swept across Europe leaving in its wake a crippling mistrust of human flesh, largely focused in misogyny (why would men sin without a temptress?). As the Western church forced parish priests to put away their wives and live in celibacy, priests and patrons had artisan stone carvers carve the seductive temptress Eve and the horrors of a decaying woman’s body in the grave. Even then, though, there were other voices like Dame Julian of Norwich, who heard Jesus the Word saying that if there was any good thing he could have done to increase her pleasure and delight that he’d have gladly done it.

A few centuries later, Protestant reformers and the Catholic Inquisition furthered Christian mistrust of pleasure and desire. There are many such voices of warning, and a brief piece in the Café can’t re-weave the cord of pleasure, desire, and gratitude, but I can ask us to do the work. I’ll offer some accidental reflections on pleasure and desire and on gratitude, the third line, which makes it possible to braid a single, strong line.

1. Pleasure

“Thou Lord didst make all for thy pleasure,
Did give us food for all our days.”

Some readers will recognize this pair of lines from Francis Bland Tucker’s wonderful 1939 hymn, “Father we thank thee who hast planted.” The English text was brand-new in the 1940 Hymnal and people loved it, so it was kept for the 1989 Hymnal. I like to think that singing congregations’ delight in God’s pleasure contributed to the hymn’s success.

Tucker’s hymn paraphrases the Eucharistic Prayer from the Didache, a Jewish-Christian document from the late first or early second century (so, around 100 A.D.). Leonel Mitchell and Michael Merriman, two friends with many good years of liturgical teaching and practice between them, helped distill my question about who the Didache taught was experiencing pleasure. Lee looked back at the Greek to observe that in the original text God’s creation of all is ‘for his Name’s sake’ while God gave US food and drink ‘for our pleasure.’ And Michael recalled ancient Jewish blessings prayers (and some texts from the Psalms) that thank God for wine that ‘makes our hearts glad.’

Tucker’s neat synthesis for the hymn obscures something the Didache prayer emphasizes, that God gives food for OUR pleasure, so that it’s our pleasure that moves us to give thanks for God’s good gifts to us from the vast world of God’s creation.

My old congregation altered Tucker’s text to synthesize these ideas like this -
“Thou, Lord, didst make all for OUR pleasure.”

And then from pleasure in God’s gifts of food and life, we come to receive and enjoy God’s gift of Christ our true bread, and our pleasure at both moves us to offer awestruck thanks.

As an ex-Presbyterian, I’m tickled (maybe ought to be humbled) to hear my Puritan forebears fearlessly affirming their pleasure in God and creation. Eric Liddell, the ‘flying Scotsman’ who ran in the 1924 Olympics before going to China as a Presbyterian missionary famously said, ‘When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.’ And Liddell was simply echoing graceful wisdom from The Westminster Catechism of 1647, that Presbyterian voice from Cromwell’s England bold teaching that ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.’

Our pleasure delights God. Both giving us our daily bread and giving us Christ the bread eternal please God because both ordinary bread and Christ our living bread delight and pleasure us. We’re all of us the prodigal welcomed home to a Great Feast in OUR honor and for our pleasure. Receiving God’s vast blessings with pleasure moves us (makes us want or desire) to offer God our thanks. We’re in bolder and more paradoxical territory than ‘It is right to give God thanks and praise.’

2. Desire

‘Whoever does not dance, does not understand what is coming to pass.’- The Acts of John

Gospel scholar Joachim Jeremias in his Unknown Sayings of Jesus, argues that Jesus spoke this challenge in his lifetime. Naturally enough, early Christian liturgies did include congregational dance. The fourth century Easter Troparion—“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life.”—describes and celebrates Christians’ stomping dance to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection.

But some pastors and theologians feared that the pleasure and desire of dance tipped too easily toward sinful thoughts and whatever else might follow. In fact, like them, we find it hard to receive our bodies and our bodies’ irrational desires gratefully, so after only a few centuries, dance lost its place in Christian worship except in Ethiopia where it remained part of ordinary congregational life. Thank God that Anglican worship in other parts of Africa includes a renewal of drumming and congregational dance.

But speaking my gratitude skips a step. Like many other Episcopalians, I grew up in another church community, one where all dance was reckoned sinful. As it happens, my parents weren’t peddling the line, “we don’t dance.” For them dancing wasn’t a taboo. They admitted they didn’t dance because they’d never learned how and were afraid to begin. They didn’t dance, but they’d rejected their church’s moralism. These two faithful Christians joked about the undifferentiated morass of “don’ts” they’d grown up with in Christian Endeavour – not just no smoking and drinking, and no dancing (because dancing ‘led to other things’), but also no playing cards (not even Old Maid), and no movies or physical labor on Sunday. We didn’t go to movies on Sunday to avoid offending weaker sisters or brothers. My dad was a physician. My parents said they didn’t smoke because of the health risk.

1960. I wince to think of Fridays in junior high school gym class. Friday gym period was a sock hope. Once the girls were in place, their gym teacher would put a 45 record on the turntable, our cue as guys to pad across the polished floor in our socks and ask a girl to dance. ‘I don’t dance’ was not an excuse. ‘You’re here to learn.’ I always crossed the floor as slowly as I could. One day on the other side, I found that fate left the girl who was universally reckoned most desirable of our whole class standing alone against the wall. I approached her cautiously and asked, barely speaking, “May I have this dance.” She grimaced and said, “With you? You’ve got to be kidding.” The gym girls gym teacher insisted she had dance with me. I didn’t die, though I felt like I might.

An intellectual pal who was easy to talk with and only happened to be a girl classmate suggested I put some music on at home and try ‘just wiggling’ in front of a full length mirror. I tried. Even with no one watching, I couldn’t cut loose and wiggle my hips. Sunday School had frozen my hip joints, spine and shoulders. Though I felt stupid, I knew condemning words like ‘profane’ and ‘lewd,’ lay in wait for me if I let the music move my body. I wanted to dance, and I wished my body could hear, but the music drenched my cells in adrenaline for flight.

I first got what I wanted in a high school visit to an Episcopal Church. Hearing the Christian call to prayer, “The Lord be with you,” unlocked my hips and I knelt. My body in that small way was expressing something that mattered to me. The joy at bending knee and hip for prayer was so exhilarating that I refused to hold myself back, so went forward to kneel at the rail to receive communion, even though I wasn’t confirmed and knew I was breaking the rules to receive. This was an altar call I welcomed joyfully.

Finally had desire unlocked what was frozen. Desire hadn’t let me rest, and in the end it moved me to a path I’m still pursuing. Gregory of Nyssa in his Commentary on the Song of Songs says that we are most like God in our infinite desire.

3. Gratitude

‘Give thanks in all things.’
- I Thessalonians 5:18,

In college I discovered folk dancing. Learning each new dance, I still felt like the tin woodman with un-oiled joints, but after several rote repetitions of the stiff-jointed angular movements, music and repetition unlocked my joints, movement flowed. I was dancing. I loved that breakthrough moment when I could feel real dance beginning. Gratitude came with the promise of freedom. For the next dozen years, circle and line dances from around the world offered me a place I could move with music.

When I married Ellen I wanted to live deeper into that freedom and really dance with her. Some shuffling memory from junior high school plus a little bounce from folk dancing at least got us the dance floor. For me, a crowded dance floor felt best. Less visible. One day about eight years after we were married, Ellen and I were at an Episcopal Social Ministries Benefit Tea Dance at San Francisco’s Mark Hopkins Hotel. A couples’ elegant ease with big stand style dancing captivated us. They weren’t showy, but they moved together as we wanted to, so when the band took a break, I asked where they’d learned to dance. ‘We teach’ they said. I wrote down time and address and the next Sunday we started ballroom dancing lessons. For three years we hardly missed a week. Week by week for three years, we danced our way to deeper understanding and love. Learning to dance together was as deep as any conversation we’d ever had.

There’s the three braid strand - pleasure, desire, and gratitude. I started this reflection with pleasure. Braiding, each is equally essential. I might have told other stories if I’d begun with desire or gratitude, but once braiding has begun, each is line is important in turn, and as Christians of the first centuries knew, together they carry us to Life.

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

Hedge funds won't get us to heaven

By Stephanie Nagley

Jesus talked about money more than anything else – the love of money, the desire for money, the lack of money, the abundance of money. Money, he knew, challenges and changes us like nothing else. Money is powerful – so powerful that something that is supposed to be useful too often just leaves us feeling used.

We’re smart people so we know what happened on Wall Street. We may not grasp all the complexities but we know what happened in the broad scheme. We know that a lot of other smart people got greedy, and the love of money took them on a magical mystery tour. The ride is over and all of us will pay the price.

Hedge funds won’t get us to heaven or make heaven on earth. “Where your treasure is there your heart will be too.” Giving to the church and organizations that believe, trust in and hope for heaven on earth says volumes about what we hope, believe and trust. We aren’t trying to buy our way to heaven for heaven can’t be bought. But giving to heavenly causes brings us closer to our reason for being and helps further God’s work in the world. That’s our slice of heaven here and now.

As I watched the Dow drop and heard about credit markets freezing, I felt nervous like most everyone else. But I also sensed an opportunity, an opportunity to get my own house in order and to reallocate where I put my treasure.

The word economy is rooted in the Greek word household. Our churches are part of the household of God. A pledge is our way of living God’s household, a household guided by the economy of abundance. Our participation matters – it matters not just to our individual churches, but to something greater. When we write a check or make a stock transfer, we’re making an investment in the household of God. We’re placing our money and our lives on the line for a dream. We are saying that we believe that the dream, the dream of God, can, must, shall come true.

The Rev. Dr. Stephanie Nagley is rector of St. Luke’s Church, Bethesda, Md.

Thanksgiving in the wilderness

By Elizabeth Carpenter

It is easy to be thankful when everything is going well—our important relationships are healthy and mutually satisfying, the job is rewarding and secure, the kids are thriving, the economy is booming, nobody is sick or suffering any serious loss, the future looks rosy. But how to be thankful when things are not going so well? The company is on shaky ground and the job may disappear; the kids are going through a really rough time; the economy appears as unstable as it has been in many years; people we love are seriously ill or have died; the future is uncertain. What do we find to be thankful for under those circumstances? What can I say to those suffering, to you, about these things in your lives?

I will not offer the kind of trite encouragement intended to make one “look on the bright side” of every situation. That would be to trivialize the depth of your pain and suffering.

I will not say, “God never sends us more than we can bear,” because I think that is untrue on two accounts. First, some people do actually crack and break under the strain of their burdens; and, second, I don’t believe God “sends” everything that happens in this world. Why try to cure illness if it comes as God’s will? If God wanted people to be sick, Jesus would not have gone about healing the suffering. If everything that happened were the will of God, there would have been no need of the prophets to tell us to change our ways. Surely we don’t think that the evils which human beings have perpetrated upon one another throughout history have been administered in accordance with the will of God. Human beings have free will and often act contrary to what Jesus and the prophets tell us is the will of God.

I also think, though I cannot prove it, that there is a degree of randomness in the universe, that just as God granted free will to human beings, the universe does sometimes “do its own thing.” Or maybe we just cannot discern the level of determinism that may be operating; I don’t know. I don’t think God chooses one child to have cancer and another to be born hopelessly deformed and another to be mentally deficient. Jesus said of the man born blind, “Don’t try to figure out why this happened, but let’s see how God might be glorified in healing him now.” I will accept that admonition and not try to explain why evil exists in this world.

What can we count on? I believe that we can count on Jesus to be faithful, to be with us always, in our joy and in our sorrow. I believe we can count on the Holy Spirit to bring us the wisdom and comfort and strength we must have to get through times that truly try our souls. And I believe that God gives us into one another’s care and keeping, to help us bear one another’s burdens, to pour out our love and caring in ways that testify to the truth that we are truly members one of another. God’s love is manifest in the love we share. I am deeply thankful for the love I see operating among us and for all the gifts of God that bind our hearts to him and to one another.

The Rev. Elizabeth Carpenter is rector of St. Anne’s Church, Damascus, Md.

The flame shall not consume you

This is the first of three meditation on the role of faith during difficult economic times. All three originally appeared in Washington Window.

By Joseph Trigg

My mother was 10 years old and my father was 12 when the stock market crashed in 1929. Just as I told my children about the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War, my parents told me about the Great Depression and World War II. I heard about the grandfather who lost a farm because he co-signed a note for a less provident brother, the grandfather who kept a farm because a New Deal program enabled him to pay a mortgage note just in the nick of time, a once prosperous great-grandfather who managed to pay off all his depositors in his small town bank before dying a broken man, and the year my father and his brother shared $13 between them after sweating all spring and summer to bring 10 acres of tobacco to market. Many of you have heard or could tell similar stories.

In the accounts of the Great Depression I heard growing up, people sometimes spoke about feeling helpless. More often they spoke about finding capacities for self-discipline and inventiveness they did not know they had. They spoke about how they learned the value of money, but also how they learned the value of friendship and cooperation. They would never want to go through such a time again or wish it on anyone, but they cherished their memories of it.

Their story was a story we hear again and again in the Bible, the story of finding a way through hard times and finding a better life on the other side of them. It is the story of the Wilderness and the Babylonian exile in the Old Testament, and of the Passion of Christ in the New Testament. The Bible gives us no assurance of avoiding hard times, but multiple assurances that God will be with us and help us through them. My favorite is Isaiah 43:2, echoed in the hymn How Firm a Foundation:

When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and through the rivers,
they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire
you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.

I have no idea whether or not we face an economic collapse as serious as the one my parents went through in their teens. It is possible that we may have to learn lessons they learned the hard way. I hope not. Bitter experience is a terrible way to learn, even if it is the most effective way for many of us. If so, I am confident that one of those lessons will be that God is with us in hard times.

The Rev. Dr. Joseph Trigg, author of Origen, is rector of Christ Church, Port Tobacco, in Charles County, Maryland.

Say goodbye to Christian kitsch

By Jean Fitzpatrick

"Say goodbye to the 'consumer society,'" writes the blogger James Howard Kunstler. "We're done with that. No more fast money and no more credit. The next stop is 'yard-sale nation,' in which all the plastic crapola accumulated over the past fifty years is sorted out for residual value and, if still working, sold for a fraction of its original sticker price. This includes everything from Humvees to Hello Kitty charm bracelets."

Speaking of crapola, nobody does it quite like Christians. It's amazing how much Christian kitsch you can find all over the Net: the With Him All Things Are Possible plastic travel mugs, the tubs of chocolate peanut clusters and peppermint patties with Bible verses printed on the wrappers, the Names of Jesus bookends made of resin "with an Old World Stone Appearance."

This explosion of religious tschochkes says a lot about the kind of faith that's spread across this country in recent years. God's turned into a mascot for the home team to cling to, a promiser of goodies to those who hold up John 3:16 signs at ballgames. It's as though faith itself has become a consumer item, swallowed whole and more soothing than a tryptophan-loaded bedtime snack. Milk, not solid food. Maybe it's easy to think of God this way when material blessings are abundant. But as the layoffs mount up, I'm thinking that faiths that present God as an easy answer are going to be in trouble, as people recognize that they've been getting nothing but, well, crapola.

Over the past eight years I've been feeling like a broken record, telling my secular friends that for many religious people, faith isn't simplistic or junky. Unlike Christian crapola, great religious art and literature through the centuries -- from the cave paintings to Chartres to the Sistine Chapel -- has opened our eyes to possibilities greater than ourselves, and portrayed our human struggles as a journey. To immerse ourselves in a life of faith is to be in the daily business of embracing challenge, looking pain and injustice in the face, recognizing that religion raises at least as many questions as it answers. "This book will make a traveler of thee," wrote Bunyan in his "Author's Apology" to The Pilgrim's Progress.

And now, at long last we're hearing reflections about that complex kind of faith from the White House. "I'm not somebody who is always comfortable with language that implies I've got a monopoly on the truth, or that my faith is automatically transferable to others," President Obama said in one interview. "....I think that religion at its best comes with a big dose of doubt. I'm suspicious of too much certainty in the pursuit of understanding just because I think people are limited in their understanding."

Amen. We’re trading a dogmatic president for one who’s shopping for a dog, as Maureen Dowd recently observed, and it feels good. Today more than ever, making sense of the world demands all the heart and mind we can muster, because life is richer and God is greater than we finite beings can begin to imagine.

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst and a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth and has a website at www.pastoralcounseling.net.

Our primary identity

By Greg Jones

My family goes to Maine in the summer for vacation, and we love it. I've been going to Maine for nearly forty years, and I would tend to say that it is an important part of who I am. But, while all that's true, time in Maine for us is not our primary life or identity.

Like so many things in our lives that matter, that shape us that we invest with thought and emotion - they are not all primary to our life, identity or calling. Those years we spent in college, or school, or summer camp. Even our present time spent in jobs, activities or (since it's an election year) politics: these things matter, but are they primary to our life, identity and calling?

For most people, I suppose, family comes first, then friends, then hobbies and/or work, then all our other interests and communities where we invest ourselves and spend our years. Yet, as the tears have shown us as we get older, even family, even friends, even all that is not forever.

Scripture reminds us that for disciples of Jesus Christ, what needs to be primary to our life, identity and calling is our place as baptized members of His Body, where we have entered into the divine life.

In Exodus, we encounter the rather strange story of the preparation of the first Passover, when God would by blood liberate his captive people. This has been the primary story of Jewish identity from some three millennia now. In Romans, Paul reminds us of the primary calling of the Christian community, to love with the power of God for the good of the world. In Matthew, Jesus teaches that the primary identity, life and vocation of his followers is done in the context of the Eucharistic community. This is where the presence of God is guaranteed to be amongst us. This is where we can achieve God's will. This is how we are to do it - in gathered prayerful discernment of God's word.

For Christians, I believe, by belonging to the Body of Christ, we find our primary significance. By belonging to a gathering of persons who call Jesus Lord, we find our primary identity. By doing the mission of God together - we find that we can make a difference to the world and in our own private lives as well.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, fellow Episcopalians, let us never forget who we really are, and what we are really called to be, and why.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ("Greg") became a member of Christ's Body at St. Columba's in Washington, D.C., and he was educated at the University of North Carolina and the General Theological Seminary, where he is on the Board. He blogs at fatherjones.com.

What size are God's shoes?

By Tim Schenck

What does God look like? This question gets asked a lot at our house and I never have a very good answer. I tend to mutter something about us being made in God’s image. And then, once the boys have expressed adequate annoyance at my unsatisfying answer, what follows is a steady stream of more probing questions about God’s appearance. They’re relentless – like sharks who’ve smelled blood. “How tall is God? Does God have a face? How big are God’s hands? Does God have really big shoes?” On and on they come, making me feel less and less adequate as a parent and as a member of the clergy. Because my answers can’t possibly be complete.

Sometimes I turn the question around and ask, “What do you think God looks like?” This is a classic counseling technique, redirecting the unanswerable into a question. And, while I’m never too proud to use it on my kids, it doesn’t work. Often I end up in the land of generalities by stating that God is everywhere. Which is true but not exactly the most concrete answer. I think this response in particular, the one about God being everywhere, leads to the obsession with God’s size. If God is everywhere, the next logical question may well be to wonder about the immense size of God’s shoes.

The fact is we don’t know what God looks like. We haven’t a clue. Scripture certainly gives us lots of images of God. But I can’t really tell the boys that God is a rock or a whirlwind or fire. We’re told that we’re made in the image of God but that doesn’t really help us too much. Is that literal or metaphorical? And getting into an existential debate with a four-year old is a road to nowhere. Believe me, I’ve tried.

But ultimately, does it matter what God looks like? For humans, seeing is often believing. And so, for many, that’s the end of the conversation. “If I can’t see something, I can’t believe in it. End of story.” It’s “Doubting” Thomas without the chance to touch Jesus’ wounds and believe. To know what something or someone looks like is a way to gain control or power over that thing. If we can visualize something, then we can describe it with our own words. And if we can see it and name it, we somehow own it. But of course God is too great to be contained by human sight or language. So we can never fully see God or describe God in totality. And we certainly can’t own God.

We can, however, experience God. And this happens in all sorts of ways. We can experience God through the compassion and love of others. We can experience God through the majesty of nature. We can experience God simply by wondering alongside a child about God’s appearance.

When I was a little boy my family had a children’s Bible. I have no idea where it is at this point; I haven’t seen it in years. But I vividly remember the inside-cover. It had an illustration of a brilliant, multi-colored star stretching over the entire length of the page. My parents, probably out of desperation or exasperation from the unceasing questions, suggested that maybe that was God. And the image has stuck with me throughout my life. Not as the definitive image of what God looks like but as one possibility. Somehow it beats George Burns.

As I’m faced with question after question about what God looks like, I find myself answering “yes” to most of these questions. Is God tall? Yes, and short too. Does God have big shoes? Yes, and small ones too. Because the fullness of God is the ultimate “yes.” If God is in everything, then God is both tall and short, big and small and every size in-between. God has a face and yet God does not have a face. God is a tree or a flower or a star and yet God is so much more than any of these.

John’s gospel tells us simply that “God is love.” It’s a straightforward statement, a three word sentence. “God is love.” And maybe that’s what God looks like: love. It may be an elderly couple holding hands, a mother cradling her child, the sharing of tears with a grieving friend. Love comes in many forms and appears in many faces. And so does God.

For Christians, the most tangible face of God is, of course, Jesus himself. In the face of Jesus we see God. If God is love, Jesus personifies that love. His face is the very face of God because it is the very face of love. And so whenever we serve the poor, feed the hungry, or clothe the naked we not only share God’s love, we see it.

But of course, none of this provides the most tangible answer for a child wanting to know if God is tall. So I keep saying “yes” to the onslaught of questions and I do what I can to be a loving father. For if God is love, then we see God by showing our love for others. We see the face of God in one another. Our faces can reflect the love that is God. You and I can look like God, if only occasionally, if only briefly, if only haltingly. But we have the ability to do this precisely because we are made in God's image.

I’m not sure what size sandals Jesus wore. A ten? An eleven wide? I assume no one ever measured his “footprints in the sand.” But it probably doesn’t matter. Because there’s a wideness in experiencing God’s all-encompassing love and mercy.

From What Size Are God's Shoes, copyright Timothy Schenck 2008, and used by permission of Church Publishing. The Rev. Tim Schenck, rector of All Saints, Briarcliff Manor, New York, blogs at Clergy Family Confidential.

I am religious, but not spiritual

By Kit Carlson


“I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.”

This has become an incredibly popular statement in recent years. In a Beliefnet excerpt from his book, Spiritual, But Not Religious,” Robert C. Fuller estimates that about one in every five people describes themselves this way. The increasing individualism and consumerism in modern culture has also extended into the realm of the spiritual. People who describe themselves this way see spirituality as something private, not public, something personal, not communal, and something they can design and control and devise, rather than something handed to them by an institution of some sort.

Fuller quotes researchers who say such folks are “less likely to evaluate religiousness positively, less likely to engage in traditional forms of worship such as church attendance and prayer, less likely to engage in group experiences related to spiritual growth, more likely to be agnostic, more likely to characterize religiousness and spirituality as different and non-overlapping concepts, more likely to hold nontraditional beliefs, and more likely to have had mystical experiences.”

Practically, this statement – “I’m spiritual but not religious” -- has a way of raising a wall between a regular, church-going sort of person and a friend or colleague who has no intention of becoming a regular, church-going sort of person. It says, “Back off. Don’t butt into my private relationship or lack of relationship with the Divine. I know all about you ‘religious’ folks. You want to tell me I’m going to hell or imply there’s something wrong with me. Well, I have my own way of connecting – or not – with God. So shut up.”

Well, that’s how I hear it any way. It may not be what is intended, when the person speaks it. But it cuts. It says to me that the person believes that “spiritual” is somehow more authentic, nobler than “religious”, with its checkered history of pogroms and persecutions, its tedious liturgies and self-righteous evangelistic approaches. It makes me -- as a sort of regular, church-going person who actually is religious -- feel like a representative of the Spanish Inquisition or a denizen of the shiniest buckle in the Bible Belt.

But I have decided to feel inferior to these “spiritual but not religious” people no more. I am going to claim my identity as “religious but not spiritual.”

What do I mean by that? I mean to celebrate the fact that one can become part of a faith community and enter into its life and practices and find meaning there, without ever having been smacked over the head by a supernatural experience. That one can choose to adhere to the tenets and expectations of a religious community and let that life of following those expectations create a space within one’s soul where the spiritual might occur. That – much like entering into a long marriage, rather than looking to hook ups for love and affection – one might find that the long, tedious, faithful activities of a committed relationship actually can make one a larger and more loving person than one would have been otherwise, left to one’s own devices.

I mean that discipline, duty, and devotion to a religious community can work as well for the spiritual life as it does for the physical life. No one says, “I’m athletic but I don’t work out.” No one says, “I’m tennis player but I have no partners.” To become athletic, a person has to move. It helps even more if one joins a team or a health club or gets a personal trainer. To become a tennis player, you have to play tennis with other people. You can only get so far whacking the ball against a concrete wall day after day.

Religion, admittedly, has brought the world its share of grief. But religion has also given the world hospitals and health clinics, universities and inner-city schools. Religion has fed the hungry and clothed the naked. Religion gave us Habitat for Humanity. It gave us Bach. It gave us Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Religion, faithfully practiced, might even help the “spiritual but not religious” folks to grow more spiritual, to be more connected to God, and to give them fellow travelers on the way who can help them in their spiritual quests.

I’m glad that I am religious. My religious life forces me to think about God even when I don’t feel like it. It inspires me to be a better person than I actually want to be. It connects me to people I never would seek out on my own and helps me to relate to them as my brothers and sisters in the eyes of God. It believes for me when I don’t feel like believing. It prays for me when I can’t pray. It opens the pathway to God for me, week in and week out, and invites me to take another step along the way.

So, yes, I have joined the “I’m religious, but not spiritual” group on Facebook. I honestly think that this may be an idea whose time has come -- especially for those shy and staid sort of folks who go to church dutifully every Sunday, cook casseroles for families with new babies, work on the Habitat house, make a pledge, show up at church clean-up day, haul their protesting teenagers to youth group, who remember their church in their will, but who … urk … cough … struggle to offer up an extemporaneous prayer, or to articulate what exactly it is they are doing here, anyway.

There are more of us out there than you think. Religious, but maybe not quite so spiritual.

The Rev. Kit Carlson, is the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, Mich., where she blogs at Saints Alive!

A love which does not protect itself

By Greg Jones

I saw an article about an interesting group. Brothers Together is a group working to help poor Muslim children get the special surgeries they need in Israeli hospitals, the best in the Middle East by far. Brothers Together has sent more than 80 Muslim children from Arab countries all over the Middle East to Israel for life-saving surgeries in the past few years.

Their motivation? A spokesman says: "Our work is motivated by faith and obedience to Jesus... We believe that the love of God is freely offered unconditionally to all people." He says a Muslim child dying from a heart condition should have the same access to medical care as Jewish or Christian kids.

Sounds so good. But there's a glitch. In the news lately there's been a focus on some 14 Muslim children who were on their way to Israel thanks to Brothers Together - who were ultimately not permitted to go -- by their own parents and nations. One mother of a six-year old Iraqi boy with a hole in his heart that needs repair said she couldn't let him enter Israel to receive the healing he was offered -- because she just hates Israel too much. She says she has an innate, inbred hatred of Israel -- she cannot let her enemy heal her son.

But, before we judge this mother, hear me - this is not an Arab, Muslim or Middle Eastern story. No this is an all too human story. This is a story of the World, that Jesus came into for its own sake. We live in a world, we are the people of a world, where the mother of a son with a hole in his heart holds him back from care, freely given, because of the spiritual hole in hers - nursed there by a world which wants to keep hearts broken.

For we all have these spiritual holes in our hearts that keep us from trusting, forgiving, mercy and courage.

Before we judge her - the Lord would show us that we are all holding back from entering the Holy Land of healing in Christ. We are all holding back out of self-guided, inbred drives - which we think are self-protecting.

For some reason, the promise of free care, free healing, the free repair of our broken hearts is not something we leap at in this world. For some reason, the gracious love of God is not MAKING us be different. For some reason, the Love of Christ as poured out in a manger, at a table, and above all on a cross, is not FORCING us to be better.

The reason is simple. The free love of God which does not protect itself and holds nothing back is free, gentle and pure - and it's our choice to accept it or not.* God won't make us let him fix the hole in our hearts. God won't make us love each other. God won't make us love in a way that does not protect ourselves and holds nothing back.

He can't make us follow the teachings of Jesus, or the Law of Moses, with intentions of love and obedience. But that is all he wants. God loves us this way - and all he wants is for us to know him, to share in his life, so that God may not be forcedly but graciously one in all. He wants this, but he won't make it be. He sends his love - as Christ has shown - in a manger, at a table, on a cross - and if we choose to join him we can. If we choose to return his gracious love, sending it back and forth, and without fear of what it might cost us, without holding back - then God rejoices.

Is this what you want? Do you want to know God, and to have him know you and not just see you there doing your thing? I do. And I know that I can't - by myself. I know that I can't generate the grace that God gives on my own. I know that the only way to heal the hole where grace slips away is to say, "God, I choose you, your ways, your life - help me to choose and receive your gifts."

The Gospel and Miracle is that when we do this -- we are changed. Little by little, when we allow the free love of God unconditionally given to help us heal our broken hearts - it works.

*Thanks to Rowan Williams for this phrase, "a love which does not protect itself...and holds nothing back."

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ("Greg") became a member of Christ's Body at St. Columba's in Washington, D.C., and he was educated at the University of North Carolina and the General Theological Seminary, where he is on the Board. He blogs at fatherjones.com.

Looking back at a life well lived

By Margaret Treadwell

The Rev. Craig Eder, 87, has been a beloved priest in the Diocese of Washington since 1945, when he graduated from Virginia Theological Seminary after studying biology and pre-med at Harvard. He has served at a number of churches as an associate, interim or volunteer, was chaplain at St. Albans School from 1953-1973 and has been an associate at St. Columba’s from 1975 until the present. His only time away was from 1947-53 when he served rural churches around White Sulpher Springs, W.Va.

Recently we enjoyed an afternoon in the garden at The Methodist Home in Northwest Washington, where he talked about his life.

How did you know when the time was right to move from your longtime home to a retirement community?

Our children told us and we listened to them. My wife Edie was having heart trouble and my 85 wonderful healthy years had changed in the last three years with four hospitalizations.

What is your best advice about adjusting to this big change and challenge?

I think of the refrain of a hymn, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” (*) We were fortunate to find a place in our community where I can stay connected to my church and younger people. Now, I’ve become involved here by loving older people too. Our dog Dilly was the best icebreaker with these new friends. They talked to the dog, and only then to me.

What drew you away from pre-med to the ministry?

Harvard was a time of soul-searching when Darwin and evolution were great issues. I was in the class of 1942 and there was a belief in inevitable progress despite the oncoming war. I greatly admired my father, an Episcopal priest, who wanted me to become a priest. A few short statements summed up the intellectual struggle that ended in a decision to offer myself to the ministry. One found in a Forward Movement publication was the idea that although I can’t do everything, I’m not going to let that get in the way of things I can do. Another was that life has a real meaning if all things that religion claims are true; if not true, life has no real meaning. Another powerful thought came from the scientific method I’d been involved in; it teaches one to postulate a theory and then test it. I thought, “I’ll live by the belief that religion is true. Since there’s no proof, I’ll choose the one I want, given the alternative.” Looking back, I’m sure I made the right choice.

What are the highlights of your life in ministry?

Times when I took some leadership in conflict and reconciliation come to mind, such as the ordination of women, the 1979 prayer book, and interim positions where I loved both sides in disputes and refused to become polarized. In one historic church this led to reconciliation between parish members and also between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. In a magnificent ecumenical service on July 4, 1976 on the lawn in front of Trinity, St. Mary’s City, we celebrated the 200th anniversary of our country.

Recently, I had a powerful religious experience. I knew a woman named Gracie, a fellow patient in the nursing part of the Methodist Home here, who cried out constantly, “Help me! Somebody help me!” Once I rolled my wheelchair over and asked her how I could help. “Take me home,” she said.

I explained that I couldn’t because that was her nurse’s job. But from then on we greeted each other whenever we met, she with the plea, “Help me. Help me.” I was deeply moved when I learned that she had died the very evening of a pleasant visit with her family from California. When I went to her service, I introduced myself and asked her son if I could speak. He said, “Yes! She was a distant Episcopalian.” So I told her story observing that her cry, “Help me,” is an elemental call of all human beings. She had been loved in her home growing up and wanted to return, representing all of us who yearn for God. Just like breathing while repeating the Jesus prayer, “Jesus Christ have mercy on me,” her cry repeated with each breath was a prayer of the heart deeply longing for home where she had known love, the meaning of it all.

It occurred to me that an angel passing by heard her prayer, took her by the hand and brought her to God who would give her the love that all of us need, that she so desperately needed.

“And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

(*) The hymn, “We are one in the Spirit,” by Peter Schotes, can be found in a supplemental hymnal, “Songs for Liturgy and More Hymns and Spiritual Songs” published in 1970 by the Join Commission on Church Music of the Episcopal Church.

Margaret M. (“Peggy”) Treadwell, LCSW -C, has been active in the fields of education and counseling for thirty-five years. Following a long association with Dr. Edwin H. Friedman, during which she served on his faculty, she co-edited and helped posthumously publish his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. She creates and leads conferences across the country for bishops, clergy and church lay leaders, helping them to apply family systems concepts to their leadership in diocesan and parish ministry.

Reclaiming the Sabbath

By Jane Carol Redmont

A colleague and I met for lunch recently to discuss diocesan business and enjoy conversation with each other. The meeting took weeks to schedule. As we settled into our meal, the topic shifted to Saturday all-day meetings, attendance at evening and weekend programs, and the time crunch in the lives of church members.

The church, we agreed, was one of the culprits.

My colleague is a parish priest. I teach in a small college and do pastoral work “on the side” as well as at my job. Both of us are involved in leadership at the diocesan level. We both have families we love, friends with whom we try to carve out time, a commitment to prayer. She lives with her husband. I live with a cat equally dedicated to sleep and play.

A little over a year ago, a class of mine read The Sabbath, the classic work by Abraham Joshua Heschel. We studied the Jewish meaning and context of Shabbat and made note of the practices associated with it: a regular weekly rhythm of rest, time for reconnecting with the sacred, festive meals with loved ones, the nurturing of community life, study of holy wisdom and sacred texts, attention to beauty and sensuality, honoring intimacy. I suggested to the students (none of them Jewish) that they try to observe some form of Sabbath time (even one more brief than the traditional 25 hours) and keep a journal about their experience. When the students reported back, many had been unable to find time even for a Sabbath afternoon.

The loss of Sabbath time in our culture is not news. Contemplative spaces are increasingly scarce. The speed of life in the U.S. has been increasing for decades. Cell phones, the internet, and other electronic realities have added to this, although the internet, as this Café attests, can also support the contemplative life. Labor policies and practices have as much to do with our time bind as e-mail and the 24-hour news cycle.

In both the corporate and the nonprofit world, individuals are doing the work that two or three people were doing ten or twenty years ago. Work days and weeks are longer. Arlie Russell Hochschild documented over a decade ago the overlap and blurring of household time and job time. This transformation was taking place long before the World Wide Web threaded its way into our lives. Alone among industrialized nations and unlike more than 130 countries worldwide, the United States has no guaranteed paid holidays mandated by law. Low-wage jobs keep workers under the poverty level and sap their energy, as Barbara Ehrenreich has eloquently reported and David Shipler subsequently noted. The more privileged among us are not exempt from the time crunch. John de Graaf, coordinator of the U.S./Canada Take Back Your Time initiative, has pointed to the yoked phenomena of overwork and “time poverty.”

Is it any wonder we have trouble with attendance at Saturday workshops?

Of course there are other reasons. Sometimes a household member is sick. Sometimes church is a lower priority for people than their children’s soccer games or the NBA playoffs. Sometimes we design our programs poorly. Sometimes our publicity is inadequate. Sometimes the weekday evening or weekend day on which a church program or meeting takes place is the only one on which people can spend time with their families.

My point, though, is the church’s responsibility in the struggle for Sabbath. We contribute to the overscheduling of the culture.

We are between a rock and a hard place: we want our churches to nourish their members, to challenge and educate them, to provide spaces for prayer and opportunities for service and the building of community.

All of this takes time.

To be in the world but not of it has been a challenge for Christian churches since the beginning. For some, being countercultural means not waging war. For others, it means offering a witness on how we live our sexuality. For many, it means both. Both witnesses are based on our discernment of the path to which Christ calls us, but also on an assessment of the signs of the times in the society around us.

On the matter of time, what does it mean for us to be countercultural?

One of the greatest challenges to us as church is to go against the culture’s use of time as a commodity, its business model of program evaluation, and its focus on production and consumption. God loves us. God saves us and makes us whole. God rests on the seventh day. If we decide to embody this as church, what will the shape of our time look like? How will we operate differently from the culture around us?

I am not about to cancel the work of the diocesan anti-racism committee which I chair. I do wonder whether, in addition to an anti-racism audit, we in the churches also need a “Sabbath audit.” The “audit” language is, of course, hardly countercultural. But it helps make my point.

My intuition is that in addressing the problem of overscheduling and the struggle for Sabbath, we will get to the root of our vocation in the world as surely as we do when we address an issue of justice. The lack of time for rest and contemplation is, in fact, a matter of justice – among other things. Protecting Sabbath time may remind us that contemplation and action for justice are neither opposed to one another nor mutually exclusive. Each withers in the other’s absence. Brother Roger, founding prior of the Taizé community, knew this when he spoke of lutte et contemplation, struggle and contemplation, in one breath.

I have no easy response to the Sabbath struggle and the overscheduling of churches. I have only an assessment, some intuitions, and some questions. I also know that the solutions, like the problem, are likely to be systemic and economic as much as “spiritual.”

I also have – it would be more fitting to say “we also have” – the blessed rhythms of the liturgical year, the wisdom and resources of monastic orders, and lessons from sisters and brothers of other traditions, from the Jewish Sabbath to Zen mindfulness practice.
Writers in the Christian tradition have also reflected on the Sabbath from their perspective, with much practical insight. (Dorothy Bass and Tilden Edwards come to mind.)

Read the signs of the times and consider the shape of our time. Think about this one with me. But first, take a deep breath. Take the afternoon off. Then, let’s talk. And listen.

Jane Redmont chairs the Anti-Racism Committee of the Diocese of North Carolina and teaches at Guilford College. A new edition of her book When in Doubt, Sing: Prayer in Daily Life will come out in October. She blogs at Acts of Hope.

Religious freedom in a diverse, secular society

By Luiz Coelho

It took several hours and the hardwork of many skilled professionals to install the huge Vermont-granite monument of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court in Montgomery. The sculpture, which was donated by benefactors, weighed more than five thousand pounds, and the process of installing the monument was so arduous and impressive that it was filmed by professional cameramen. However, despite the difficulties, Chief Justice Roy Stewart Moore was proud to announce to the media on the morning of August 1, 2001, the successful installation of the monument.

This story might sound like an ordinary episode in the history of public administration in the United States. It was not, though. The monument also portrayed, alongside the Judeo-Christian foundations of moral living, quotes from the Declaration of Independence, the United States’ National Anthem, and various sayings of the Founding Fathers. Many were in favor of the creation of the monument; however, many were also opposed to its installation in the Supreme Court rotunda, because they felt it overstepped the bounds of separation of Church and State. Several organizations filed suit in the United States District Court, asking for the removal of such a monument. Moore, who was already known for trying to implement prayer before trials and for taking his own portable Ten Commandments tablets to court, used the powers of his Office to resist the removal of the sculpture as long as he could. However, eight members of the Alabama Supreme Court intervened, unanimously overruled Moore, and ordered the removal of the monument. In the end, both the monument and Judge Moore were removed from the building.

Moore's story is not an isolated case. In several other instances of American public life, the Courts have removed religious symbols, such as crosses, crèches, and ten commandment tablets, from the public square in the last fifty years at least. Prayers in such environments are also heard less frequently. It can be said that in the United States, religion has been playing a less and less important role in public affairs altogether, even though conservative Christians are still seen in prominent circles both in society and the government.

Some see this trend as a direct attack against “traditional American values”, and – at least their perception of – the society that the forefathers of the United States worked to create. They often cite how peaceful and prosperous life was in the past, when “the Christian God” had a place of public honor among Americans. Many would argue, also, that freedom of religion has always been guaranteed by the U. S. Constitution, and that religious minorities have always had the right to build houses of worship. Are these views and arguments valid? Was religious freedom so evident in the past? Or, was it plainly masqueraded by a certain majority who belonged to one kind of faith only, and who created a set of structures to secure it? How worse, or better, are we now?

Like many people of faith, I dearly welcome the advent of real religious freedom, especially because it frees us to deal with symbols related to the religious life. It might be interesting, then, to see some examples of how public expressions of religion actually have changed in the last fifty years, and if they really helped us achieve more tolerance and full separation between church and state.

It would be inconceivable nowadays to demand anyone to hold to a particular religious viewpoint or to express a belief in God in order to hold a public office. Yet, fifty years ago, it was possible for public organizations to have prerequisites that would limit access to such jobs to people of faith only. For example, in the early sixties, Roy Torcaso was denied his appointment as a Notary Public in Maryland because he refused to declare a belief in God. Article 37 of Maryland's Declaration of Rights stated that a declaration of belief in the existence of God was necessary for any office, profit or trust in that state. The case went to the Supreme Court in 1961, and the Justices unanimously found Maryland's requirement a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. That decision established a legal precedent which created a paradigm shift in the role of faith in the public square. From then on, an acknowledgement of a given religious belief ceased to be a prerequisite for public jobs in every part of the country.

Another example of changing attitudes toward the place of religion in the public square during the last fifty years can be seen in the public schools. The elderly can still recall that it was not uncommon to say prayers, sing religious hymns or even have obligatory religious services in public schools. A series of court rulings, however, has changed the possibility of such practices today. These rulings were the results of complaints by citizens, such as a group of parents of students in New Hyde Park, New York, who complained in 1966 that a public prayer to “Almighty God” was against their beliefs. The case, which became known as Engel v. Vitale, went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that government-directed prayers in public schools are a violation of the Establishment cause. Since that ruling, it has become more and more difficult to hear prayers said in public schools, and subsequent attempts to allow them have been defeated in court. Prayers in educational institutions are confined nowadays, to chaplaincies, religious clubs or associations of common-minded people. But, in no case may a person be obliged to participate in public prayers in school.

Such lawsuits and governmental measures have not appeared out of nowhere. They reflect, in fact, a very noticeable paradigm shift on the American religious scene. When the British allowed European settlers to establish colonies in these lands, most of them belonged to Christian religious groups, often Protestant denominations, although some Jewish settlers found a home here as well. With an increasing immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this profile changed to include more Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians. Judeo-Christian religious ideology was still the norm, however, and it is reasonable to say that fifty years ago the overwhelming majority of Americans were Christians, or believers in God. This pattern started to change when immigration from non-Christian countries began to increase.

In their American Religious Identification Survey, researchers at the City University of New York discovered that from 1990 to 2001, the number of people in the United States ,who have a religion other than Christianity increased from 5.8 million to 8.7 million. Such a number, albeit still small, reflects a sizeable minority, which practically did not exist years ago.

Much more significant than the increase in non-Christians is the increase of people who identify as atheist and agnostic. Non-religious people were usually a very small and intellectual minority in the first half of the twentieth century. Today, they compose about fourteen percent of the American population, as pointed out in the aforementioned study, after having more than doubled in size from fourteen million people to practically thirty million people between 1990 and 2001. Together with non-Christians, they compose practically twenty percent of the American population – a percentage that is growing, according to the study.

The gradual secularization of the public square is merely a response to a more religiously diverse society. It is now impossible to ignore non-Christians and those who profess no faith at all. The removal of religious symbols, sometimes under serious protest, is the most neutral answer to a truly pluralistic society, rooted in the freedom of religion articulated in the United States Constitution and several other historical documents of this country.

It has to be said, though, that not only has the percentage of those who identify with a specific religion changed, but the profile of the typical religious American has also changed. In The Fifties Spiritual Marketplace: American Religion in a Decade of Conflict, Robert Ellwood argues that religious traditions in the 1950s were largely intensified by socio-political conditions. He believes that religious organizations used to provide a very important framework upon which families built their lives in the postwar period. Routine religion was part of what was perceived as normalcy, and after all the chaos of previous decades, people needed normalcy. Religion was also seen as the amalgama of American families – especially at a time many families were marked by the loss of beloved relatives. Finally, being religious was a sign of anti-communism; and, the cold war, with all of its implications, was often portrayed as a kind of Armageddon in many households. Back then, religion was completely intertwined with the way society was organized.

However, throughout the last fifty years, a series of movements in American society, such as the sexual revolution, women empowerment, the end of the cold war and fast communications, have drastically changed what Americans might call “family”. What is perceived as a familial arrangement in today’s society does not always correspond to the vision our grandparents shared. There are manifold types of families in our times and a direct genetic link between relatives does not exist in all of them. Families now include both heterosexual and homosexual partners, stepchildren, adopted children, remarried spouses, half-siblings, close friends and a myriad of other groups of people which would take pages to define. Religion, under this new context, is not necessaily the glue that holds families together. Common Sunday after-church luncheons have given way to cell phone calls or even e-mails. And with the rise of the so-called “religious right” in the government, the merger between religion and politics à la the cold war is not viewed favorably in more liberal circles.

Such conclusions are often misinterpreted as the final defeat of religion in the United States. Yet, it can be said that religious freedom was probably never more celebrated and protected in U. S. History as it is in our contemporary, pluralistic society today. The largely-Christian/largely-familial religious environment of the fifties posed a much greater threat to freedom of faith. People were often forced, by social conventions, to follow the same religion (and in many cases, the same denomination) as their parents and grandparents. Marriages often took place within such religious circles, regardles of the true beliefs of the participants. The scenario, nowadays, is markedly different. The latest survey by the Pew Forum of Religious and Public Life reveals an astonishing piece of information: nearly half of American adults leave the faith tradition of their upbringing, either to either switch allegiances or abandon religious affiliation altogether. Roman Catholic and Protestant mainline churches have lost members to newer Christian groups. Those who lack faith, are increasingly comfortable in leaving religious organizations they once belonged to for primarily social reasons. Yet once people find a religion that fulfills their needs, they are moe likely to adhere to it faithfully, and to try to engage in all the possibilities that it provides. Religion is to our generation, therefore, is much more a matter of personal choice than it was fifty years ago.

When the religious spectrum was monolithic, public manifestations of the majority faith were not bothersome to most people. Now, in a much more varied religious climate, it seems logical not to encourage any particular brand of faith in a public space. Thus, the much-criticized secularization of public places is actually an important step toward protecting religious freedom, and creating a more diverse and equaitalbe society. It helps reinforce the values enshrined in the U. S. Constitution and respects people's rights to choose whether to have a faith or be part of a religious institution. It also protects newer churches and religious groups from state-sponsored propaganda of older ones. And, as long as religions have the right to worship in their houses of prayer and act according to their beliefs, their rights are protected. The ongoing changes are definitely for the common good.

Luiz Coelho, a seminarian from the Diocese of Rio de Janero, spends part of the year in the BFA program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His Web site includes his art and his blog, Wandering Christian, on which he examines "Christianity in the third millennium, from a progressive, Latin American and Anglican point of view."

The spiritual life of Grades 3 thru 6

By Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick

What percent of your happiness comes from your spiritual life? Three percent, would you say? Or is the percentage closer to 6.5?

I'm still puzzling over the question. For me the spiritual runs through relationships and moments the way blood circulates around the body, and trying to isolate and measure it as a percentage of happiness sounds as impossible as it would be pointless. But recently two researchers at the University of British Columbia concluded that 6.5 to 16.5 percent of children's happiness can be accounted for by their spirituality. Mark Holder, associate professor of psychology, and Judi Wallace, a graduate student, asked 315 children aged nine to twelve to describe their daily spiritual experiences and private religious practices by rating statements such as “I feel a higher power’s presence,” and answering questions including “How often do you pray or meditate privately outside of church or other places of worship?” Teachers and parents described each student's happiness level and the researchers made the correlations.

Considering that parents' wealth accounts for less than 1 percent of a child's happiness, the 6.5 to 16.5 percent results for spirituality took Wallace and Holder by surprise: “From our perspective, it’s a whopping big effect,” says Holder in a UBC press release. “I expected it to be much less – I thought their spirituality would be too immature to account for their well-being.”
So much for "and a little child shall lead them."

Well, it's easy to poke fun at the percentages. And it's hard for many of us to understand how much statistics like these can possibly mean. The researchers' definition of spirituality as "having an inner belief system" is sadly heady. It seems to ignore the natural, hands-on spiritual connection a child develops through loving relationships, nature, and play. And the scientists' tendency to speak of spirituality as though it were no more than a happiness-enhancement tool is all too familiar these days.

Still, in discussing their research Holder and Wallace zero in on two aspects of children's spirituality. One is a sense of thankfulness. As many parents recognize through table graces and bedtime prayers, in a loving home, the impulse to give thanks is a child's natural spiritual expression. "The prayer of children up to the age of seven or eight is almost exclusively prayer of thanksgiving and praise," noted the Italian Montessori educator Sofia Cavalletti in The Religious Potential of the Child over twenty years ago. "The adult who tries to lead the child to prayers of petition falsifies and distorts the child's religious expression. The child feels no need to ask because he knows himself to be in the peaceful possession of certain goods." When we share our own gratitude and encourage our children to do the same, we help them hold onto it as they grow.

What's even more intriguing is that Wallace and Holder talk about the the anticipation of beauty as an important aspect of children's spiritual lives. In my own workshops on children's spiritual nurture, parents often tell me that their childhood and adolescence experiences of beauty -- in redwood forests, under vast starry skies, at midnight mass -- have been touchstones in their own journeys. Children are far hungrier for these moments than many adults recognize. I still remember how as a ten-year-old I saw Michelangelo's Pieta' under a spotlight in an otherwise dark pavilion at the New York World's Fair. To this day I can picture the gleaming marble and the dramatic beauty of the figures, which took my breath away -- and which had far less impact on me a decade later when I saw the sculpture again in St. Peter's basilica.

Today, with children's lives often structured and scheduled from breakfast till bedtime, many are growing up far removed from nature and immersed in a media culture of banality and violence. The habit of seeking that which is harmonious and inspiring in the world is one that must be nurtured. Children need to move beyond the television, the computer screen, the classroom and the sports field to discover that which is truly awe-inspiring in nature, art, music, dance and literature. Too often we think we need to justify such exposures by claiming they will lead to increased fine-motor development or higher SAT scores. Surely it's enough to know that in sharing these experiences we are helping our children's tender hearts stay open. When we learn to look around us for beauty, we tend to find it in our world, in one another, and in ourselves.

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst and a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, sees couples and individuals in her private practice. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles on the spirituality of relationships, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth and has a website at www.pastoralcounseling.net.

Rethinking Ascension

By George Clifford

Luke’s gospel ends with an unidentified force or actor carrying Jesus up into heaven (Luke 24:51); in John’s gospel, Jesus speaks of his impending ascension (John 20:17), and the book of Acts begins with a retelling of Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:9). Based on those New Testament passages, the Church annually commemorates Jesus’ Ascension into heaven on the fortieth day after Easter. This year, the feast fell on May 1.

From a scientific perspective, the concept of Jesus’ ascension into heaven as depicted in Scripture is nonsensical. If Jesus ascended into heaven, then given the right information an aerospace engineer could calculate heaven’s direction, but not its distance, from earth. The accurate data needed for that calculation includes the geographic point at which the ascension occurred, the hour and minute, day of the year, and year in which the ascension occurred, Jesus’ trajectory into the sky, and the relative location of the solar system and universe within the cosmos at the time of the ascension.

Some might ridicule a literal reading, contending that heaven – the place where Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father – surrounds the cosmos, lying outside space and time. Yet the New Testament ascension narratives presume a flat, three-tiered cosmos consisting of heaven above, earth in the middle, and hell below. Before dismissing my claim that the New Testament presumes a three-story cosmology as wrong, remember the words of the Nicene Creed we Episcopalians (like many other Christians) often say at Holy Eucharist, “he [Jesus] ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” Those who have personally circumnavigated the world know that the earth is round. For others, video and photographic evidence from outer space provides convincing evidence that the earth is spherical. In other words, a basic presumption of the New Testament versions of the ascension is scientifically wrong.

Presupposing that one rejects a literal interpretation of Jesus’ ascension, what better options do twenty-first century Christians have for understanding Jesus’ ascension?

The first option, already mentioned, consists of spiritualizing the ascension, postulating the existence of a spiritual realm that lies outside the space-time continuum. Increasing numbers of people, however, find the idea of a supernatural deity, a deity who exists not only in but beyond the cosmos, unbelievable. Scholars and spiritual leaders like Bishops John A. T. Robinson (Honest to God) and John Spong (Jesus for the Non-Religious) have helpfully articulated why such a belief seems incompatible with other elements of our modern worldview.

A second option is to ignore Jesus’ ascension and hope that others do so as well, an approach that Ascension always falling on Thursday aids. After all, Christianity emphasizes God's presence not absence in the world. Historically, one of the important functions of the ascension was to explain Jesus’ physical absence to people who believed in a physically empty tomb and Jesus’ bodily resurrection. The New Testament specifies that Jesus appeared amongst his disciples for forty days after rising from the dead. When people stopped encountering Jesus, what had happened to him? Novelists and others have imaginatively answered that question, producing a wealth of material. Jesus went to India; he disappeared unknown among peasants elsewhere; etc. Those explanations typically undercut Christianity’s premise that Jesus was not resuscitated but resurrected, receiving a qualitatively new form of life. Thankfully, the feast of Pentecost quickly follows Ascension and ecclesial attention shifts from the absent Jesus to the now present Holy Spirit. This overly facile and dishonest option describes what many contemporary Christians do, especially in Churches without a liturgical calendar or lectionary that forces one to pay at least annual lip service to the ascension.

A third option, my preference, begins by acknowledging the theological difficulties that Jesus’ ascension poses and then re-examines the data. Biblical numerology provides a helpful starting point. The Bible – Old and New Testament alike – associates the number forty with a theologically significant period of extended duration. For example, rain fell for forty days and nights while Noah was in the ark (Genesis 7:4). The Israelites who fled Egypt ate manna for forty years (Exodus 16:35). Moses was forty when he visited his Israelite relatives (Acts 7:23) and then sojourned in the wilderness forty years before his experience of the burning bush (Acts 7:30). Moses spent forty days and nights on the mountain before receiving the Ten Commandments from God (Deuteronomy 9:11). Jesus fasted forty days and nights in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2). Perhaps the forty days the risen Jesus spent with his disciples points to an indefinite but considerable period of time following Jesus’ crucifixion in which the disciples experienced Jesus’ presence with them. They experienced Jesus in a new, radically different manner, a manner that the disciples did not know how to describe, a manner that transformed their despair over his death into the hope that built the Church. So the disciples grasped the metaphor of resurrection as a way to speak about their new experience of Jesus (see my earlier Episcopal Café essay, “Resurrection, Not Resuscitation”). In time, the disciples’ experiences of Jesus in this new way diminished in frequency and dimmed in intensity. Ascension became the accepted metaphor for explaining why that had happened.

Metaphors and other figures of speech are the only way in which humans can speak of God because our language, by definition, is human language and God is not human. Our perspective as humans is perhaps equally or even more limited than language. Twenty-first century Christians need offer no apologies for finding first century metaphors highly problematic. The first century metaphor of resurrection presumes a worldview in which gods often have or assume human form, an idea common to both the Greek and Roman pantheons. Similarly, the three-storied cosmos ascension presumes was intrinsic to the dominant first century worldview.

The note that I hear most clearly and loudly in the New Testament ascension narratives is that the disciples, post-resurrection, were utterly convinced that the Jesus story had not yet reached its end. They believed that God would write at least one more chapter in the Jesus story. Our Eucharistic prayers affirm this belief in a story for which the conclusion has yet to be written with some form of the proclamation that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

The Rev. George Clifford, a retired priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years.

Proof enough

By Heidi Shott

Last Sunday evening my family and three others gathered for a picnic supper at the old farmstead that serves as the headquarters of the Damariscotta River Association, a conservation land trust here on Maine’s midcoast.

The main reason for our gathering, besides sharing a meal and one another’s company, was to search for spring peepers (pseudacris crucifer) and wood frogs (rana sylvatica) in the DRA’s fresh water marsh just below the farmhouse. Our friend Tom, a biologist, had led a walk in search of frogs and salamanders just two nights before that drew 40 people. His friends, we losers, had missed it, so he and his children, Andrew and Jenny, agreed to host a private peeper hunt.

Among our party was Mamiko, a woman in her late fifties who came from Japan to spend this school year teaching Japanese and learning English at our local high school. She lives with our friends Ned and Denise and their sons Abe and Lucas.

By the time we finished our potluck meal, the sun was setting over the tidal river beyond the treeline. As we donned hats and zipped jackets, Tom and Andrew stopped to put on waders. I looked down at my Converse All Stars (white) and my sons’ sneakers and experienced a moment of maternal inadequacy. I looked over at my husband Scott and knew, after almost 23 years of practice, that he was just along for the company… if he didn’t get his feet wet and see the diminutive peeper up close, that was just fine with him.

Mamiko was wrapped in her full length winter jacket but hatless. On my way out of the house, I had grabbed several wool beanies and still had one in the car. It had been a beautiful spring day but now the air chilled to remind us that spring is a fickle friend to Mainers.

“I will get a hat for you, Mamiko,” I gestured the universal sign for hat and ran off. A moment later, with peepers in full voice as dusk dropped quickly upon us, I returned to her. Everyone else had started down the hill to the marsh: Andrew, who is 12, swinging his long-handled net marched ahead and Audrey, who is two, tried to keep up with the big kids despite the uneven grass.

“Not many Americans get to do this kind of thing,” I told Mamiko. “This is special. This is rare.” She turned to me as we walked along.

“I know,” she said, smiling in her shy way. “I am very happy.” And forgetting to be reserved with her, I put my hand on her shoulder.

Earlier Tom had explained that the call of the spring peeper is pitched so high that it makes it almost impossible to identify where the sound is coming from. “They’re only an inch long and you can practically look right at one without seeing it.” Now, down at the marsh’s edge, everyone fanned out with flashlights. After five minutes we’d found a lot of big spiders but no frogs whatsoever. In the dark I’d lost my husband, sons, and Mamiko, but found myself beside my five year-old godson, Lucas, whose responsible and loving mother had supplied him with a headlamp and rubber boots.

“Okay, Lukie, I’m depending on you to find a peeper.”

“I can hear them but I can’t see them,” he said, earnest but exasperated.

“We’re going to have to go closer to the water. Tom said they’d be in the water or on the grass at the edge.” As I stepped closer, a surge of frigid marsh water seeped into my All Stars and socks. I trained my flashlight on the tufts of grass that made cozy little inlets for frogs and searched. After another few minutes in the deafening roar of lovesick frogs, I heard Lucas’s brother call out to him and off he stomped in hope of allying himself with someone with better luck and eyesight.

Alone, I realized that the only way I was going to get close enough was if I knelt down in the water. Another plunge and my left leg, knee to ankle, was soaked. Argh. My flashlight probed every little nook of the brown marsh grass for the evidence of just one of the gajillion tiny amphibians making all this racket. It’s obvious that they’re here, so why do I feel compelled to see one? How uncomfortable must I become before I’m rewarded with the proof.

After another few moments, I decided to try something. I switched off my light and in a few seconds, I heard a call that was just inches away. I hit the button with a “haHA!” but nothing. I tried it again and the little voice returned from a tuft near my left hand. On with the flashlight, a quick grab, a plop. My light picked up a tiny frog doing a froggy kick in the water. Splash as my hand went in and came up with nothing. Well, I saw the critter at least. That would have to do.

Standing up, dripping, cold and happy, I heard a commotion 20 feet away. Andrew had succeeded in catching one in the water. He sloshed over to the edge of the marsh in his waders and we gathered around. “Bring it inland so I can see,” I heard my husband call from higher ground.

There it was, a tiny frog, just as we’d been told.

How powerful is this need to see with our own eyes, to feel, to taste, to hear, to smell. Though the aural evidence of the presence of peepers was overwhelming, a sound I’ve welcomed every spring of my life, the urge to actually see one and – better still – to hold one for a few seconds was strong. It was strong enough to compel me to get my shoes and jeans soaking wet in the chill of a spring evening, to turn off my flashlight and kneel alone in the dark. It’s not a far leap to liken this human requirement for evidence to how we demand such proof from God.

Though when it comes to delivering sensory input, it’s hard to beat the Episcopal Church. The feel of an oil-slickened thumb making the sign of the cross on your forehead; the smell of smoke emanating from the thurible; the sweet taste of the wine; the swell of a well-played organ or a practiced choir; and the sight of the backs and shoulders of your loved-ones – or, better yet, strangers – as they kneel at the rail and wait for their turn or intimate gaze of people’s eyes as you offer the chalice to their lips.

These physical points of confirmation give us license to believe the unbelievable. They embolden us to make choices that the world deems foolish. They feed us enough in the way of faith to last until we become faint and doubting again and then provide the space to return to be replenished, week after week, year after year.

ee cummings had it right:

how should tasting touching hearing seeing breathing any--lifted from the no of all nothing--human merely being doubt unimaginable You?

Even if Andrew hadn’t caught a peeper to show around, seeing the quick flash of the little frog in the mucky water would have been enough.

I think of my young friend Lucas for whom I couldn’t deliver the goods. Despite my willingness to soak my shoes and pant legs for our efforts, he went over to the big boys who could. But still he’s my friend. In fact, as we climbed back up the hill, he told me and Mamiko all about it. And the warmth of his mittened hand resting securely in mine is proof enough to last awhile.

Heidi Shott has served as press officer to Bishop Chilton Knudsen of Maine since 1998. Her essays about trying to live a life of faith may be found at Heidoville.

Mother in Heaven

By Luiz Coelho

A few months ago, after Evensong, I decided to do one of my “favorite” Sunday night activities – grocery shopping. There I was in one of Midtown Atlanta’s supermarkets strolling my buggy, drinking my latte and trying to get everything I needed as fast as I could. Until, at a certain moment, my eyes were attracted to a cute little girl, with a big smile and curly hair, who was fascinated with a basket full of multicolored tie-dye balls in front of her.

As I contemplated in awe the beauty of innocence, a horrifying thought suddenly came to my mind: “where are this girl's parents?” I was not the only one to wonder where they were; within seconds the little child also realized that she was alone in the midst of strangers. Immediately her smile was erased from her face, and my heart started aching as I heard her begin to yell desperately, “Mommy, Mommy!”

Thankfully, within seconds a young woman came from behind a pile of products and hugged the frightened girl. Everything was alright; Mommy was there. My heart settled in peace as that same wide smile that had first caught my attention came back to the child's face as she was embraced by the one who has loved her for her whole life. Since that Sunday night, I have not been able to erase that scene from my mind; and, the reason, I believe, is because through it God has been speaking to me.

That scene speaks a prophetic message to me and to all of us ‘adults’ that even when we pretend to believe we are strong and self-sufficient, we know deep down that we are as lonely, frighened, and vulnerable as that little lost girl. There are moments when we walk away from God and think we can live our lives apart from God; yet, even in those moments when we think we are capable of controling our own lives, our hearts are crying and we too are yelling, “Mommy, Mommy, where are you?”

It happened to me; I can still remember it vividly. I was serving in the Brazilain Army and was on a flight from Manaus, in the Amazon, to Brasília, in order to take part in a “War Games” symposium. I boarded the plane, confident in the power of humankind, knowing that it would arrive to its destination safely, since it was a safe aircraft and the weather was wonderful. That's not what happened, though. As the plane flew through the Amazon forest, it found itself being sucked by an unpredictable low-pressure zone, and went deeply into freefall. Passengers screamed; dishes, bags and even a baby were flying around us. A woman on my right side held my arm so tightly that it hurt. I knew that there was no way of surviving. Even if we landed in the forest, it would still be in the middle of nowhere and our chances of surviving in the wild were nearly impossible. At that moment, I knew that nothing that human beings had ever developed or created would be able to save me. All of the things in which I had placed my trust were powerless to help me. I was defenseless and scared.

And then I decided to pray. It was nothing more than a simple sentence: “God, into your hands I commend my life.” It was my first prayer in years, as I had given up on “church” and walked away from God. But, I can say those words were probably the deepest and truest ones my mouth had ever said. Only God knows why, but the plane shook hard, and found its track back on course. Everybody was safe again. Even the baby who was flying over our heads was rescued and restored to his mother. My life (and probably the other passengers' lives too) would never be the same, though.
I think most of us have been through similar situations. An accident, a disease, the death of a loved one – each of these moments, and other tragic moments like them, remind us that we are nothing but children running around carelessly, until we find ourselves apparently lost, and begin to scream for our parents. The pain of human impotence and the realization that we human beings are powerless towards such situations bring us the scariest, deepest fears. Even our Lord Jesus in the fulness of his human nature, felt the fear and pain of his abandonment and loneliness on the cross and he too screamed to God in agony.

The good news, however, is that it does not end there. We are not left in our despair, and neither was Our Lord Jesus. As we go through Eastertide, let us not forget that the greatest rescue took place in Jesus Christ's Resurrection. God did not forsake the forsaken One on the cross; God heard the cries of agony, and raised Jesus Christ on the third day. Christ is risen indeed, and the power of sin and death is no longer upon us. We, who were lost, are now found; as the mother was at there in the supermarket to rescue her child, so God is always present to rescue us to new life.

After that moment in the airplane, I knew there was someone who really cared about me. Soon, I began to view all of those Christian beliefs and Biblical stories that I had been taught in my youth and had cast aside as a set of irrational children's tales in a new light. I began to relaize that they meant something; and I rediscovered truths that I will never forget.
Throughout my life, I have seen the Risen Christ with his message of hope even in the midst of despair. He has been there through the prayers of friends, through the tears in the eyes of my family, through the intercession of his Blessed Mother, though hymns, icons and scripture verses... and in my heart, always giving me a reason to live and have hope that in the end, all will be well. I can not say my life is perfect, but I know, now, that I have a “mother in Heaven” who will always come to me with a healing embrace when I cry out in moments of despair.

Our highest Father, God Almighty, who is ‘Being’, has always known us and loved us: because of this knowledge, through his marvellous and deep charity and with the unanimous consent of the Blessed Trinity, He wanted the Second Person to become our Mother, our Brother, our Saviour.

It is thus logical that God, being our Father, be also our Mother. Our Father desires, our Mother operates and our good Lord the Holy Ghost confirms; we are thus well advised to love our God through whom we have our being, to thank him reverently and to praise him for having created us and to pray fervently to our Mother, so as to obtain mercy and compassion, and to pray to our Lord, the Holy Ghost, to obtain help and grace.

I then saw with complete certainty that God, before creating us, loved us, and His love never lessened and never will. In this love he accomplished all his works, and in this love he oriented all things to our good and in this love our life is eternal.

With creation we started but the love with which he created us was in Him from the very beginning and in this love is our beginning.

And all this we shall see it in God eternally.

Blessed Julian of Norwich

Luiz Coelho, a seminarian from the Diocese of Rio de Janero, spends part of the year in the BFA program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His Web site includes his art and his blog, Wandering Christian, on which he examines "Christianity in the third millennium, from a progressive, Latin American and Anglican point of view."

Salvation and spin class

By Melody Wilson Shobe

A few months ago, I began going to spin classes at the local YMCA as part of my exercise routine. Spinning is a group exercise class in which an instructor leads a group of people on stationary bikes through a cycling routine designed to simulate an actual bike ride. The students increase or decrease the resistance on their bikes to imitate climbing hills, sprinting, or intervals. It is a great workout, and usually a lot of fun. My husband and I make a habit of going to a particular class on Thursday nights, because it’s the one night of the week that neither one of us has a standing church commitment.

On Maundy Thursday, however, we had a service in the evening. So I decided to try the Thursday morning spin class instead. Little did I know, the Thursday morning class is “Devotion in Motion:” an hour-long spin class during which the instructor plays praise and worship music and talks about God. The instructor, a layperson who attends a local non-denominational church, uses the idea of a bike ride as a metaphor for the spiritual life to direct his devotional comments throughout the class.

The class was problematic for a number of reasons. The first problem was merely a matter of my personal taste. The instructor, who seemed like he was a very nice guy, had the unfortunate habit of singing along to snatches of the praise music pulsing through the room. This in itself would not be so bad, except for the fact that the instructor in spin classes wears a headset microphone in order to give directions to the class. So, throughout the class, interspersed with the instructions, we got a miniature concert. It was all a little too Brittany Spears for me.

The second problem was purely practical. As I mentioned earlier, spinning is a class in which “the students increase or decrease the resistance on their bikes to imitate climbing hills, sprinting, or intervals.” This instructor, however, starting telling us to increase the resistance on our bikes from the minute we began riding. Then he kept yelling, “Increase!” every two minutes for the rest of the class. By fifteen minutes in, I was at the maximum amount of resistance on my bike, waiting for him to tell us to decrease so that we could build back up. By twenty-five minutes, I was physically incapable of riding at maximum speed any longer. As a spiritual metaphor, it didn’t work very well for me; if, in fact, my faith journey is like a bike ride, it has both hills and valleys, steep climbs and long smooth descents. My relationship with God, at least, has not been all uphill. But regardless of the spiritual implications, it certainly didn’t work as an exercise regime. Asking a room full of people, some of whom have never been on a spin bike before, to “increase” every two minutes is neither feasible nor safe.

But my biggest problem with the class that I attended was theological. It was obvious from the beginning that the instructor and I differed on a number of theological points. He spent a good bit of time talking about the lies that the Enemy (you could actually hear the capitol E) whispers in our ears, which revealed a different understanding of evil than mine. He made a remark about God conquering your depression that revealed a different understanding than I have about mental health. But our theological differences weren’t an obstacle until, in between repeatedly saying, “Increase,” he yelled, “There is no ‘I can’t’ in the spiritual vocabulary!”

I almost fell off of my bike. In the midst of Holy Week, those words struck a deeply dissonant chord inside of me. Because “I can’t” is what Good Friday is all about. When we look at the cross, we are forced to acknowledge that Jesus did something there on that day that I cannot do for myself. And the same is true of Easter and the empty tomb; resurrection is something I can’t do. The transformation of places of death into places of life, the victory over death and the grave, life after death: these are all things that I cannot reach or accomplish. Through his life, death, and resurrection, God does for me something that I can’t do for myself.

In fact, I think the words “I can’t” aren’t just Holy Week words, or Easter words. They are the foundational words of the life of faith. They are integral, not inimical, to the spiritual journey. I grew up going to Baptist summer camp, and each summer counselors would give their testimonials, telling us how they had been saved. As an Episcopalian, I had a great discomfort with that language. But I was also uncomfortable because I felt out of place. My counselors always seemed to have dramatic stories: they had been saved from a life enslaved to drugs or alcohol, they had been saved from illness or injury or anorexia, they had been saved from dangerous or depressing home situations. My own life seemed, by contrast, inadequate and boring. Just what, exactly, was there for God to save me from?

It took me a long time to figure it out. But now, when I’m asked to talk in “salvationspeak,” I tell people that God saved me from thinking I could ever save myself. As an oldest child, I’ve always worked extra hard to be good and do the right thing; I’m the classic over-achiever. But through the years I’ve come to know there’s nothing I can do to earn God’s love, and nothing I can do to make God love me less. God saved me by teaching me to say: “I can’t.”

Holy Week is over, and my Thursday evening is open again. I’m back to my usual spin class this week, and I think from here on out, I’ll try to keep my spinning and my salvation separate.

The Rev. Melody Wilson Shobe is Assistant Rector at a church in the Diocese of Texas. She is a graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary and is married to fellow priest The Rev. Casey Shobe.

Our fast is their feast

By Luiz Coelho

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" Jesus answered, "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand." Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus said to him, "One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you." For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, "Not all of you are clean."

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, `Where I am going, you cannot come.' I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

“Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner...” This Bible passage has always been one of the most striking to me in my whole life. I recall not receiving communion several times, when I felt not able (or willing) to allow God to free myself from a certain sin, whether it was a personal one or even a collective one. And I know this might be a very countercultural behavior, especially at a time sin has been apparently forgotten by many, and confession has become a rare event in peoples' lives.

However, it is my firm belief that there is no other way of behaving with respect to the magnificent care expressed by Jesus on that night right before he was betrayed, than with utmost respect and awe for his unconditional love towards us.

Acts of love are usually enhanced by unpredictable circumstances under which they happen, and the events that happened on that Thursday night were no different from that. The first of them was the washing of the feet. I imagine how shocked the disciples were to see their master, the Messiah, humbly washing their feet. Yes, the one who had taught them so much, was acting as if he were a simple servant. What they did not know, however, was that Jesus, on that night, was teaching them the most important lesson of all... a new commandment that resumed and consolidated his message so far.

“Love one another as I love you.” The strength of such a commandment goes far beyond our typical understanding of love. Jesus' love is so deep that it reaches even the one who would betray him hours later. His humility is so impressive that he does not care to wash tired and dirty feet, probably full of wounds and scars. Are we really following Jesus' new commandment and this new vision of love? It is easy for us to say that we love our neighbor, and in fact, many of us repeat those verses every Sunday. It is easy to strike our chests and claim we have given a certain amount of our money to the local shelter, a hospice in Guatemala or even for the Millenium Development Goals, but would we be willing to leave the ease of modern life and share all we have with the miserable? Would we live a simple life and truly be brothers and sisters of those who have no more than rice and beans to eat? Would we go to the slums and proclaim the Gospel to those for whom life has become a source of constant pain? Would we reach those who we should hate (and who hate us), whomever they are, and yet tell them we love them as Jesus loves all of us?

No, we would not. During Lent, we were theoretically called to fast, and give up on simple things that are important to us. However, how many times have we caught ourselves complaining about how hard it is to do that. How many times have we almost failed? It is difficult, it is very difficult to leave our comfort zone and realize that, for many people around the globe, our lenten fast is much fancier than what they will have in their whole lives. Do we really care? Do we really manifest this love Jesus has commanded us to show?

The apex of this love is expressed in the simple meal Jesus shared with his disciples shortly after he washed their feet. More than a memorial supper of bread and wine, more than a simple act of thanksgiving, the institution of the Holy Eucharist became a way through which Jesus' disciples could recapitulate his final act of self giving love for humankind. By giving his body and blood, he offered himself in sacrifice for us, and made us part of his own body. He shared our pain, and even in spite of all the suffering that was about to come, he was still able to love unconditionally.

The Eucharist should mean more to us than a weekly ceremony. It is the spiritual food that nourishes us and prepares us truly to be Jesus' disciples. When we take part of Jesus' body and blood, we commit ourselves to follow him with all our heart, live according to his commandment and flood this world with Christ's love. The same meal he instituted that night is a continuous reminder that, even not being perfect, we ought to struggle to be worthy of such unconditional love.

Maundy Thursday, more than a simple ceremony or a light meal, is a calling. As we remember Jesus' last moments with his disciples before his arrest, we are called to be worthy of such a wondrous love. We are called to truly love all humankind, sacrificing our own selfish desires for the common good. We are called to go to the slums and proclaim Jesus' message to the outcasts of society. We are called to embrace our enemies and to love them with all our heart. We are called to love the sick, the hungry and the needy. We are called to make a difference, and show to the world what Christ's love is about.

Luiz Coelho, a seminarian from the Diocese of Rio de Janero, spends part of the year in the BFA program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His Web site includes his art and his blog, Wandering Christian, on which he examines "Christianity in the third millennium, from a progressive, Latin American and Anglican point of view."

Talk of graves

By Roger Ferlo

I once produced a student performance of an old play of the crucifixion. It was part of the great York Mystery Cycle, a play that used to be performed every year on the feast of Corpus Christi in the streets surrounding York Minster in the late middle ages. Each play in the mystery cycle, ranging from Creation to Revelation, was assigned by tradition to a particular trade guild. The Crucifixion play was assigned, as I recall, appropriately enough, to the Pinners, stout Yorkshiremen whose trade was nail-making. It is a brilliant script, with the four pinners, dressed as Roman soldiers, carrying on a spirited, even comical dialogue in thick and racy Yorkshire dialect all the while they are nailing Jesus to the cross. The actor playing Jesus remains silent through almost the whole proceeding. The script sounds scandalous, characters cracking jokes as they go about their sordid business. (There is an odd, uncomfortable resonance with the way some of American soldiers at Abu Ghraib used their silent and abused prisoners as the butt of their obscene jokes.) The contrast between the profanity of the torturers and the solemn silence of Jesus was not as disgusting as the scene at Abu Ghraib, but nonetheless disturbing enough.

My students performed the play with no sets, under a naked light-bulb in a college basement. The walls were painted black, the only prop a broomstick that the student playing Jesus carried across his shoulders, his arms stretched out to each end. There were no seats for the audience; we gathered around the action in an uneasy circle, our silence matching the silence of the central figure. No one wanted to appear complicit in the action, but standing there watching it and not intervening seemed to imply we were somehow involved. We knew it was just a play after all, but it left us profoundly troubled. When the action ended, the Jesus figure was left standing there, his arms outstretched on the broomstick, bare feet on the floor, still maintaining silence. You have to understand that there was no attempt at realism here, no stage blood, no simulated groaning. Just the dignity of silence underscoring the enormity of the act. When the student actor finally broke his pose and walked out of the circle we had formed, we all saw the imprint of his sweaty feet on the floor, and for the longest time, not one of us moved or spoke a word. And when we finally did move, no one dared to enter the circle, or to step on the place where the sweat stains had by then disappeared.

I have another story about Jesus’ silence to share with you, this one far removed from a student workshop production performed in the safety of an Ivy League college.

Over ten years ago now a news article appeared in The New York Times that became for me a Good Friday Parable of the Unspeakable. It’s also a parable that forces us to explore—as this gospel does—what you might call the geography of evil. For years now the story has occupied a silent place in my skull, like a dispatch from Golgotha.

In spring of 1996 a reporter named Mike O’Connor gained access to a field outside the Bosnian town of Srbrenica. A lot has happened since 1996, but memory runs long in that part of the world. You still might remember the disastrous story of that sad town. During the ugly, bloody wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, the UN had tried to protect Srbrenica as a “safe town,” a place where people could escape from the so-called ethnic cleansing by which Christian Serbs were trying to wipe out Muslim Bosnians from the area. The UN policy was a disaster. UN forces did almost nothing to stop the slaughter—they more or less looked on in horror, like bystanders at Golgotha. An international war crimes tribunal had determined that anywhere from 3,000 to 8,000 Muslim men had been driven from their homes and executed in this field by Christian Serb militia. The Times ran a photograph of the site. It looked terribly ordinary, nothing like a Golgotha. The land was flat, plain, with a small copse of trees visible in the background. But reports that had trickled in from survivors said that the landscape had recently been altered. You could see in the photograph that the ground was broken and rutted in spots, as if it had been dug up, moved and replaced by heavy equipment. O’Connor describes the scene with an eye for detail that is almost as vivid as Dante’s, who knew something about killing grounds:

Clinging to chunks of dirt, some piled in mounds three feet high, are pieces of sod and delicate yellow flowers growing at unnatural angles, suggesting that the dirt was broken and piled up after it was covered by new spring plants….Near the larger field was a pile of what first appeared to be rubbish, but tangled among the bits of garbage were strips of multicolored cloth, about three feet long. These matched the published descriptions of blindfolds that survivors say were put on the victims by the killing squads. Also in the pile were berets like those frequently used by older Muslim men. On one beret was a set of Muslim prayer beads, and near them was a cane nicely carved from a tree branch.

Clearly, there had been bodies buried there, and someone had ordered them moved—covering the evidence of this deepest crime by digging it up. The whole story has a Dantesque ring to it. Even the names of the commanders involved have an allegorical resonance. Here in the killing field, where hate-filled Christians betrayed and murdered terrorized Muslims, the spokesman for the war crimes investigation bore the name of Christian Chartier, a name that translates into English as Christian the Mapmaker, as if he had been assigned to map the geography of evil. And the colonel in command of the American forces who were patrolling the area was named, of all things, John Baptiste. As they say, you can’t make this kind of thing up. It would all be high comedy if it weren’t so horrific. The headline to the Times' story said it all: Disturbed Dirt in Bosnia Refuels Talk of Graves.

Why resurrect a story like this? Why refuel talk of graves, this close to Easter?

Recall the words of Jesus’ companion on the cross. Remember me. In a world with a minimum attention span, where one atrocity replaces the next in public memory with alarming regularity, it’s important to remember the anonymous and silent dead of Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda, or Darfur. It seems to me that if we are going to make sense out of Jesus’ silence, if we claim any right to play at the empty tomb on Easter morning, we need to remember his companions in suffering. We cannot in good faith re-encounter the silence of Jesus in these latter days without encountering the silence of the victims who came after him. You can hear in Jesus’ silence the silence of victims everywhere, victims of war and oppression and ethnic cleansing who are mostly nameless to us, silent skulls lined up in rows in a warehouse in Cambodia, silent bones in a mass grave in Bosnia or Rwanda or Darfur. Only their bones are at liberty to speak, and not just through DNA and other forensic tests. They bear mute testimony to the unspeakable. Their silence is Jesus’ silence, His silence theirs. Confronted with such pain, for us to keep silence would condemn us. Remember me. Remember me.

"By grace we become
what God is by nature"

By Greg Jones

Christians believe that the destiny and goal of the disciple is reconciliation into God – dwelling fully with God in the Kingdom. We have been called to follow Jesus on this way.

There is a term called 'theosis' which I like a great deal – it has to do with the process of becoming holy. Athanasius says, "By Grace we become what God is by nature."

The journey towards eternal holiness begins thus in the natural birth of each human being, granted by God in creation the supreme gift of being created in God's likeness, "giving them a portion even of the power of His own word," as Athanasius writes. That process continues further, we believe, by gracious entrance into the mystical Body of Christ (the Church) through Baptism, where by God's grace we've been included in that community of the Word's special presence for the sake of the world. And just as the new birth of Baptism brings us into this gracious fellowship of the Incarnation, we are called to further mature within it into the full stature of Christ.

Wisdom commends that without our own effort at discipleship – our own effort to become mature disciples – our faith is almost certainly dead. In other words, disciples are called to unite our will, thought and action with God's for the sake of our own growing up — for the sake of the world's good — for the sake of the lost, oppressed, poor, hungry, sick and alone. In the process of our own maturation into fuller likeness of Christ, it is expected that we do what he calls us to do. It is expected that we follow the Master.

It is required that we repent of the sin of our own pride and willfulness which seeks to do us in from the moment of our natural birth, beyond the moment of our new birth, and unto the moment of our final breath.

Our Church teaches that discipleship requires membership in the community of the Body of Christ (the Church) that is active and living, including especially regularly partaking in the Eucharist, prayers, ministry and mission of the one Body, and enjoining the Body's fellowship of grace and joy. It only makes sense that we who follow Jesus should be seeking to invite all human beings into this community of the Incarnate Word — not from a spirit of conquest but in a spirit of truly gracious love and invitation to union with the Word of God in Christ.

As we approach Lent - let us rejoice that we have not been left alone to stand blessed by our Creation in God's image yet besmirched by our own desire to recreate ourselves according to our own will. Let us rejoice that the Word became flesh, taking on the power of corruption, defeating it, and offering us a place in which to dwell so that we might ever more become like Him in all ways - in this world and the next.

Lent is a time, I believe, to daily repent of one's individual sin, but to seek daily new connection not only the implanted Word within, but to the Body of Christ - the Church - which itself is our locus of salvation and the community of the Kingdom on earth.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ("Greg") was educated at the University of North Carolina and the General Theological Seminary, where he is on the Board. Greg is rector of St. Michael's Raleigh, and author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004). He blogs at fatherjones.com.

Coming out of hiding
as a Christian

By Roger Ferlo

What are you looking for? It’s a question that tends to get asked in Episcopal churches this time of year, when we gear up for what we quaintly call Inquirers’ Classes in hopes of swelling our numbers a bit with new recruits. The answers are as various as the people who find their way into the rector’s study, once they manage to negotiate their lonely passage past the vast sea of backs that greets them at the parish coffee hour . “What are you looking for?” we want to ask, knowing full well that more often than not the answer is “I’m not sure.” My experience over the years leading many such classes is that the answer people are trying to articulate is not “I am looking for something” but rather that “Something—someone—is looking for me.” It’s an unsettling place to be.

Like the seekers (and the sought) in our Inquirer Classes, Jesus asked a lot of questions too. People tended to listen closely when he asked them, if only because his questions almost invariably put them on edge, left them scrambling for answers. Who is neighbor to the wounded man? Who would cast the first stone? Whose face is on that coin? Will you lay down your life for me? Where have you laid the body? What are you looking for?

I’ve always admired the presence of mind that allowed two of Jesus’s earliest followers to answer this last probing question with another question. The story gets told in the first chapter of John’s gospel, which tends to be read in church this time of year. You would think that they might have answered him this way: I’m looking for answers. I’m looking for secret knowledge. I’m looking for ways to improve my life, to lose weight, to get a degree, to feel needed, or to feel loved, or to stop hating myself, or to feel vindicated, or to escape my life, or to make money, or to find someone to love, or be on the right side ant the right time when everything hits the fan and I’m left to pick through the pieces.

But that’s not what happens in the story. When Jesus approached two potential inquirers to ask them what they were looking for, what they said was not “I am looking for X, or Y, or Z.” They instead answered his question with another question: “Where are you staying?” Now this is an incredibly foolish response. They know almost nothing about this man, and what they did know about him meant that to ask where he was staying was to ask for trouble. They had just heard John the Baptist call him the Lamb of God. Given what they knew about sacrificial lambs, they should have been running for cover. Because the Lamb of God will by definition be wounded, sacrificed, destroyed, and anyone who stays the course with the Lamb will be wounded, sacrificed, destroyed as well.

So much for the quaint safety of a rector’s Inquirers’ Class. To enter the place where Jesus dwells means to answer a summons not to self-improvement or self-actualization, but to a world of risk and pain and the fear of loss, and at the same time to claim that it’s there, in that world, that you will find a peace that passes all understanding. To seek Jesus where Jesus stays, where Jesus lives, is to come out of hiding—to take the risk of loving yourself, and loving your neighbor, even your neighbor who hates you. To come to Jesus where Jesus lives is to enter the public realm.

Of course, given the idiocies that pass for Christian thinking in political speeches these days, entering the public realm as a Christian is the last thing any of us might want to do. But coming out of hiding as a Christian doesn’t necessarily make you a right-wing Republican. When this story got told in church this past Sunday, it coincided by sheer coincidence with the commemoration of Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King was a lot of things to a lot of people, and at this late date his memory has been mythologized and sterilized and romanticized past all recognition. But he knew how to answer Jesus’ question—he knew what it meant to come out of hiding as a Christian. He knew what it meant to be sought. What are you looking for, Martin? I’m looking for justice. Where do you seek it? I seek it here, now, with you, in this time and in this place, in the name of the God who does not know black from white, rich from poor, except when the difference betokens the sin of injustice, and then with the Lamb of God broken and sacrificed and resurrected I will make no peace with oppression.

We know a lot now about Martin Luther King, in some ways too much, and in many ways too little. One thing we know for sure is that he made no claim to perfection. To respond to Jesus’ question the way he did was not to claim perfection—it was to guarantee that his every imperfection would be revealed. Imperfection of motives. Imperfection of desires. Imperfection of language. Imperfection of intention. How much easier to remain quiet, intimidated by the loudest voices claiming perfection for themselves, to answer the question “What are you looking for” with the standard religious response to which all of us fall prey, no matter where we position ourselves on the religious or political spectrum: “ I’m looking for what’s in it for me.”

That answer’s not good enough any more, as if it ever was. To visit Jesus where Jesus lives, even the smallest act of boldness—parrying one racist remark, countering one xenophobic rant, standing up for one impoverished child, offering just one alternative to the self-centered anger and fear-mongering and scapegoating that bedevils American religion as much as American politics--even the tiniest act of grace will reveal what Jesus called God’s kingdom as it breaks in upon us.

What else in the end is worth looking for?

The Rev. Dr. Roger Ferlo is Professor of Religion and Culture, Associate Dean and director of the Institute for Christian Formation and Leadership at Virginia Theological Seminary.

Living the questions

By Ann Fontaine

A few weeks ago I was challenged about my faith as a Christian because I question many of the central tenets of the church and love to debate the meaning of Christ in my life. A quote of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke came to mind as I was pondering this challenge. He wrote:

...I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903
in Letters to a Young Poet

Living the questions is the pathway to faith for me. I feel compelled to ask questions, to debate points of religious scholarship and to ask questions about scripture, faith, theology, belief and all things told to us by the church. It is not possible to shut down the questions that occur. I find discussions of history, culture, literary style, translation, fascinating and strengthening to my faith. To others this may seem as though I don't believe but I could not believe until I found people who were asking questions instead of giving me answers.

The idea of multiple paths for a faith journey was clarified for me when I read a book by Urban "Terry" Holmes, the late Dean of The School of Theology at Sewanee: the University of the South. A History of Christian Spirituality, postulates four paths by which people seek the experience of the Holy One. I call these paths social justice, logical, emotional, and mystical. Each is a pathway to enter into a closer relationship with God. Holmes laid this out on a grid with one axis being Apophatic (self-emptying) to Kataphatic (quest for vivid images). The other axis is Speculative (cognitive) to Affective (emotional). Each quadrant contains two of the four paths.

Social justice is found in the quadrant formed by the Apophatic and Speculative axes. It is the path of liberation theology, bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth; it is peace and justice oriented with a prophetic call to care for the “widows and orphans.” The logical path is found between the Speculative and Kataphatic axes. It values knowledge, theological reflection, seeking one’s vocation, and liturgy that connects with history. The emotional path is located between the Kataphatic and Affective axes. Followers in this path describe it as from the heart, a walk with the Lord, valuing witness and testimony, verbal and spontaneous prayer, speaking in tongues, and baptism in the Spirit. The mystical path can be liturgical or contemplative. It seeks union with God through meditation, symbolic actions, through the creation, and finding God within.

Initially, a person is attracted by one of these pathways but as one grows deeper in faith he or she comes closer to the center and closer to those on other paths. Any of these paths can also spin out too far, leaving us empty and far from each another. Mystics can become reclusive and too withdrawn. Logical religion can become just a head-trip. Emotion can become emotionalism. Social justice can become moralistic. None of the paths are better or worse but because we are most comfortable in one path we tend to think our way is superior or the only way.

The Rt. Rev. Joe Doss, a close friend and student of Holmes, says it this way:

[Holmes] saw us growing to appreciate the validity, the importance, and perhaps most importantly, the interrelationship between the "religious magnetic fields". He would have compared it to Jungian psychology in this narrow sense: in the same way that some of us are more thinking and some more feeling, some more extraverted and some more introverted… We find that we are to grow with and in and yet beyond our natural religious tendencies into a more mature spirituality in which our desire for justice, our desire for community discovered and shaped in worship, our desire for theological acumen, and our desire for direct experiences of God are interdependent.

In Mark 12:29-30:

Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”

Each path speaks to one of these ways to love God: heart, soul, mind and strength. If we think of ourselves as part of the body of Christ, there is no need to say which way is best. The community that is the church loves God more fully when all are appreciated for the gifts of each way to God. As each person moves closer to the center, rather than pulling apart into gatherings of separate sects of like minded believers, we offer affirmation and balance to one another.

I draw closer to God by exploring the questions; for others their faith is deepened by working for justice and peace, by contemplation, or by spontaneity. No one path is totally separate from another. We can learn from experiencing other ways of seeking.

Our ability to allow for difference and to explore our faith in a variety of ways can bring us together if we take Rilke’s advice to have patience with the unresolved nature of our journey in faith.

Holmes.jpg

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps the blogs Green Lent and what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

Find a new way home

By Greg Jones

Only two of the four gospels talk about the events surrounding the birth of Jesus – Matthew and Luke. Luke talks about angels and shepherds and all of what happened regarding an inn and a manger, etc. Matthew skips all of that – and talks about the arrival of some Magi from the east – following a star – and bearing gifts.

Contrary to legend, we don't know where the Magi came from, what their names were, or how many of them there were. Only tradition tells us these things. And tradition varies. In the West, their names are Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. In the Ethiopian Church they call them Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater.

In Armenia, its Kagbha, Badadakharida and Badadilma. Syrian Christians call them Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas.

Chinese Christians believe that one of the wise ones was from China – perhaps his name was Liu Shang, chief astrologer in the Han dynasty, from the time Jesus was born. Liu Shang discovered a new star the Chinese call the "King Star." Notably, Liu Shang disappered from the emperor's court for two years after he discovered the King Star. Chinese Christians argue that he took the Silk Road west to Bethlehem. Marco Polo claims to have seen the tomb of the magi in the Persian city of Saba in 1270.

Who knows. But, the Gospel story we read on the feast of the Epiphany is not so much about the Magi as it is about all seekers after God from everywhere on Earth.

We don't know who the magi really were, but we know who they represent: you and me. We are seekers after God too – right? And I believe that like them, you and I have been made to know by Grace where the King of Love is – and he's in our midst. Christ is born by all who bear him – and Christ is within us as we are within him.

Which is why once we've been led to Christ, we just can't go back to the same old ways. We just can't go back to Herod.

Just as Herod represents the vile, the corrupt and the captive to sin and its power – let us not go back to him once we've had a glimpse of Jesus. Let's not say our prayers, worship, receive communion, enjoy Christian fellowship – all means of Grace – all ways to connect with the eternal plan of God – and then, go back to Herod.

In the earliest days of the Church, there was a common way of teaching seekers about holiness. They used an approach called 'the Two Ways.' One was the Way of Light. The other -- the Way of Darkness.

And I believe we do have to choose as best we can between those ways in this life. For I believe with the wise ones who first saw Christ that in this World there is an eternal plan – and that God is working toward the healing and unity of all in Christ. I believe this is the free, gracious and expansive plan of God, which seeks to include all people in the Kindgom.

I believe with the wise ones who first saw Christ that in this world there is another plan too. That plan is about conquest, ownership, worldy power – and finally – the annihilation of creation by the One who loves it NOT.

The powers and principalities of this world – according to Paul – don't love God or His Creation and they seek to ruin it. And friends that is what Herod represents. And that Herod – that power and principality – is not just a long ago character out of the bible. That Herod is a part of our lives even now.

For the light has come into the darkness – and in Him God was pleased to dwell. If you call Jesus Lord – then the Grace of God is also in your life – even now. If Jesus is in your life – even now – then don't go back to Herod.

This year, I invite you to examine in what ways you are 'going back to Herod' on a seven day a week, real life in the world kind of way – and how you can find a new road home – to the kingdom.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ("Greg") became a member of Christ's Body at St. Columba's in Washington, D.C., and he was educated at the University of North Carolina and the General Theological Seminary, where he is on the Board. He is the author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004). He blogs at fatherjones.com.

Accepting God's daily gift

By Heidi Shott

Last August my sons and I made our way downeast to Mount Desert Island for our annual camping trip to Acadia National Park. Our stated goal – my stated goal – is to hike every named peak by the time the boys graduate from high school in 2012. Each year we update a master map of the park by circling the peaks we’ve knocked off. Last year we hiked Sargent and Dorr Mountains and were joined by my non-camping husband on the final morning for a hike up Pemetic.

By real mountain standards the peaks of Acadia are only biggish hills, but on clear days the views of the glacial lakes and the outline of the piney islands off the Atlantic coast still take my breath away. This annual trip at the end of summer is a touchstone for our family, a final time together before the new school year to pick the last wild blueberries along the trail, to walk around Bar Harbor with ice cream, and to savor the hot popovers with butter and strawberry jam at the park’s venerable Jordan Pond House.

Another touchstone has been reading aloud. From the time they were four or five until last summer when we finished the last Harry Potter book after a six hour marathon ending at 2:30 a.m., we’ve always had a read-aloud going. However, last summer the boys announced that after Harry Potter, we should call it quits. “It’s been fun, Mom, but we prefer to read alone from now on. No offence, okay?”

With a hard swallow, I accepted this rare example of twin solidarity. Their tastes are, after all, diverging: Colin reads history and historical novels; Martin prefers contemporary fiction and poetry. And already, at 13, they are commending many hard and wonderful books that I’ve never gotten around to reading.

So in August, shoehorned into our tent at the remotest, raccoon-infested corner of Southwest Harbor’s Smugglers Den Campground, the three of us were each to our own book. Martin was sailing around the tent alone with the poetry of Billy Collins, I was halfway through Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex, and Colin was reading an anthology of P.G. Wodehouse. (He dressed up as Bertie Wooster for Halloween and was disappointed when our neighbors mistook him for a croquet player). For me, it was sweet – each boy kept interrupting to read lines thereby annoying his brother – but not the same as reading together, immersed in the same book. I missed the plaintive cries of “One more chapter, please, or at least read to an asterisk!” After much phony reluctance, I always gave in.

In late November when it came time for Martin’s eighth grade conference, he shared with us the following poem he wrote early in the school year.

“Daily Gift”
“Each one is a gift, no doubt,
mysteriously placed in your walking hand
or set upon your forehead
moments before you open your eyes.”

- Billy Collins, “Days”

--
The first thing I hear
are the birds.

I am lying in a snug sleeping bag,
eyes closed,
absorbing the whistles
and tweets.

The second sound is the tap
of raindrops on a nylon tent
as they trickle from soggy trees.

The final noise
in my semi-asleep state
is the kettle reaching its boiling point.

Now I am awake.

I rise,
a zombie of the campground,
hair untamed,
and glare through trash-bag eyes:

a nocturnal adolescent
sore from hiking.

I clamber out of my cave
and utter the first word
of a fresh day:

“Coffee.”


Who knows what this day,
this gift,
will bring.

I only know one way
to find out.

- Martin Shott

How I wish I had Martin’s trash-bag eyes to see each new day as it is delivered to my bedside. In this new year, how I wish that we Episcopalians could focus on the gifts so freely and lavishly given to each of us by God: our capacity to love and our freedom to commit ourselves to whomever we choose; the thousands of opportunities available to serve those without a voice in our society and in the wider world. These gifts are already ours, no matter where General Convention stands on the matter at any given time or whether some among us have chosen to leave the Church altogether.

Years ago, my college’s chapter of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship invited a Presbyterian minister from Charlottesville to preside at an evening called, “Hard Questions.” It was meant to be a particularly intriguing and evangelical night, drawing students who wouldn’t ordinarily attend one of our weekly meetings. We were hopeful this Presbyterian dude would be good on the stump. (Our local Episcopal priest who faithfully attended our meetings was a genial, laid back guy and glad to escape the hot seat.) While I recall we drew a good crowd including a couple of lively agnostics, I can only remember two sure things about the evening: one is that the Presbyterian guy had a beard and the other is his response to question, “How can you explain terrible things that happen in the world?”

I had just read the Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamozov and was interested to see where he would go with the answer. I was also interested because my comfort level with my friends’ confidence in a fairly rigid Evangelical view of faith was beginning to shift. At the same time I was terrified of being left as a castaway to grapple alone with an increasing number of questions and an emerging vision of what it could mean to be a Christian. So I listened to the Presbyterian intently.

He said something close to this: A countless number of horrible things happen to people that we can’t explain, no one disputes that. But the Bible gives us a clue by fully explaining that God the Creator loved humankind deeply enough to redeem us by the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God. All the details are there, all the explanation is there. It’s the most complex and most horrifying deal in all of history, but God has seen fit to reveal it to us fully. A god who will explain an event of such magnitude…one that demonstrates such abounding love for creation… is a god who can be trusted with millions of things – the tragedies and the mysteries – we can’t explain in the world.

While I was disappointed with the answer at the time, I’ve found that I’ve remembered it for almost 25 years. The gifts are there. The child is born, and we know the how and why. While I miss the gift of reading to my sons, the closeness and the sweetness of it, their sharing of the books they read alone takes us new places and bestows its own gifts. I need to learn to let old gifts go and new gifts emerge, but it’s not easy.

Hark, friends, and listen closely in this New Year. Each day as you wake remember what you know is true; remember you are well-loved. Remember it is worth the struggle to climb out of your cozy tent and into the new day to accept whatever’s out there.

Just ask Martin, he’ll tell you.

Heidi Shott has served as press officer to Bishop Chilton Knudsen of Maine since 1998. Her essays about trying to live a life of faith may be found at Heidoville.

7 steps in discipleship

By Greg Jones

In the Diocese of North Carolina, our diocesan motto is “Making Disciples and Making a Difference.” We are encouraged by Bishop Michael Curry to follow an intentional program of “Gospel Based Discipleship,” at every level of our ministry here. Thanks to Bishop Curry's spiritual leadership, our parish has also adopted a new parish motto – in lieu of a highly detailed mission statement. We believe we are called to be 'Following Christ in Discipleship and Mission.'

So what is discipleship all about? For me, I believe there are many steps on that walk with the Lord, but I have found seven to be very important ones.

Step 1 – Deciding to Follow Christ

Discipleship begins with surrendering one's life to Christ. Dying to self, taking up one's cross, and following Jesus – this is the place where all disciples of Jesus Christ begin. The old hymn that comes to my mind here is: “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back. The world behind me, the cross before me.” The choice to follow Jesus is not the strange fixation of fundamentalists, but is the key to being a Christian disciple at all.

Step 2 – Trusting Christ

Submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ is a whopper! Especially to those of us individualistic Americans living in a consumer society where the customer is always right. “Who are we gonna follow for very long?” It is just so hard for us to submit to anyone at all, willingly, let alone to a mystical Christ. Or maybe it's not hard – maybe it's just that we won't do it. Maybe we won't do it because we're afraid it's gonna hurt. How can we trust that following Jesus is a good idea – a sane idea – a true idea? How can we be assured? Can we believe we've been given a living relationship with God? Can we really believe that what ails us is in fact that we live sinfully in a broken world – but that there is help and hope and life in Christ? Can we really trust and hope in something that good?

Yes we can. But we'll only begin to trust, by giving it a try, by taking a leap of faith, and actively seeking a relationship with Christ – humbly, obediently, expectantly. We will begin to trust, after we've leapt forward in faith -- and after we've tasted some spiritual fruit-- had some kind of experience that following Christ is good. And we will.

Step 3 – Listening to Christ

Indeed, as we walk with Christ as disciples, we must continue to seek his mind, and we must believe there is a way to do this. We must believe we can listen to Christ, and that Christ has something to say. Listening to Christ is possible and fruitful, and it’s a major step in the path of discipleship. Moreover, while many of us have mystical moments in prayer or amazing coincidences where we believe God is talking to us – disciples first believe that in coming together at the holy table, and in prayer, and in listening to God's Word in the Bible – we will hear from Christ.

Simple as that. No one's left out – all may hear the same voice in sacrament, prayer and scripture. Nobody's got secret access. Trusting that God speaks through the sacrament, scripture and fellow Christians – this is essential for Christians. Jesus Christ is the Word of God made flesh – which means he is all about talking, and speaking, and inspiring, and connecting with us.

Step 4 – Talking with Christ

Disciples pray. Christ listens. Those who follow Christ speak to Christ. Just as Christ prayed and prayed, he invites us to do the same.

Step 5 – Joining with Christ

Christians cannot live alone – for long. We are one kingdom, one people – not an archipelago of islands.

We are called by Jesus himself into being, and he has called us his Body – and that Body of Christ – that Assembly of People Following Jesus – that Gathering of Jesus People is called the Church. We cannot be a Christian outside the Body of Christ. It's not possible. And as the Body of Christ, we belong therefore to Christ, and to each other. This is essential folks.

Disciples are called to give themselves, their souls and bodies unto God and each other “In Christ.”

Step 6 – Imitating Christ

Followers of Jesus are called to live according to his commandments to love God, neighbor, self and enemy. Are we doing that? Are we seeking to imitate Christ – whose teachings are so clear today in the sermon on the plain? Or, are we yielding to temptation, abiding more in our own will than God's? Walking with Jesus – seeking his mind – requires an honest assessment of one's own failings and shortcomings. And an honest assessment of how we might follow Jesus better.

Step 7 – Serving Christ

But our lives are not just about resisting temptation. No, temptation and sin are the distractions from our purpose. But each of us has a calling to serve Christ - what might you be called to do with your life if it weren't for all the sinful distractions? What might you be called to do as a follower of Jesus? Isn't your life supposed to be different in some way?
Friends – there is much work to do in this world – but we cannot make a difference in it – we cannot do a thing for it – on our own. We can only make a difference in this world – if we follow the Master – the Lord and Giver of Life.

Episcopal Church -- let's follow Christ in discipleship and mission.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ("Greg") is rector of St. Michael's Raleigh, and author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004). He blogs at fatherjones.com.

An account of our hope

By Derek Olsen

Join with me for a moment in a dream, in a vision. We’ve been talking more and more in the Episcopal Church of that dreaded “e” word that strikes terror into the hearts of the staid faithful—evangelism. For some it conjures fearful scenes of complex theological refutation, of fast and furious verbal sparring until—pressed and pinked by verbal weapons of dialectic—our opponent throws up his arms, confessing Jesus as an act of intellectual surrender. The prospect of such a thing makes the average church-going heart quail—is that really what’s expected? How do they expect me to do that?!?

The answer from calmer quarters is: relax, that’s not what evangelism is fundamentally about. Evangelism isn’t about beating opponents into submission—intellectual or otherwise. At its heart, it’s about sharing love, communicating who God is and how God is about the work of redemption and reconciliation. It’s less about what we know than who we know—and how he has made himself known through the power of the resurrection at work in our lives. That having been said, there is some knowledge, there are some fundamentals that have to be covered.

Turning to the Scriptures, St. Peter suggests that among the basic equipment of the Christian is having at hand and in mind “an account for the hope that is in you with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15). That is, when questions arise about our faith we need something to fall back on, something to guide our way in explaining what we believe. Now—here’s my dream; here’s my vision. If I were the Evangelism Czar for the Episcopal Church, I’d try and put together a brief yet comprehensive statement of what we think on things. I’d want it to be broad—we need to cover our major bases, and yet I’d want it to be beautiful too. I’d want it, in its simplicity, to hint at depths of thought and experience that could be evoked and not exhausted by a tantalizing turn of phrase. If I could pare it down to something around one hundred words, I’d send out this “account for hope” to all the Episcopal churches with instructions that it be memorized so it could be readily called to mind whenever a useful opportunity might arise.

But, hey—why stop there? Why not have a second version as well? Maybe something twice the length of the first that might clear up a few more connections but also evoke greater mysteries and introduce some language that cuts to the heart of the human religious experience—light, breath, life abundant… Embed some deeper poetry, some metaphors to be chewed upon and savored, and you might have a worthy follow-up to the first that again, isn’t just about knowledge, but that evokes a new way of being and relating to the world in which we live. Of course—I’d want that one to be memorized too.

Who am I kidding, though, right? There’s no way this crazy scheme could work, is there?

Actually…it’s already been done. The texts have already been written. Not only that—they’ve already been infiltrated into your Book of Common Prayer. Many of you have already even accomplished the hard part—the memorizing part. There’s just one little catch. The infiltration has been so successful, has been so complete, that few realize the treasure that we got. Instead of recognizing this amazing “account for hope” for what it is, it’s something that we mumble through between the sermon and prayers at Eucharist, or stick between prayers in the Daily Office.

Yes, I’m talking about the creeds. We’ve got them. Many of us know them by heart—by rote, even—and therein lies the problem. We know them so well, have become so accustomed to them, that we’ve lost sight of their power—and their potential when it comes to evangelism. So let’s review quickly what it is that we have and how we might begin the process of rediscovering them.

The Apostles’ Creed was an early baptismal formula of the church in Rome. This was the basic outline of faith that converts (and in those days they were all converts) would embrace in order to be received into the faith. It served to nail down some fundamentals to establish Christian belief and to refute some potential misunderstandings. First, it asserted that God, the good God, the Father of Jesus Christ was also the God who Creates in distinction from philosophies that suggested that created matter was not just indifferent but downright evil—that bodies were prisons for souls. No, the creed affirmed, the good God made us bodies and—not only that—second, God even took on a body in the person of Jesus the Messiah. Like us, he was born, lived, and died as a historical person in a real place with Roman officials and everything. Third, that the breath, the spirit of God isn’t just a good idea or a nice metaphor—the Spirit is the reality of God moving, living and active.

Our other creed—what we call the Nicene Creed—is more properly called the Nicene-Chalcedonian Symbol. That sounds pretentious but is really just an affirmation that the church called together four world-wide councils to make sure that the faith they were handing down was the faith that they had received from their own teachers extending back to the apostles. Built on the framework like the Apostles’ Creed, it introduces the language of Greek philosophy, not for the sake of getting all complicated, but to somehow encapsulate in word and thought how the church had experienced the power of God moving in its worlds and ways.

Please—don’t underestimate second and fourth century people, though. Even without particle physics or flush toilets they knew that there were things in these affirmations that were at odds with the daily world they experienced; for the creeds—both of them—invite us into a mystery that they neither solve nor resolve: a mystery that begins with the assertion that Jesus is both God and man. Born, yes, but of a virgin—a clear impossibility according to the mechanics of the life we know. Died, yes, but rose again on the third day—another impossibility. Ascended to the Father? We know that can’t happen…unless our grasp of the mechanics of life is somehow incomplete. Unless there is a more full understanding of reality to which we may awake, to find ourselves caught up in, a reality where life wins, where love wins, despite what our senses tell us. Even back then, they knew that these affirmations were asking them to step beyond the threshold of life as they knew it into a bigger, a broader, a wilder world where they didn’t know all the rules.

What the creeds evoke, what they invite us into, is hope. Hope that there’s more to reality than what can be touched and quantified. Hope that death does not win in the end. Hope that we are not merely isolated islands in trajectories of decay but that as our life is caught up in the reality of God we are somehow bound closer to our fellow creatures as well. But the creeds do not simply give us hope; they give us language and a framework for understanding the spiritual stirrings and movings that we detect in our lives. They give us a vocabulary to understand the movement of the Spirit, the breaking forth of resurrection power. For the creeds are grounded in our experiences of the God of whom they speak.

This, in turn, is our own offering to a world that is in need of hope: the hope and the promise that there is a reality, a deeper reality, than what can be measured, quantified, and mathematically modeled. Actually—this is evangelism; it’s the sharing of the hope that we find in Christ Jesus. It’s telling the stories of how God has shown us a deeper reality in our lives. It’s communicating the hope of resurrection even in the face of death. So next time you find yourself in worship or in prayer and you encounter the creeds, take a minute, I beg you. Think about the words. Think about what they say and the realities and hopes to which they point. Ponder the phrases and fit them to your own life’s tale . And lastly, share them. With gentleness, with reverence, give an account for the hope that is in you.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University where he is an adjunct professor at the Candler School of Theology. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc.

Saints and Souls:All of them

By Marshall Scott

A few years ago I was asked to preach and celebrate at the local United Methodist seminary. The occasion was a worship planning class. This was to be the demonstration of an Episcopal student in the seminary of his skill in planning a service. He had chosen the date carefully: October 31, the Eve of All Saints; and, of course, had chosen to use the lessons for Feast.

As I began my sermon that day, I looked out at the congregation. I paused and looked intently from face to face. Then I opened by saying, “I’m looking for Jesus.”

The point I sought to make that day – a point I continue to seek to make – is that the recognition of all the Saints and all the saints is about looking for Jesus, not only incarnate once so many years ago, but also “incarnate” by the indwelling of the Spirit, again and again down to our own day, into our own midst. We are, after all, a people who claim with Paul that the Body of Christ continues in all the baptized. We look at his descriptions of the Body, its various “organs” endowed with various gifts, and then quote Teresa of Avila:

“Christ has no body now but yours No hands, no feet on earth but yours Yours are the eyes through which He looks compassion on this world Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

It’s not that we always know Jesus when we see him. That’s part of what we recognize in Matthew’s image of the last judgment. All will ask the king, “Lord, when? When? When did we do that?” “And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did [or did not do] to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did to me.’” (Matthew 25:40) We won’t always know him immediately. But we are, I think, still called to look.

That is integral to how I understand my ministry as a hospital chaplain. When I’m at my best, that’s part of what I take into the room with me. Somewhere in that room, somewhere in that suffering soul, I need to look for Jesus looking back.

Understand that it’s not a matter of the patient’s faith. I commit as a chaplain to respect the faith, or decision not to have faith, of each patient. We pray often enough in the Episcopal Church for “those whose faith is known to [God] alone” that I’m not worried that a non-Christian’s faith will get in the way of the Spirit. Christians have long argued about whether and/or how the Spirit might be working in non-Christians. In my work, I would never assert that there was someplace, some set of circumstances where the Spirit could not go. So I continue looking for Jesus, even – especially – where I might least expect Jesus to be.

We live these days, both within the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion and without, in polarized times. At times the rhetoric gets bitter, even vicious. Sometimes it even gets to the point of, “That person, that group, is surely lost. That person, that group, has departed from Christ.” Such language is, I think, to say, “I can’t imagine how I might see Jesus in you.”

Now, there’s nothing really new about that language. I remember the oral portion of my canonical exams, long ago now. The examiner in Scripture started one part of the discussion with, “What do you say when a stranger comes up to you and asks, ‘Are you a Christian?’” The follow-up question from this hypothetical stranger was, “So, are you born again?” Being young and foolish and thinking I had to come up with something, I kept responding; but to each response there was another follow-up question, reflecting a very narrow view, doctrinal, liturgical, and behavioral, of what it meant to be a Christian. Finally I sighed, and said, “I guess I can’t convince you; but God bless you;” which was, of course, exactly what the examiner wanted me to realize. Go back through the history of the Church. Go back to the earliest days (Galatians, anyone?). One group has wanted to say to another, “I can’t imagine how I might see Jesus in you.”

I think it significant, though, that such contemporary groups are not groups that would meaningfully celebrate All Saints. There are certainly not the type to worry about leaving someone out and hedging their bets by celebrating All Souls.

We, on the other hand, do celebrate All Saints, and celebrate All Souls, just to be sure. We do pray regularly for “those whose faith is known to [God] alone,” and for “all the faithful departed.” We provide in The Book of Occasional Services a service for “Burial of One Who Does Not Profess the Christian Faith.” The rite includes this collect for the deceased:

Almighty God, we entrust all who are dear to us to your never-failing care and love, for this life and the life to come, knowing that you are doing for them better things than we can desire or pray for; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

“For this life” as well as for “the life to come,” we trust that God is indeed working in those around us. Whether or not they are Christian by our understanding, we believe that if we look at them we might well see Jesus. If we serve them, we might well serve Jesus. If we better know them, we may well better know Jesus.

I pray we can continue to hold to that, even in difficult times. Around us we see in the world, and in our own midst, claims that this leader or that, this institution or that, better shows the truth of the Gospel. Sometimes those visions are narrow. Sometimes those voices are strident. So it goes; so it has gone before. We, however, have committed to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving neighbor as self. And how shall we serve, much less actually love, someone we haven’t seen? So, we must keep looking, looking carefully from face to face, and discovering him again and again and again. For that’s how living and sharing the Gospel begins: by looking for Jesus.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of 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.

Of faith, compromise and onions

By Marshall Scott

When I was young, my father's profession took him at times overseas. He would attend meetings and discuss problems and solutions with folks from far away - such exotic places as England and Belgium and Germany (well, to a young boy they seemed distant and exotic enough). It gave him an interesting perspective on cultural differences.

Once, after a trip to the UK, he spoke of a meeting he had been to, and how it seemed different than those he commonly attended. The resolution of the discussion was a compromise; but my father found it interesting. He told me that in England, unlike America, a compromise was basically a good thing. True, no one got all he wanted; but everyone got something. In America his experience was that, no one having gotten all he wanted, everyone saw the compromise as loss. No one got everything, and so there was nothing one could celebrate.

The Oxford English Dictionary has several different denotations for "compromise." Two (in the Compact Edition of 1971) sound similar, but have some subtle differences.

4. Coming to terms, or arrangement of a dispute, by concession on both sides; partial surrender of one's position for the sake of coming to terms; the concession or terms offered by either side. 5. Adjustment for practical purposes of rival courses of action, systems or theories, conflicting opinions or principles, by the sacrifice or surrender of a part of each.

These sound a lot alike, don't they? And yet they are different.

They are different specifically in intent. The first definition is about coming to terms, with some concession from both sides. The second is about making pragmatic sacrifices to a rival. The first is about meeting of minds and mutual efforts. The second is about suspending conflict and grudging truce. The first is about comprehensiveness, and even communion. The second is about that other connotation of compromise: polluted, infected, stained, and shamed.

Now, I can't say now that the difference my father saw still obtains. Perhaps it was the setting or the topic or the times that made the difference. My own observation is that there seem to be quite enough competitive, convicted folks in the UK as to make "compromise" as distasteful to folks there as to folks here in the U. S. In any case, it seems to have been the first sense of compromise that moved the Episcopal House of Bishops; and the latter that moved the loudest voices on either side of the issues involved.

It is a hard time that way. I have heard again and again Revelation 3:15-16: "15 I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. 16 Because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth." It is from the challenge to the Church in Laodicea, a church apparently comfortable in the pews. But the call to be either hot or cold is apparently about the faith as a whole, and not a single issue. And while those who quote it most frequently want to portray their interest as "19 I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. 20 Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me," the tone and context seems more indicative of "21 To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne." Separated, verses 19-20 are about, I think, the first sense of "compromise;" while verse 21 is about the second sense. (Indeed, I have come to feel that for some the secret favorite passage is no longer from Revelation 3:14-22, but from Psalm 83.)

And that is the problem with this quotation, and with the second sense of "compromise:" it begins with separation and seeks to institutionalize it, to reify it. It is much like our current cultural and political context, parodied well by Stephen Colbert in his character for The Colbert Report. It’s all about rage and passion, and thought and reflection only undermine strength of purpose.

But "being neither hot nor cold" need not be so stark. Readers may have noticed by now that I love to cook. One of the things I have to work at, still, is noting that some things do better with long, steady cooking at low heat. What comes to mind are onions. Many recipes start with onions that need to be "sweated" - cooked slowly over low heat to bring out the sugar in them, so long hidden by the sharpness of sulfur. Rush to cook them quickly and you either undercook them or burn them; and everything you add to them will take on the flavor of the sulfur that remains or the charred sugar that has been added. It's worth noting that this is also known as "clarifying" the onions; for as the sulfur fades away the onions go from opaque white to translucency, almost transparency. It's not that the onions aren't hot. It's that the slower, more patient process has brought out in them beauty and flavor that you wouldn't know from the raw form, and that no other, faster process would have produced.

We know this well in human experience and in the Christian faith, even if it sometimes gets short shrift. It is, after all, how we come as persons to wisdom, and how we distinguish wisdom from knowledge. It is as William James described in writing of those "once born": a gradual growth in the knowledge and love of the Lord not dependent on one or a few moments of conversion (even though those moments do come). It is what we mean in the Catholic west by "sanctification," what our Orthodox Christian siblings mean by "theosis:" the gradual growth in grace and in awareness of God's presence and God's action that is the result of the Spirit's continuing work in us.

It is, I think, an aspect of Paul's statement that "God is working in all things for good for those who love him:" in all things, and not just in those that move us in passion. It was lived out in the life of Peter, whose passions drove him while Jesus lived. His anger rejected Jesus' prediction of the crucifixion. His rage cut off the ear of the High Priest's servant. His fear denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed. It was in quiet and reflection that he understood his mission to tend and feed Christ's sheep, and that he realized that God could proclaim acceptable what his children had long rejected. And yet we would not suggest that either Paul or Peter was 'lukewarm' about faith in Christ.

So, perhaps all of us who are determined, committed, "hot" in our faith in Christ need to reflect again on what we mean by "compromise." Shall we see one another as colleagues to whom we might in good faith concede; or as rivals to whom any concession constitutes surrender? It's an important question for the Episcopal Church and for the Anglican Communion, and for each of us as individuals. Will we be moved by hasty passion, or trust in the slower, arguably harder and less comfortable process by which the Spirit seeks to bring us into all truth? How will we answer the question? The direction of the Church, and perhaps of our souls, depends on the answer.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of 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.

Reinventing ourselves: A spiritual look at New Orleans

By Steven Charleston

By now most of us will have read all about what the Episcopal bishops said (or didn’t say) at the House of Bishops meeting in New Orleans. As usual in political controversies some of us will be happy while others are disturbed. But what ever your reaction to New Orleans might be, there is one common denominator that I believe unites all sides of the argument: for better or worse, the church is reinventing itself. We may not like it. We may not admit it. But that is what is happening.

I know it is not popular to say that we actually invent the church each generation. Many people like to think that there is a rock solid core of tradition that never changes. But even the most core beliefs of any religious community are continually transformed by the interpretation, the nuances, each generation brings to their understanding of those beliefs. Did people in medieval Europe believe Jesus was the Son of God? Yes. Do Christians in Iowa today believe the same thing? Yes, but beyond that the cultural values and historic realities of these two communities make that single belief a prism, not a rock. We are not building on the firm foundation. We are building on the ever shifting sands of culture.

What is happening in the church now, whether from the Left or the Right, is the reinterpretation of the culture we call church. The forces of change are played out in the kind of negotiation process we have been witnessing for several years around subjects like human sexuality and church governance. The actions taken in New Orleans are only a small piece in a continuing process. In effect, we are negotiating our future, shaping the community to fit the assumptions we hold about the values we cherish arising from the beliefs we have interpreted from the past. Therefore, New Orleans is not the last word, but only more words in the chain of change that will make the Episcopal Church a radically different community within the next decade.

Should we be made anxious by this process? Yes and no.

Yes, if we abrogate our role in the negotiations. We should be anxious if others are doing all the talking, making all the choices, or defining all the terms.

No, if we are fully engaged in designing our own future. We should not be anxious if we are actively listening, learning and negotiating no matter how difficult or frustrating that effort may seem.

While the decisions made in New Orleans will reassure some, comfort many, and upset a few, they are only the visible brush strokes of a much deeper creative process. Other challenges and other compromises will be reached in the days to come. All of them will be the outward signs of an inner cultural shift. Like the tectonic plates of the Earth, the interpretations we give to long held beliefs will move us to a new place whether we are ready to go or not. Change will happen and the process will recycle itself within the next generation.

Does that make what we do meaningless in the politics of the moment? Not really, not if you believe that beneath it all, behind it all, God is working out a future in negotiation with us. Our rock solid tradition is to believe that God is a God of history. Our common sense historical experience teaches us that this history is as pliable as necessity and as resilient as fear.

The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, former Bishop of Alaska, is president and dean of Episcopal Divinity School, and keeper of the podcasting blog EDS's Stepping Stones. A citizen of the Choctaw Nation, Bishop Charleston is widely recognized as a leading proponent for justice issues and for spiritual renewal in the church.

What is the Church for?

By Kathleen Henderson Staudt

What is the church for? In a 1938 lecture series on the BBC, collected in her book The Spiritual Life, the British writer and retreat leader Evelyn Underhill answered the question in a way that has challenged the church for the past century:

The Church is in the world to save the world. It is a tool of God for that purpose; not a comfortable religious club established in fine historical premises. Every one of its members is required, in one way or another, to cooperate with the Spirit in working for that great end: and much of this work will be done in secret and invisible ways. We are transmitters as well as receivers. Our contemplation and our action, our humble self-opening to God, keeping ourselves sensitive to his music and light, and our generous self-opening to our fellow creatures, keeping ourselves sensitive to their needs, ought to form one life, mediating between God and His world, and bringing the saving power of the Eternal into time.

Underhill appropriately focuses on the church’s mission in and for the world; to her mostly Church of England audience, she is challenging the image of the Church that became comfortable during the long centuries of what Loren Mead has labeled the “Christendom” paradigm, when most people were nominal Christians, even churchgoers, and the mission of the Church was seen as being overseas, far away and directed toward people distinctly “other” than the people in the pews. Mission was done by the institution; for the people in the pews, church attendance was a regular social obligation, to be taken with more or less seriousness depending on one’s particular spiritual needs and dispositions: to be part of a church was to support “a comfortable religious club.”

But Underhill recognizes that the institutional model, the “comfortable religious club,” is not a true embodiment of what the Church is called to be. Rather, each of us has a part to play in the mysterious work of God in the world, the Spirit’s work to restore, reconcile and heal. Her work focuses on the spiritual practices of the individual as guaranteeing the health of the “cells” in the Body of Christ on earth. For her, ordinary Christians, each of us pursuing the work that has been given us, are the ones who carry out the saving work of the Church, “bringing the saving power of the eternal into time.” In this short paragraph she lays out a theology of the ministry of all God’s people – the laos (λαός) – in the world.

Underhill’s image of the Church in the world invites what I might call a “poetic” way of looking at the church, the people of God – seeing the Church as a kind of work of art that communicates something to the world. It might seem that our disputes in the Anglican community about whom we may ordain and who decides how we should read Scripture have little to do with the ministry of the people in and for the world, but actually, poetically, they are important. Because we are an ordered church, our disputes about who we are and how we serve the world have focused, for the past 50 years, on whom we ordain. This may be appropriate to some extent since the ordained leaders of the Church do function as “metonymies” for our corporate identity – they are the parts standing for a whole. So if we claim to be an inclusive community, living and proclaiming the gospel in and for the world around us, it makes sense poetically that our visible leaders should reflect the diversity of the world we live in and the world we serve.

If the world looks at us as a corporate body and sees inclusiveness in our leadership and our practice, then we are communicating something about the hospitality of God. If they see us finding ways to stay together in Christ while holding a diversity of views, that is a revolutionary witness for our deeply polarized times. On the other hand, if all that the world sees is fighting and schism and mutual recrimination, then we are losing track of our real identity and purpose.

I turn to Underhill’s description of the purpose of the church in my prayers for the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion at this time, remembering that we are part of something much bigger that we believe God is trying to do through us, the people of God, in the world. I take comfort, too, from a beloved hymn we sing pretty often these days, and appropriately so – not least because its title reminds us of who we are: “The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord”. I was particularly glad that it was part of the Commencement liturgy at Virginia Seminary last June:

Though with a scornful wonder, men see her sore oppressed
By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed
Yet saints their watch are keeping. Their cry goes up,”How long?”
And soon the night of weeping will be the morn of song. (Hymnal 525)

These words remind us that our tradition’s vision of the church as a “mystical body” is meant to give strength and energy to us as we try to live up to being the “Church visible -- the Communion of Saints “in the world to save the world, a tool of God for that purpose.” This vision does not deny that we have struggles and divisions. But both Underhill’s writing and the hymn call us back to awareness of our greater purpose and calling. It is a vision that sometimes seems improbable, but it is one that we are called to return to and refashion in our own generation, as faithfully as we can.

Dr Kathleen Henderson Staudt teaches courses in literature and theology at Virginia Theological Seminary and the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture. Her blog is at poetproph.blogspot.com.

What on earth is holiness?

By Martin L. Smith

I was in the presence of a holy man last month, and the evening I spent with him has set me thinking about holiness, that core concept most of us find so puzzling. Let’s admit it. The word holiness is infested with all sorts of unattractive connotations: otherworldliness, intense piety, life on a plane much higher than our own mundane existence. What on earth is holiness?

The man I am referring to is a Roman Catholic layman with a ministry of spiritual healing, and we met with him in a friend’s home, a typical domestic setting for the sessions of prayer and laying on of hands that he conducts up and down the country and abroad. There were remarkable healings that a number of us received and yet, quite apart from these experiences, I am just as grateful to God for refreshing my own faith in the reality of holiness. We were in direct contact with genuine holiness, the real thing, and it bears no resemblance to stereotypes at all. He was about as grounded a man as you could ever find. An unremarkable everyman, as my friend put it, who spoke about the work of God in plain, workmanlike terms. There was no drama, no manipulation, no ‘charisma’, no religiosity, just straightforward teaching and witness, and a kind of steady detachment salted with gentle humor. He had simply accepted this rarest of vocations as the agent of miracles, while continuing his regular life as a working man and volunteer in a soup kitchen, and undergoing the spiritual purging that kept ego out of the way.

Meeting Paul has sent me back to a quotation I once jotted down a few weeks after my ordination from Marcel Proust’s novel Swann’s Way. “When in the course of my life I have had occasion to meet with, in convents for example, saintly examples of practical charity, they have generally had the brisk, decided, undisturbed and slightly brutal air of a busy surgeon, the face in which we can discern no commiseration, no tenderness in the sight of suffering humanity and no fear of hurting it, the face devoid of gentleness or sympathy, the sublime face of true goodness.”

Proust has put his finger on another of our stereotypes about holiness. We tend to think that a really holy person would be a paragon of meekness and gentleness who would never dream of doing anything to make us feel uncomfortable in any way. On the contrary, one of the manifestations of holiness is a kind of detachment, a non-dependency, that lets a person get on with the work of God, even though that might be a somewhat painful to everyone involved. And Paul was prepared to say some very direct things about the vocation of suffering and the meaning of pain that we never hear from the pulpit where preachers need to court popularity.

The more we reflect about this, the more likely we will find holiness closer at hand. We might find it in all sorts of areas, including that very risky one—the ministry of leadership. Just as people have this fantasy of the saint as someone who would never do or say anything that could ever cause us pain, so they imagine that good leaders are those who ooze empathy and concern and lovingly cocoon us with personal affirmation and uplift. In fact authentic leaders—holy leaders—are quite prepared to get on with God’s work fully prepared for that fact that that is bound to be upsetting and sometimes quite painful to us.

Few people have been as fearless as the late Rabbi Edwin Friedman in exposing the dynamics in which religious leaders get caught up, and he was as perceptive in his teaching as Proust was canny as an artist, about the way the ‘real thing’ stands out against counterfeits. Bogus leadership is soggy with dependency, collusion and denial; real leadership draws on inner resources of detachment and invariably draws fire from those who demand to be ‘cared for.’ Friedman didn’t pull his punches: here’s an example from his posthumous A Failure of Nerve; Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. “This tendency to adapt to immaturity and to sabotage strength is so often characteristic of chronically anxious systems that a good rule of thumb for leaders who are trying to pull any institution out its regression is that when people start calling you “cruel,” “autocratic,” “heartless,” “unfeeling,” “uncooperative,” and “cold,” there is a good chance you are going in the right direction.” (p. 69) Talk about hitting the nail on the head!

What is holiness? We need to keep probing this mystery in contemporary terms so that we get used to recognizing it. We find it wherever direct reliance on God day by day gives people freedom to act on his behalf without being hampered by the need to feed their own egos—or ours.

Martin Smith is well-known in the Episcopal Church and beyond as a priest, writer, preacher and leader of retreats. Through such popular works as A Season for the Spirit and The Word is Very Near You and in numerous workshops, lectures and retreats, he continues to explore a contemporary spirituality that encourages a lively conversation between new knowledge and the riches of tradition.

Does God ever stop nagging?

by Heidi Shott

A dozen years ago, when our twin sons were toddlers and my transmission went kaput, I spent one long afternoon in a car dealership in Augusta, Maine. As the hours slowly passed, one of my fellow waitees - watching as I tried to distract and entertain my wiggly boys - suddenly revealed herself as an oracle of the gods.

"A boy turning 15 is God's way of helping parents accept that he will leave home someday," she proclaimed out of the blue. "Until 15, it's hard to imagine not wanting him around."

I thought, first, "Shutup, lady. Who asked you?" Then, "I'll always want my boys around because they'll be delightful teenagers – bright, perspicacious, engaging and kind." I couldn't imagine a universe where these boys weren't under my constant gaze – to protect, to teach, to cuddle, to read to, to joke with, to love so fiercely.

In many ways, now that they are 13 and a half, I still can't imagine a world where they are out of my line of vision for more than a week at a time.

But it's a world I'm approaching.

On Saturday, my husband Scott and I picked up our sons, Martin and Colin, after a two week stint at Bishopswood, our diocesan camp. Colin, the more reluctant camper, was finished, whereas Martin, a true believer, was to return for another week after being treated to lunch, ice cream, and a trip to the Rite-Aid in Camden to restock flashlight batteries and sunscreen.

Later in the day back at home, Colin and I lay flopped on the porch reading. Colin, a fast and sophisticated reader, was intent on Barbara Ehrenreich's book about white-collar unemployment, "Bait and Switch." I looked up from Richard Ford's "The Lay of the Land," finally out in paperback. This beautiful child of ours, so interesting and complicated, so funny and demanding and kind, is growing up. Over the last year he and his brother have become so much less needful of us, not as people, but as parents. I'm learning to cede control over things that don't matter and learning to back away so they can make mistakes and learn from them. As they enter eighth grade next month, I vow to be less the homework bitch and more the homework angel…available for intervention when called upon but otherwise, "You're on your own, kid."

I look at them and see how far they’ve already reached beyond me…in math, in music, in reading, in skiing, in the formation of their personal political philosophies. I marvel at Colin's vacuuming up "War and Peace" unabridged as a seventh grader and delight in Martin's poetry and memoirs and his ability to stand up and blow an amazing sax improv solo the moment the band director gives him an imperceptible nod. Still I nag and repeat myself constantly. I still holler, "Don't you give me that look" and "Knock it off with that tone" on pretty much a daily basis.

In less than 18 months, when they turn 15 on New Year's Eve next year, they may turn into awful people, but I think not. I hope not. I hope our love and care and frankly less-than-perfect example of how to live this life will have been enough to see them through to the day they walk out our door and beyond.

As I looked at Colin reading and enjoyed the pleasure of his quiet company, all this swirled though my highly distractible mind. How does this pattern of parenting and growing independence play out in our own walk with God?

Having come to faith as a teenager in an evangelical church, my daily personal walk with Jesus was constantly at the top of my mind. For years I prayed and read my Bible daily or felt guilty when I didn’t. I chose a Christian college where I met my husband and made many good and lasting friends. As a junior I transferred to a southern women's college and became involved in Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and was confirmed in the Diocese of Southwest Virginia the week I turned 21. The presence of God hovered over me like a benevolent seabird throughout those years: nipping, nagging, loving, and keeping me safely near shore.

In the years since it's not that I've lost the ability to sense the presence of God or really need it any less, but perhaps God – having accompanied me so closely to a certain juncture – is trusting me to get it right with a less supervision.

I'm beginning to wonder if what we experience as children and, for some of us, as parents in this world doesn't teach us how God functions as a parent/creator in the realm of our Christian faith. When we turn the equivalent of 15 in Christian years (however long that takes for each of us), does God start to treat us differently – not because we're annoying – but because we've earned a measure of trust? And does that freedom allow us to flourish and grow into stronger, more Christ-like disciples than we'd be if we were more closely shepherded and nudged along the way.

Yesterday, we went out on Damariscotta Lake in our motorboat with Colin and our friends, Rachel and Jay. We live on a millpond and to get out to the open lake we must motor under a bridge. For years, to safeguard my personal sanity, I've reminded the boys to duck so they wouldn't fatally clunk their heads on the unforgiving steel girders a few inches above us. (Actually, I used to sing the chorus of the Erie Canal song – "Low bridge, everybody down…" – until last year when they begged me to stop being so profoundly embarrassing.) As we approached the bridge and yelled out to the kids who were jumping from above to hold it a minute until we passed through, I was about to remind Colin, who was sitting in the bow, to duck his head. Suddenly, as my mouth opened, he dutifully bent over, well beyond need.

"Jay!" (who was sitting behind Colin and at 62 knows enough to duck), I barked. "Duck your head!"

Apparently, unlike God, I need someone to nag.

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Heidi Shott has served as press officer to Bishop Chilton Knudsen of Maine since 1998. In April 2006 she moved to a consulting role at the Diocese of Maine to become communications director of the Genesis Fund, a revolving loan fund that provides expertise and low-interest loans to nonprofits engaged in community development. Heidi's essays about trying to live a life of faith may be found at Heidoville.

After

by Ann Fontaine

Is there life after death and if so what will it be? In a Woody Allen movie, a man (played by Allen) converts to Christianity. His mother screams and goes to her room. The father asks why he would want to do that. Allen’s character replies by asking his father, “Aren’t you worried about you know, ... after?" The father says, "No, I don’t worry, I will be dead!"

Philosophers and religions discuss death and afterlife extensively. Some religions do not profess any concept of life after death; others such as Christianity have extensive belief systems and writings on subject. I tend to agree with the father in the movie – “I will be dead.” All I can really do anything about is here and now.

Currently I am intrigued by the concept put forth in the trilogy His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. Note: The daemons in his trilogy are an externalized part of the human's spirit embodied in an animal form. A daemon is capable of shifting species to reflect the emotional state of their human companion until puberty when the daemon's identity become fixed.

Lyra, the heroine of the trilogy says, "When you go out of here, all the particles that make you up will loosen and float apart, just like your daemons did. If you've seen people dying, you know what that looks like. But your daemons aren't just nothing now; they're part of everything. All the atoms that were them, they've gone into the air and the wind and the trees and the earth and all the living things. They'll never vanish. They're just part of everything. And that's exactly what'll happen to you, I swear to you, I promise on my honor. You'll drift apart, it's true, but you'll be out in the open, part of everything alive again." (The Amber Spyglass, page 335)

"Even if it means oblivion... I'll welcome it, because it won't be nothing, we'll be alive again in a thousand blades of grass and a million leaves, we'll be falling in the raindrops and blowing in the fresh breeze, we'll be glittering in the dew under the stars and the moon out there in the physical world which is our true home and always was." (The Amber Spyglass, page 336)

"To know that after a spell in the dark we'll come out again to a sweet land like this, to be free of the sky like the birds, well, that's the greatest promise anyone could wish for." (The Amber Spyglass, page 532) 


Many funeral sermons talk of reunion with loved ones or life continuing in some improved version of what we know now. The Scriptures give a mixed message. The letters of Paul give some suggestions. Much of our imagery comes from Revelation with its metaphors of streets of gold and lakes of fire describing what awaits us. Some Christian denominations have a highly developed idea of afterlife and others leave it to the category of mystery. Some branches of Islam tell of living in gardens of pleasure. Most of Judaism does not have an afterlife theology. The most one can read in The Bible is that there will be some sort of ongoing life in God but even that is unclear. As I age and more and more friends die, it is comforting to imagine that I will be in an improved known life but I wonder. I think it more likely to be nothing like anything I know but I trust that it will be in the hands of God if it is anything at all.

What I do care about is life now, making the kingdom of God present in the world. As it says in the Lord’s Prayer, I pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.” I care about leaving the world having contributed to making it a better place for all people. I hope that our children and grandchildren and their children will have a place to live on earth, that they will find meaningful lives, and contribute in their time.


Mary Oliver wrote in “When Death Comes” 


…When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

The people I look to are those who have not just visited with their time here on earth. They have delighted in their time here and brought joy as a primary gift to those around them. They have spent their days making space for others.

In the end I hope that death will be as Pullman describes it, "The first ghost to leave the world of the dead was Roger. He took a step forward, and turned to look back at Lyra, and laughed in surprise as he found himself turning into the night, the starlight, the air... and then he was gone, leaving behind such a vivid little burst of happiness that Will was reminded of the bubbles in a glass of champagne." (The Amber Spyglass, page 382)

Philip Pullman web site -- http://www.randomhouse.com/features/pullman/
Movie website -- http://www.goldencompassmovie.com/ Fall 2007

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps the blogs Green Lent and what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps the blogs Green Lent and what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

You are the music,
while the music lasts

Continuing our "Episcopalians go to camp" theme begun yesterday...

By Roger Ferlo

Orkney Springs, Virginia is not an easy place to find. The trip south from the District seems designed to test your nerves. You start off on the DC Beltway—trial enough—and then you lurch onto the notoriously congested I-66, which you have to follow all the way to the end (a prospect that must haunt the nightmares of daily commuters), where it turns south on I-81 toward Woodstock. You then find yourself deep in Shenandoah country, passing road signs directing you to the Luray Caverns or the Skyline Drive. But you resist temptation. You make a right turn and then another right and then another right (or was it a left?) through gorgeous rolling hills until you finally stumble your way onto a steep incline of a road called the Orkney Grade, which will funnel you and your motorcar straight into the nineteenth-century—to the old mineral spa known as the Orkney Springs Hotel, owned lock, stock and water barrel by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.

It was not always thus. For years Virginia Episcopalians owned the acreage to the west, where they long ago built a retreat center and an outdoor chapel—Shrine Mont, they call it, as close to building a cathedral that this die-hard low-church diocese will ever come. But folks must have had their eye on the hotel down the road for a long time, if only for fear that it would fall in on itself. It wasn’t until 1979 that the Diocese managed to purchase the ramshackle place. And now, completely refurbished in the simple style to which it has always been accustomed, it can sleep as many as 600 church people at a time. It’s a vast white-painted wooden pile five storeys high, each level completely ringed by its own complicated stretches of porch and outdoor stairs—an Escher print in 3-D, Shenandoah style. Virginia parishes vie fiercely for preferred weekend slots, when parishioners recover from the long drive on the interstates by gathering for fellowship in the Ladies Parlour on the second floor, or sharing potpie and cornbread dinners in the vast refectory hall, or submitting themselves to some serious lecturing or other sorts of pious carryings-on in the elegant third-storey ballroom with its floor to ceiling windows and its wide and gracious balconied porch.

Since moving to Virginia from New York City three years ago to teach at the seminary in Alexandria, I’ve been invited to Shrine Mont several times. I’ve preached from the curious stone pulpit in the outdoor chapel (which looks a little like a congealed lava flow), and I’ve lectured on art and the spiritual life to generously attentive crowds in that lovely ballroom. I’ve hiked up North Mountain to the fire tower surmounted by a cross, and eaten my share of canned fruit salad and pulled pork in the dining hall. It’s good to find a church spot where people remember to keep relatively quiet and to behave themselves and to say their prayers and to be nice to one another—behaviors that might seem pretty trite and obvious if they weren’t at such a premium in a church otherwise sorely bedeviled by lawsuits and name-calling and furious divisions. There’s a kind of country ordinariness at Orkney Springs that gives you a sense that church might go on being church even in spite of church.

I am prompted to thoughts like this because I just got back from spending a week in residence at the Orkney Springs Hotel doing something that had absolutely nothing churchy about it. For the past seven years, a remarkable cellist named Dorothy Amarandos, now in her 83rd year, has all but single-handedly organized a week-long music camp at the Orkney Springs Hotel—a summer camp for geeky adults. There were 48 of us this year, most of us middle-aged and older, many of us still relative beginners wrestling with this most recalcitrant and noble of instruments. When you look at the roster, you see that all of us were pretty successful type A personalities in high-powered jobs (there were five MD’s in the room, for starters). And yet there was nothing more humbling than what we had agreed to do last week, as we made ourselves vulnerable to each other and to our teachers in that most exposed of venues—a public recital. Learning to play the cello as an adult can be an isolating and lonely business. It’s seldom about success as we usually have experienced success. Few if any of us will ever get to a place where we would call ourselves cellists rather than cello players. The noise we make can be excruciating—no wonder we tend to keep our doors closed. And yet coming together like this for a week, guided by Dorothy and her immensely gifted colleagues, we all gave ourselves permission to break out of our lonely practice rooms, to play in consort with others—performing in trios, duets, and even in a full-voiced choir of 48 instruments, strains of Beethoven and Vivaldi echoing off the walls of that elegant third-floor ballroom. We were all engaged in kind of a secular ubuntu at Shrine Mont this past week.

As I say, there was nothing churchy about any of this, except, of course, that everything we did with and for each other in that quaint and gracious hotel was, at least for me, anyway, sacramental. In such a setting, prayer takes care of itself. On the last day of the workshop, there was a solemn little ceremony where Dorothy presented each of us with a certificate of congratulations. It was a sweet gesture, and touching to watch each of these highly accomplished people sheepishly come forward to accept our teacher’s simple tribute. The certificate included an epigraph from T.S. Eliot—“you are the music while the music lasts.” That line evokes for me the experience of that week in Orkney Springs, and the gift of quiet and hospitality that the diocese offered us in allowing us to use this gentle space. Sometimes the church does get it right.

For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in time and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. There are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
T.S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages,” from Four Quartets

The Rev. Roger Ferlo is Director of the Center for Lifetime Theological Education at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, where he also directs the Evening School of Theology. He was trained as a Shakespeare scholar, and frequently leads audience discussions on religion and drama for the Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington, DC.

Faithfulness in Adversity

By Howard Anderson

Being up here in the north woods, on a stunningly beautiful lake, I am remembering the faithful leaders of the Episcopal Church in this area. It was a part of the Diocese of Minnesota for most of the time the Church has been in Minnesota. But for a brief time, it was in the Missionary Diocese of Duluth (which is 200 miles east of Bad Medicine Lake.) The Ojibwe clergy whom I knew growing up said that if they hadn’t been good hunters and skilled fishermen, their families would have suffered hunger. “The stipends were pitiful,” but they remained faithful. To this day, the heroes of the faith, and the churches they established serve the Indian community with heart, hope and energy. In Ojibwe country, The White Earth Reservation has four churches, Red Lake two, Leech Lake three. The Dakota people are served by churches in three reservations and there are two urban, intertribal churches. My own reading of church history detects a subtext in which those churches under oppression or hardship tend to produce faithful and faith-filled Christians.

Most of my “church heroes” are people who were faithful in difficult situations. A Turtle Mountain (North Dakota) Ojibwe leader walked 800 miles round trip to secure a priest for the little congregation which, without prayer books, had read Morning Prayer faithfully for over 40 years. He had used all his worldly wealth to buy the lumber to build a church, and the lumber sat in his house for decades before it was built. Faithfulness in adversity.

I think of the “patron saint” of the Diocese of Minnesota, Enmegahbowh. He spent many years preaching the gospel which seemed to him to fall on deaf ears in the Ojibwe communities of northern Minnesota. Finally, he gave up and boarded a boat at Duluth on Lake Superior to return home to Ontario. The boat set out for Canada, only to be blown back into port by unseasonable winds. Twice more he boarded boats to return to Canada, and was blown back to Duluth. He finally got off the boat for good, perhaps shaking his fist at a God who would get Jonah where God wanted Jonah to be, and Enmegahbowh where God wanted Enmegahbowh to be. His wife and several children died because of the adversity of the place, and yet he stayed. He stayed and became true to his name, “The One Who Stands Before his People,” and for decades was a faithful deacon and priest serving as “archdeacon” of this vast and then trackless wilderness with Episcopal missions scattered over 40,000 square miles. Faithful in adversity.

I think of the women who knew they were called by God to be priests, some for decades, who didn’t give up on the Church. I think of the many gay men and lesbians who suffered horrendous discrimination and yet stayed with the Episcopal Church despite being used as the “poster children” in ideological and theological battles over which they had no control, not even a voice. I think of Bishop Gene Robinson, being treated so abysmally by so many, (including the Archbishop of Canterbury) being pilloried, made fun of, and yet, faithful in all things remains sweet of spirit and thoroughly committed to the Episcopal Church. Faithful in adversity.

The present situation in the Episcopal Church has a eerie and familiar pattern. Look at the Churches which are leaving the Episcopal Church are, largely, affluent and overwhelmingly white. When I have a tooth ache, I go to the dentist. Likewise, most laity who read or hear about some controversy in the church, ask their rector. I find it appalling that some bishops and priests would advocate leaving The Episcopal Church imagining themselves to be protectors of orthodoxy. Most of the lay people who are in the schismatic churches have been victims of the anger and fear of clergy and bishops uncomfortable with change, which is inevitable. The claim of Biblical authority many of them use to justify leaving the Episcopal Church ring false, and I grieve that some really fine theologically conservative lay people have been led by short sighted priests and bishops to take a step not only not necessary, but terribly disruptive and hurtful for all involved. We Anglicans have always been able to live in the tension of theological disagreement, because we agree on the essentials.

I think that the model of the faithful and often overlooked, underfunded and even forgotten Indian Episcopalians in this land of the northern lights could not be a greater contrast than those clergy pulling their affluent, white congregations out of the Episcopal Church. Years ago, at the organizing gathering of the Episcopal Synod of American in Ft. Worth, Texas, I was an observer sent by then Presiding Bishop Ed Browning. Sitting in the visitor’s gallery were about a dozen purple clad men with large pectoral crosses. I asked who they were. I was told that they were previously schismatic Episcopal clergy who broke off from other bodies of schismatic to form their own dioceses. Some had diocese with two or there parishes. Some had only a hundred or so communicants in the diocese over which they presided. How clear it became. It wasn’t about orthodoxy, it wasn’t about women’s ordination or sexual orientation and inclusion- it was about power for those who led their flocks out of the Episcopal Church. I wonder how many of them are still “bishops?” The present scramble by African and South American Primates to “colonize” the affluent conservative American parishes under the leadership of hurt and angry priests is a kind of reverse colonialism. This sort of activity perhaps could be expected in a post colonial, fruit basket upset 21st Century Anglicanism. These “poaching” Primates are being challenged at home by Pentacostalism, Islam and consumerism. They have societal problems that stagger the imagination. One can understand their desire to tap into the wealth of these disgruntled American parishes. But whatever happened to faithfulness?

The Rev. Dr. Howard Anderson is Warden and President of the Cathedral College at Washington National Cathedral. He was a long time General Convention deputy and most importantly, is grandfather to a five year old theologian, Will.

Episcopal Q,
Episcopal A

By Roger Ferlo

For those who write for deadlines, what follows is a familiar story. Over a year ago, I received a call from an editor at a prominent church publishing company asking me to write a short book entitled Episcopal Questions, Episcopal Answers. Since, until recently anyway, Episcopalians have never considered themselves big on answers, my initial smart-aleck response was to suggest that we re-name the project Episcopal Questions, and Yet More Episcopal Questions. But no, this was to be a part of a series that already included Presbyterian Questions, Presbyterian Answers, with a United Methodist Questions, United Methodist Answers on the way. Surely an Episcopalian could come up with something.

Now, three months before the deadline, what I’ve come up with—besides my usual schemes of procrastination—is a dead lack of certainty that this kind of enterprise makes sense. Like my Presbyterian and Methodist counterparts, I am organizing my questions by categories, trying to map what my systematic theologian friends might call the Great Loci—those perilous intersections where the intellectual rubber hits the spiritual road. We’re talking about the big words here: Human Nature, God the Father, Sin and Redemption, Last Things. But sometimes it’s hard to discern any differences between the way we handle these questions and the way my Presbyterian friends do, which I suppose is part of the ecumenical point. Questions like “Why is the church so full of ‘sinners’?” seem even more apt for Episcopalians than they do for Presbyterians, given our current state of affairs. “Why are Presbyterians associated with ‘predestination.’?” These days, the Episcopal version would probably have to read, “Why are Episcopalians associated so much with sex?”

But the biggest question is this: Who wants to read this stuff? Don’t get me wrong. How Episcopalians navigate the Great Loci, how we act in the world because of what we believe about the Big Questions is something I care a lot about. But too much church gets to you after a while. For those who know nothing about the Bible except the nonsense they read in newspapers, much less care about the difference between a Presbyterian synod and an Episcopal convention, it must sound like I’m writing in a dead language. The people I’d prefer to reach spend a lot more time surfing Google and Wikipedia—or even this blog—than they do reading books like the one I’ve been asked to write. Does anyone besides church-obsessed bloggers or seminary professors care any more about the difference between Episcopal and Presbyterian polities (there’s a church word for you), or what Calvin or Cranmer or the Thirty-Nine Articles say about predestination? And to be perfectly honest, I can’t even get straight what the word Episcopal means, or the word Anglican for that matter. Since I signed the contract, the words Anglican and Episcopal—which I grew up thinking were pretty much synonymous—have in some quarters come to seem mutually exclusive. I mean, how much of this dirty laundry do I want air in public?

But then, when I look at the questions I’ve come up with, I realize that even people who depend on Wikipedia might get interested. They care more than most people about getting some honest answers, even if they have to come up with them themselves. What makes us human? How can we know God? Does God control human beings? What’s the worst sin you can commit? What’s a sin, anyway? Does God will evil? What’s a trinity? Does God suffer? Do Episcopalians believe that Jesus’ mother never had sex? Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Are Episcopalians “saved”? Do I have to be Christian to pray?

These are questions that have some meat to them. The challenge is answering them without resorting to church-speak. I labor under a slight handicap here. In my job as a seminary professor, church-speak tends to come with the territory. My problem is that I am a great lover of what people often rightly revile as “organized religion,” perhaps because I am a great lover of paradoxes and oxymorons. I mean, for Episcopalians, paradoxes and oxymorons are us. Living in a messily disorganized church appeals to me, if only because whenever I experience God it’s usually through the fissures in life’s grand constructs, and not in the constructs themselves. That being said, I find myself trying to answer these questions not as an Episcopalian per se, and certainly not as some kind of Official Voice, but as a life-long Christian who has found in the North American Episcopal parishes I have known a fruitful way to live with God. The peculiar ins and outs of Episcopal thinking and Episcopal worship, our subtleties and hesitations and measured convictions, above all our shared sense that God is with us no matter what sort of mash we make of what the tradition has handed down to us—all this keeps me honest, makes me want to share what I’ve experienced, makes me want to think more cogently, pray more intelligently, act more like Jesus might have acted. God knows you don’t have to be an Episcopalian to do these things, but that’s the hand I’ve been dealt, and for the most part it’s been a pretty good hand.

So here goes.

The Rev. Roger Ferlo is Director of the Center for Lifetime Theological Education at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, where he also directs the Evening School of Theology. His books include Opening the Bible (Cowley 1997), Sensing God (Cowley 2001) and Heaven (Seabury 2007).

When it comes to hospitality, we lack practice

By Deirdre Good

I participated recently in a talk on hospitality at St. Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace in London. I thank them for their gracious welcome. That talk and the subsequent discussion got me thinking about ways in which we speak about and practice hospitality.

Any discussion about hospitality needs to be hospitable. How is a space welcoming? This particular discussion was conducted in a circle, which for many indicates inclusion. But people may choose to participate from beyond the circle for various reasons and we need to provide for that. We need to focus on the people to whom a welcome is shown, anticipating and facilitating their degrees of involvement in the event.

We can all agree that hospitality is a Christian virtue. But why are we thinking about hospitality at all? Hospitality is central to other religious traditions. Abraham's offering of food and protection to the three messengers of the Lord in Gen 18 becomes the paradigm for ancient Israelite, Jewish, and early Christian hospitality. In fact, hospitality to strangers is a mandate in most non-Western societies. I've been welcomed into the houses of complete strangers in Matere Valley, Nairobi and in the favellas of San Paulo in ways that I would never be welcomed into the apartments of strangers in Manhattan.

Openness to strangers reflects a mindset most of us who are Western don't intrinsically possess. Is this why our discussions of hospitality can dwindle to stories of our hosting (non-Western) strangers in our homes? But if our discussions and practice of hospitality become questions of whom we welcome into our homes (and for how long under what conditions), then we have lost the dynamic of exchange that hospitality presupposes. Hospitality has become a one-way street. We determine who is invited and who is excluded because it is our home, our castle. Such an interpretation is not about welcoming anyone-it is about control. Welcoming someone has become secondary to an assessment-a judgment by me as host about the kind of stranger that is welcome and the type of welcome that is appropriate. If we reduce hospitality to an arbitration of who is and who is not welcomed by us as hosts into our homes, and under what conditions, is this not a diminution of God's hospitality to the point of distortion?

I believe this is also true of debates about conditions and circumstances under which people may approach the communion table. If we enter into such debates, we have already decided that there is such a debate about who is welcome and who is not. I myself believe that on this question, the evidence of the gospels is univocal: Jesus practiced open table fellowship with respect to God's hospitality. It wasn't his table. He was received as a stranger, welcomed as a guest, and gave hospitality at the tables of strangers or acquaintances. Sometimes he learnt from others about brokering God's limitless inclusion.

The practice of hospitality is not about being a good host: it is about participating in a continual exchange of the roles of stranger, guest and host. It presupposes a network of relationships-an awareness of interdependence. We can see this best in the story of the two disciples encountering a stranger on the road to Emmaus. That stranger walks and talks along the road with them about recent events in Jerusalem. They offer him hospitality at the end of the day whereupon, invited to stay as a guest, he assumes the position of host and is identified by them as he breaks bread. On the road to Emmaus and in a place that is not his, a homeless, resurrected Jesus moves fluidly between roles of stranger, host and guest. Luke's Jesus offers Westerners the challenge of receiving and giving hospitality "to go." In Luke's gospel, journeys characterize and shape ministry; Jesus journeys to Jerusalem for most of the gospel while in Acts, disciples and apostles travel from Jerusalem to Samaria, to Europe, and eventually to Rome. Hospitality facilitates and defines Jesus' journey to Jerusalem; it identifies followers and disciples who listen and extend welcome (Mary and Martha, the mission of the Seventy, the Good Samaritan, Zacchaeus) and solidifies opposition (some Pharisees and scribes).

When we relocate the practice of Christian hospitality from who is and who is not welcome in our homes to the recognition that hospitality is offered and received in other places along the way, a different more permeable dynamic opens up. But changing the location of the welcome is only half the solution. Offering someone food in a soup kitchen, while it is a good thing in itself, is not actually hospitality because it is not rooted in an exchange of roles.

In post-biblical tradition, Abraham, the paradigm of hospitality, moves out of the familiarity of his house. He pitches a tent at the crossroads so as to welcome more strangers, according to the Testament of Abraham. Philo says Abraham ran out of his house and begged the strangers who were passing by his home to stay with him because he was so eager to extend hospitality to them. Abraham and Jesus confront our restrictive notions of hospitality, encouraging us to think about our human interdependence in giving and receiving hospitality on the way.

Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. While she is an American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and loves marmite which may explain certain features of her blog, On Not Being a Sausage.


Churching alone

By Missy Morain

I hate going to church alone. No, actually I despise going to church alone. I skip going to church on Sunday morning sometimes just so I will not have to go alone. Going alone and sitting there among people makes me fell even more alone than when I am at home all by myself.

Growing up church was always about family for me. I went with my family every Sunday, and skipping was not an option. I sat in the front pew with my mom, sisters, and brother while my father sat in the choir stalls. We always went to church school and came upstairs at the offertory and sat together as a family. The only time when it was different was when I was an acolyte. Then I would sit in the stalls with the rest of the acolytes. Conscious of the fact that I was supposed to be setting a good example, I tried to make faces at my sisters only when no one else was looking. Along the way church became very locked in as a place that I went with family.

When I left home for college I tried going to the local Episcopal Church but felt uncomfortable going alone and eventually stopped going. I am a natural introvert and felt uncomfortable walking in alone, sitting alone and then standing in the narthex watching while everyone around me carried on conversations but no one really looked at me. I compounded the problem by beginning to slip out quickly after the service so I wouldn't feel so strange. A few years later I went back to that parish as a youth leader and began to form friendships that kept the feeling of isolation at bay, but I was always conscious of the family groups that surrounded me. I also began to develop a new and much less traditional family composed of other single people who were following less traditional paths themselves.

I wonder if this is part of the reason why young adults don't go to church. We have noticed that young people come to church when they are beginning families but that there is a hole between when they graduate from high school and when they return to church. I wonder if part of the reason that young people stop going to church is because it can be lonely, and because the parish experience is generally geared to families. So that even surrounded by people in the adjoining pews, one can still feel intensely alone.

Eighteen months ago I moved to Washington, D. C., and began the process of finding a new parish. I had never lived anywhere where there was a choice of more than one or two Episcopal parishes and figured that this was my time to explore the ways that parishes differed from each other. Some places were very welcoming; at others it was hard not to feel intensely alone again. I know that eventually I will again build up that community but until I do, going to church is one of the hardest things that I do.

Missy Morain, Program Coordinator for the Cathedral College Center for Christian Formation at Washington National Cathedral, is keeper of the blog Episcopal Princess.

Post-everything

By Richard Helmer

A couple in the congregation where I serve recently told me that they considered themselves post gay. They are parents. They are supportive spouses for each other. They are friends of many. They are seekers after a spiritual path. They are devoted members of the community. And they will not be defined simply by their sexuality any more than I will.

My immediate response was an intuitive nod of “that makes sense.” But what they said has me mulling over the implications of what it means to be post anything.

On a recent vacation in Japan, I was further struck by a conversation I had with a friend who leads an English-speaking ministry for the Nippon Sei Ko Kai in Nagoya. What would the ministry call itself on its new website appealing to English speakers? Would the featured worship service in English be called Anglican or Episcopal, or some combination of the two? When the people the community is hoping to attract come from Canada, Australia, India, the United States, and England (and that’s just for starters) what is the most appropriate description for the faith community they will become together?

In our conversation, I found myself reflecting that “Anglican” is almost a dirty word now for some of us Episcopalians. It has become saddled with a great deal of recent unpleasantness and is the staked claim for everyone from belligerent archbishops to a controversial draft covenant to the so-called “continuing churches” that are no longer part of the Communion. In his recent critique of the proposed Anglican Covenant, Frank Turner writes that Anglicanism is becoming one of the “isms” we have learned to mistrust:

A way of defining who’s in and who’s out, who’s at table and belongs and who doesn’t, and a rallying point around which we battle for an identity that is under constant siege from those we most deplore.

Likewise, I imagine “Episcopal” also is sticking in the throats of some of our most vociferous detractors. But, then, polemic has always worked this way. The Anglican landscape is overrun with a host of slippery and divisive labels. The well-worn monikers of conservative and liberal have been dressed up as “reasserter” and “reappraiser.” “Evangelicals” square off against “progressives,” and many of assume that our audience knows what we mean when we use these words. They describe our favorite straw people to knock down. They describe us over and against those we least like.

Perhaps we all suffer a universal disease that might be described as labelism. Labels are ways we control and define others, if not ourselves. The quickest way to objectify another human being is to twist a descriptive label into a slur, and then we join the long dark history littered with bodies, bloody wars, and self- and other-loathing theologies. We put labels in scare quotes and live into their narrow meanings at great peril.

We must constantly be on our guard that the myths we set up with our labels are always threatening to become idols; and if idols, then demons for both ourselves and others. This is the ancient wisdom of our spiritual ancestors, who believed that to name something – to coin a label – was to take control of the object in question.

The struggle is to live into the new life the Spirit has given us, a life defined not by labels but by embodied, relational experience that explodes definitions and objectification. The radical life after Pentecost into which we are now called is about the break down of identity around division, and a new, rough-and-tumble, almost impossible-to-define community in Christ where all the distinctions between male and female, rich and poor, sinners and righteous, black and white, gay and straight, and friends and strangers are subsumed in God’s abundance grace.

The haunting implication of this call is that we must learn to even carry the label Christian lightly. It is not the be-all and end-all of who we are to become. If anything, our labels and self-definitions must be ultimately shed if we are to live fully into God in Christ – that God who has too many names to count. . . or no names at all. . . and for good reason.

Perhaps we are not a people called merely to be post modern, post straight, post gay, or post Christian, but to live into a life-long journey towards God’s radical grace; of becoming, quite simply, post everything.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer, is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. He has served in interfaith, ecumenical, diocesan, and national church organizations. He blogs regularly about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, and church politics at Caught by the Light.

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