Newsflash from Cair Paravel: C.S.Lewis was Irish!

by Deirdre Good

When we ignore or gloss over major aspects of a person like C. S. Lewis—roots, religious affiliation, ethnicity—we diminish our own understanding of our subject, rendering the person less rich and less than complete.

Current Irish celebrations of the life and death of Clive Staples Lewis highlight a case in point. November 22nd, 2013 was the 50th anniversary of his death in the UK. But his life began in Ireland. Lewis was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland on November 29th, 1898. His grandfather, the Rev. Thomas Hamilton, Rector of St. Mark’s, Dundela in East Belfast, baptized Clive Staples Lewis in St Mark’s on January 29th 1899. Lewis’ parents were from County Cork. His father Albert was a solicitor whose parents moved to Belfast to work in the shipbuilding industry and his mother Florence, “Flora,” was the daughter of a Protestant clergyman who served a parish in East Belfast. She studied at the Royal University of Ireland in Belfast where she gained First class Honors in Logic and Second Class Honors in Mathematics.

The Belfast Telegraph in a recent article, “Westminster Abbey honours CS Lewis alongside literary elite 50 years after his death,” (Nov 23rd, 2013) identifies Lewis as Belfast’s most famous literary son. In Belfast City Hall, a week of events recently marked Lewis’ life and death. St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast has invited people to record in a leather-bound book (between Nov 22nd and Nov 29th 2013) how they have been influenced by Lewis’ writings. It’s website highlights Lewis’ family connection to the Cathedral: his uncle, Sir William Ewart and several of the Ewart family are commemorated there. On Nov 28th at Linen Hall Library in Belfast, local author Sandy Smith discussed his new 2013 book C.S.Lewis and the Island of His Birth investigating “his strong Ulster Scots links.” The C. S. Lewis Festival programme identifies Lewis’ early religious affinities whilst in Ireland noting that after his father removed Lewis from Campbell College Belfast to send him to school at Malvern College in England in 1913, he became an atheist there at age fifteen. These are lively discussions of Lewis’ identities. Indeed, the Irish celebrations clearly recognize the importance of his Irish identity and Church of Ireland affiliations but the BBC report of the Lewis commemoration at Westminster Abbey labels him only as an author of the best-selling Chronicles of Narnia and as a respected Oxford scholar and literary critic. It fails to note his birth in Belfast and his Irish origins.

It is unfortunate but not surprising that English coverage glosses over the Irish roots of Lewis, but one wonders why there is so little mention of it in the American media given the large Irish population in the US. Irish identities are complicated but Protestants have been in Ireland since the 16th C which is as long as Anglos and Hispanics and the French have been in the US and North America. Are we saying that only Irish Catholics are truly Irish?

castle.jpgTo take Lewis’ Irish character seriously is to recognize and define him as someone with two cultural identities: he was born Irish, and despite the fact that he resided and worked in England, he maintained an Irish identity: heaven in The Great Divorce is an “emerald green” land. Although Lewis lived most of his life as an Oxford and Cambridge scholar, his dreams were of Ireland as he notes in his diary, and he visited the north or the south of Ireland almost every year. Lewis once described heaven as “Oxford placed in the middle of County Down.” In the Glens of Antrim (Northern Ireland) and in the golden sands of the Antrim coast at Portrush, Ballycastle and elsewhere, we glimpse Narnia. Dunluce Castle (now ruins - see photo) may be the model for Cair Paravel. The Horse Bree in The Horse and His Boy, describes it: “The happy land of Narnia—Narnia of the heathery mountains and the thymy downs, Narnia of the many rivers, the plashing glens, the mossy caverns and the deep forests... Oh the sweet air of Narnia!” That Bree speaks of glens identifies an Irish (or Scottish, Welsh, or Cornish) landscape. What confirms Lewis’ voice is the cadences of exile that Bree expresses—as Lewis himself does—in yearning for a distant homeland. Such longing became a theme connected to joy in his writings: in his book Surprised by Joy, Lewis says "All joy...emphasizes our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire. Our best havings are wantings."

Irish currents run through the novels: to call Peter High King is to use historical Irish descriptions of High Kings of Ireland ruling over lesser kings and queens. Peter is High King in relation to Queens Susan, Lucy and King Edward in the Chronicles of Narnia.

As for his own reflections, Lewis himself surmised that he wasn’t recognized as an Irish author in his lifetime perhaps because he was a self-identified Irish Protestant atheist not a Roman Catholic. Alistair McGrath, in his excellent new 2103 biography, C.S.Lewis--A Life, Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, says, “many still regard Lewis as lying outside the pale of true Irish cultural identity on account of his Ulster Protestant roots.” While McGrath discusses Lewis’ various identities including his Ulster Protestant roots, his atheism, his conversion to theism and then Christianity, and his Anglicanism, still other questions remain unaddressed: how did Lewis negotiate expressions of his dual cultures? Was he drawn to authors like William Butler Yeats, “an author exactly after my own heart,” he says in a letter to a friend, precisely because he wanted to investigate how Yeats “de-Anglicized” his own literary vernacular which he describes thus: “Yeats writes plays and poems of rare spirit and beauty about our old Irish mythology.” Lewis investigates Irish language in other poets: he sees in Spenser’s poem, Faerie Queen, the effects of Spenser’s sojourn in Ireland with its “quests and wanderings and inextinguishable desires, and Ireland itself – the soft, wet air, the loneliness, the muffled shapes of the hills, the heart-rending sunsets.”

A failure to recognize Lewis’ negotiated Irish identity is a failure to identify central interests of his life and writings. It is challenging to incorporate various religious and ethnic identities into our understanding of people but our lives and identities are indeed composite and irreducible. By recognizing the intricacies of Lewis’ ethnic and religious identity, we broaden and deepen the means by which we try to understand all aspects of his life and thereby we expand our own horizons.

Dr. Deirdre Good is Academic Dean and professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. Her blog is called On Not Being a Sausage.

Ten tips on addressing conflict within the church

by Eric Bonetti

Conflict. Even the word itself makes us cringe a little. It has a hard, biting edge. In the back of our minds, the word conjures up unsettling images -- of dentists' drills, of that last really bad cold, of falling out of a tree as a child.

Fortunately, when we understand conflict, we learn to take a deep breath, to relax a little, to move past the immediate issues, and to view conflict as perhaps even a stepping stone to positive change. We may never come to enjoy conflict, but with perspective we learn to put it in its proper place.

So, next time you feel like you're about to be run over by a truck named conflict, here are ten tips to help you understand and work through conflict:

1. Conflict is inevitable -- Much as we'd like to pretend otherwise, conflict is as old as humanity. It happens among the closest friends, even among Jesus and the disciples. And like death and taxes, it comes to us all. So don't panic when you see conflict coming--it's just part of life.

2. Churches may be particularly susceptible to conflict -- Avoiding conflict is easy when we get to pick and choose those around us. But in an environment that embraces diversity, there will, by definition, be a wider array of perspectives and viewpoints. As a result, there will be a greater likelihood of conflict.

3. Conflict doesn't make you bad -- Conflict, in and of itself, has no moral implications. Just because there's conflict afoot doesn't mean you're a bad person. Similarly, the presence of conflict doesn't reflect badly on your parish, your vestry, your priest, or your bishop.

4. Conflict can be healthy -- Growth requires change, and change engenders conflict. Handled appropriately, conflict can be a sign of positive change and growth. So next time you feel tension in the air, consider the possibility that something good is in the works.

5. Suppressing conflict is unhealthy -- Suppressing or ignoring conflict inevitably spells trouble. The underlying issue doesn't go away. Instead, like a locust, it goes underground, only to emerge later in spectacularly noisy fashion.

6. It's all about how we handle conflict -- Moral meaning attaches not to conflict itself, but to how we handle conflict. Remembering that we all are made in the image of God, assuming good intent, and avoiding "scorched earth" responses can go a long way towards de-escalating even the most difficult situation.

7. Choose engagement over fight or flight -- The old axiom about fight or flight as a response to threats misses the third option: Engagement. When conflict rears its ugly head, take a deep breath, relax, and "lean into" the issue. Promote engagement through use of "I" statements versus "you" statements, and by avoiding sweeping generalities. For example, "I feel like you are often late to meetings," is better then "You are late to every single meeting!" Test for understanding by reflecting back the other person's comments, "So you are saying it would be easier for you if the meeting were a half hour later?"

8. Get outside help when needed -- Sometimes, a neutral third party can be invaluable in breaking through layers of anger and misperception. If you're just not connecting with the other person, consider asking your priest, a professional mediator, or other trusted person for help.

9. Know that some situations require an immediate response -- Situations involving bullying or workplace violence, whether verbal or physical, require an immediate response to avoid potential damage to people or liability. Similarly, potential violations of fair employment laws, the canons, or issues involving sexual misconduct warrant a special response. When in doubt, act immediately to protect the vulnerable.

10. Persistent, high-level conflict is a warning sign -- Church, like work and home, should be something to which you look forward. If you find yourself dreading that next vestry or altar guild meeting, or you routinely dash out after services to avoid coffee hour, consider the possibility that a larger, more serious issue is afoot, and take steps to address it before it becomes even more toxic.

In short, while no one enjoys conflict, there's much that you can do to manage conflict, to reduce anxiety, and to move towards successful outcomes.


Eric Bonetti is a nonprofit professional in Northern Virginia with experience in change management and strategic planning. He is an active member of Grace Episcopal Church in Alexandria VA.

Frank Turner: a major historian of Anglican life

By Frederick Quinn

Frank Turner was a major historian of modern Britain and a significant commentator on the struggle of the Anglican Communion to find its identity. His unexpected death at age 66, a few months after he had been appointed to a five-year term as librarian of Yale University, is a deep loss to the wider church and to his wife, the Rev. Ellen Louise Tillotson, rector of a vibrant, diverse parish, Trinity Episcopal Church in Torrington, Conn.

Turner served for seven years as director of the Beinicke Rare Book and Manuscript library, and as university provost from 1988 to 1992 during a tumultuous time in Yale’s history. At heart he was a teacher, which the university recognized in awarding him its Undergraduate Teaching Award in 1971. He held the John Hay Whitney Professor of History chair, taught European and English history, was the author of several path-breaking books and a steady stream of major articles and conference presentations. John Henry Newman, the Challenge to Evangelical Religion (2002) is a riveting page-turner on Newman and British intellectual and social history of the nineteenth century, and the cornerstone biography of Newman in our time..

From 2007 until last month Frank and I exchanged sometimes-lengthy email observations about the Anglican Communion, principally about lumpy emergence of the Anglican Covenant and the rhetorical glitter around the ascendency of John Henry Newman toward Roman Catholic sainthood. Turner’s writing was characterized by personal modesty, steady focus, and an amazingly approachable prose style marked by clarity and anchoring his subjects in their broader place in English or European history. All this was laced with a riotous sense of humor, sometimes in one-line comments, sometimes in passing on a howler quote from the good and the great that had come his way. He had a vivid collection of stories about encounters along the researcher’s way, such as when, after an intense day in the archives, its respectful custodians offered to lead Frank in to the vast, carefully-preserved office of Edward B. Pusey at sunset, where a deeply polished wooden box was opened to disclose the death mask of that Oxford Movement figure.

In both his commentaries on the Covenant and in his books on Newman, Frank carefully chronicled the distortions of those who systematically rewrote religious history to fit polemical purposes. Newman outlived most of his opponents and wrote and rewrote his Apologia to favor his current views, and his historical probings into early heresies and their impact on later Christianity were mostly lucidly contrived fantasy pieces. Frank combed the archives in patient detail and established the document trail of Newman’s special pleadings. “Frank, you would have made a great detective if the dice had rolled that way,” I once observed over lunch in what Frank called a “Connecticut Italian” restaurant. As might be expected, his work on Newman took heavy hits from a gaggle of loyalist writers who tried to keep an unmovable protective veil over their vision of Newman. But Frank remained firm; he was generous in his sympathy for his subject, but clear in documenting his skilled manipulations.

Frank also saw the proposed Anglican Covenant representing careful distortions of Anglican history purposefully crafted to support ideological stances. His essay on “The Imagined Community of the Anglican Communion,” first published in Episcopal Café on September 9, 2009, attracted one of the largest numbers of thoughtful respondents of any such Internet publication. Three quotations suggest the clarity of his vision and breath of historical perspective:

“At its worst, it has come to represent an imagined community several of whose Episcopal spokespeople now seek to persecute and degrade or relegate into a second track churches who have opened themselves, their process of ordination, and their episcopate to gay and lesbian people. In this respect, this ecclesiastical imagined community replicates in its drive to exclude the persecution that ethnic minorities have experienced at the hands of dominant nationalist groups from the early nineteenth century to the present day.”
"What most notably demonstrates that the so-called Anglican Communion is merely a still-emerging imagined community is the fact that only in the past few years (really in the past few months) have some of its leaders decided that they must construct a covenant determining what beliefs and practices actually constitute its theological and ideological basis. This is to say, the Anglican Communion presumably having existed for its present proponents since the first Lambeth Conference in 1867 must now figure out what holds it together theologically and ecclesiastically. What the effort to establish a covenant demonstrates is that the so-called Anglican Communion does not really exist but must be forcibly drawn into existence. Radical innovation rather than tradition hence drives the process.”
“The Episcopal Church through its long established institutions of ecclesiastical governance combating lay and clerical voices in equal measure, has chosen to tread the path of Christian liberty. Over the past decades the Episcopal Church has concluded that the perpetuation of unity with an imagined Anglican Communion being increasingly drawn into a reality for the purpose of persecuting and repressing gay and lesbian people is not acceptable and is not Christian. The Episcopal Church has decided to reassert not only that Jesus Christ has redeemed us, but that he has made us free. In accord with St. Paul’s injunction to the Galatians the Episcopal Church has chosen to stand fast ‘in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free’ and not to be “entangles again with the yoke of bondage.”
Rest Eternal Grant Unto Him
Grief is both communal and personal. The wide community of university administrators, library staff, historians, students, and friends mourn the passing of a well-respected colleague and friend; for his wife, Ellen, the loss is inconsolable. When I saw the headline bearing news of his death, at first I thought it was a mistake. A day earlier I had mentally composed a paragraph I hoped to send to Frank that weekend. Instead, I sat in silence in the late autumnal light, reading and rereading prayers from the Burial Office, seeking hope amidst the awful reality of death. For me, the process of grief is inextricably linked with music and on that night and the next, I found solace in listening to Alfred Brendel playing Schubert’s B Flat Major Piano Sonata, and dedicated the experience to Frank. Brendel chose the late Schubert work to end his farewell recital in 2008. Its elegiac flow combines hope, depth, and gentleness and resonates with the memory of Frank Turner.

Frederick Quinn is an Episcopal priest and author of books and articles on history, law, and religion. He is former chaplain to the Anglican diplomatic communities in Prague and Warsaw.

Father Mark: A prisoner's ministry among prisoners

By Donald Schell

“. . .and the gates of Hell will not be able to stand against it.”

This Eastertide thinking of Jesus bursting the gates of hell reminded me of my friend Fr. Mark.

Mark was an Episcopal priest and in his conflicted, imperfect way, a very good priest. In 1986, as Mark lay dying of pneumocystis pneumonia, he told me, “I’ve had lots of sex, but never a lover.” AZT was licensed for HIV/AIDS treatment in ’87, the year after Mark’s death. Reading of AZT my first thought was that an accident of time had deprived us of one of the good ones.

I got to know Mark in 1980, going into the jail with him every Saturday morning to help him lead a Eucharist. Helping the county jail chaplain made a fascinating contrast with my first years of my adventure living my hopes and dreams founding St. Gregory’s Church, San Francisco.

Jail prisoners were purse-snatchers, brawlers, drunks, and homeless guys who didn’t keep a low enough profile and got picked up for ‘public nuisance.’ When I volunteered Mark was already pushing a book cart between the cell blocks every day, helping prisoners get in touch with people outside, and whatever Mark could do to ‘offer the prisoners God’s unconditional love.’ The Sheriff was working to improve jail conditions too. Mark and the sheriff were good friends.

We gathered for our Eucharist adjacent another open cellblock where “Soul Train” blared on an insistently loud TV. That TV, the echoing slam of steel doors in concrete halls, and the hum of fluorescent lights accompanied all our singing and everything else anyone said or did in the jail.

After prisoners asked us about the weather outside, because, they said, knowing whether it was sunny or overcast helped them remember about people outside and hope for eventual freedom, Mark would begin each Eucharist with this prayer: “O God we are here. And you are here. It is enough. Amen.”

Presence. “It is enough.” What Mark offered visiting prisoners was just that simple? He looked and saw them with open eyes. He seemed to expect nothing in return. ‘Mark’s nothing in return’ showed me how much expectation and attention to outcome I carried.

Week by week we took turns leading a Bible-study/sermon and celebrating, and we always ended our Eucharist with the post-communion prayer from the Rite II Burial Eucharist:

Almighty God, we thank you that in your great love
You have fed us with the spiritual food and drink
Of the Body and Blood of your Son Jesus Christ,
And have given us a foretaste of your heavenly banquet.
Grant that this sacrament may be to us a comfort in affliction,
And a pledge of our inheritance in that kingdom
Where there is no death, neither sorrow nor crying,
But the fullness of joy with all your saints;
Through Jesus Christ our Savior. AMEN.

“Comfort, and a pledge and foretaste of the feast where we’re all welcome,” Mark told me. “We say that prayer because it’s what we want to give them.”

Some week nights I’d return to co-lead a Bible study with Mark and meet individually with prisoners who wanted counseling, confession, or prayer. Bible study was fascinating and I was constantly surprised to recognize how forcefully fundamentalism can grip people who define themselves as ‘rebels’ or ‘born to raise hell.’ But I found the counseling hard. I’d get stuck, worried at what I was hearing and dismayed at how little I had to say in response. Though I admired what Mark was doing, with each visit to the jail I got more impatient to see prisoners’ new choices, some sign of growth, what a liberal looks for as conversion.

Finally, I told Mark I’d had a touching, truthful-feeling conversation with a prisoner. “How wonderful,” Mark said. “Isn’t is a privilege that we get to have these conversations with them in the jail where they’re sober? Jail makes it easier for us to see how beautiful they are. You can’t see that on the outside.”

“But Mark,” I protested. “Don’t you expect things can change for them?”

“Mostly they’re beyond change,” Mark replied. “Some have been hurt too badly. Others are too ashamed of what they’ve done, especially to people that loved them. And some can’t even see or do everything they can to keep from seeing.”

Mark seemed to sense how baffled I was by what I he was saying.

“Yesterday,” he continued, “I saw an old friend from in here sleeping drunk in a doorway… he’ll be back soon. Shoplifting, aggressive panhandling, drunk and disorderly, or one of those small troubles that will get him back here instead of prison. They hit it right on their crime again and again, just enough to come back here. Inside again, he’ll sober up and tell us more of his story and we’ll have a good moment with a beautiful human being. Can’t you see, Donald? It’s too late for some of us to change.”

I heard Mark’s ‘us’ loud and clear.

Another day Mark said that being like the prisoners made him patient with them.

Finally one day Mark explained that he understood the prisoners because he’d been in jail himself. Years before, serving as a newly ordained curate in another state, he’d propositioned an undercover cop in a public restroom. Mark phoned his rector, that is, his new boss from jail, and the rector and Mark’s bishop showed up to bail him out.

“I was glad to see the bishop,” Mark said. “Secrets don’t help. He told me to be more careful, and I learned that part pretty well, but there are times it’s hard. It can be pretty lonely being me.”

Mark drank when his loneliness got to be more than he could take, mostly on weekends. He drank and cruised bars in the Castro. He called it ‘my little drinking problem.’ I never saw him drunk, but I heard the results from his upstairs landlord couple, another priest and his wife. A couple of times they’d had to come very late when Mark had come home very late and too shaky to get his key in the keyhole. They’d let him in and put him to bed.

After about eighteen months of Saturdays in jail, Mark told me our bishop had asked him to found a board for jail chaplaincy in the diocese. He wanted me and a lawyer friend to organize the board. Mark’s invitation was a relief to me. Founding a board felt right.

I wanted to feel commitment and hear choices and see people and work maturing. Ten years of priesthood had taught me how exhilarating I found it to help people make tough, courageous choices like finding a new vocation as an artist or a social entrepreneur, or like leaving safe employment to start a new company. Founding the board felt like something with my name on it. It fit how Mark and I were different. It gave me lawyers and teachers and therapists to work with, people I understood.

“Don’t worry,” Mark said. “I’ll find other volunteers to go in with me.”

I learned a lot with the board and was pleased when we were raising enough to support Mark and do other jail work too. It felt good when the board elected me president. Mark was right - I enjoyed the board work.

Then a priest on the board who ran an alcoholism rehab program - a colleague that Mark had recruited - and two other board members - olds friends of Mark’s who were Cursillo stalwarts but also active in Alcoholics Anonymous – got to talking about our friend’s drinking. We talked to Mark’s upstairs neighbors. They were concerned too. So the six of us decided the jail chaplaincy and Mark himself were crying out for an alcoholism intervention.

The rehab program coordinator organized it; we got our bishop’s backing, we contacted the Pension Fund about getting Mark a temporary disability leave, we found residential rehab program that specialized in working with clergy, we purchased two plane tickets and one of us volunteered to fly there with him. Then we talked through the intervention and rehearsed our lines.

He thought he was coming to a board meeting, but instead we delivered our complete plan for Mark’s getting help, carefully lined out in all our voices just as we’d rehearsed it.

Mark thanked us profusely, and he said he saw how much we loved him, but he insisted that he would not go - he couldn’t walk away from the prisoners for a month because they needed him.

We said we could make his taking the month for the program a condition of his continuing work at the jail.

Mark shrugged and said he’d been surviving somehow before we’d been paying him, so figured he could find a way to survive without income. We’d thought his work was on the line. But he knew that all he had was offering prisoners God’s love, and so he asked our prayers as he said he’d worked in his own way to address the problem.

Our intervention was a failure. It saddens me twenty-five years later to write that. What if…

But I think Mark may have had an inkling of the hard drying out he’d be facing very soon, under an oxygen tent with pneumonia, the closest AIDS had hit so far for most of us. He welcomed us as we spent good hours with him in his hospital room. Sometimes he said his prayer, “Oh God, we are here…” He was peaceful, resigned, funny, and eager to talk about all he was doing to plan his funeral.

The funeral was a month or so after diagnosis stopped Mark’s daily rounds in the jail.

For Mark’s funeral, his first boss, the rector who’d bailed him out, flew in to preach. He laughed as he told us that Mark had dictated most of the sermon to him in phone calls from his hospital bed. It was a sermon about freedom in God. And imperfection. And loneliness. And healing. Then Mark’s old friend gave, in Mark’s words a Gospel charge to various people in the packed church. And when it came to Mark’s good friend the Sheriff, the preacher said that Mark wanted him to stand up. He did. “Sheriff, Mark said you’re a good Catholic and will know what Jesus said about this in Luke. Mark says, Sheriff, do the right thing - let the prisoners go free.” The packed, standing room only church exploded in laughter. One of several times we mourners burst out laughing. It wasn’t the only word from Mark that brought the crowd to shouts of laughter. Our liturgy ended with Mark’s favorite hymn from the jail Eucharist, ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’

Mark was a saint. Obviously he was a broken and flawed human being, but he was a saint in whom many of us saw the radiance of God. Knowing Mark made me notice something I’d never heard in Jesus’ promise to Peter that the gates of hell could not prevail against his Church. I’d always heard that text and imagined the church standing firm, holding its ground in battle as the gates of hell advanced. But the ancient gates are locked to keep the prisoners in. Orthodox icons show Jesus bursting into Hell and seizing Adam and Eve to draw them out. Often the icons show the broken gates tumbling into a dark abyss beneath.

In The Odes of Solomon, a second century Christian hymn, Jesus proclaims -

“I have shattered the bars of iron and the iron has become red-hot; It has melted at my presence and nothing more has been shut because I am the gate for all beings. I went to free the prisoners they belong to me and I abandon no one… I have sown my fruits in the hearts of mortals and I have changed them into myself…” (quoted from Olivier Clement’s Roots of Christian Mysticism)
Once again in October of 1986 Jesus had shattered the bars of iron and burst the gates of hell, and another prisoner God loved was free.

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

The woman around the corner

By Greg Jones

When Moses went up the holy mountain to speak with God it changed him. Numbers says that Moses spoke to God “mouth to mouth," that “he beheld the form of the Lord.” Yes, when Moses spoke to God, and God to Moses, “mouth to mouth," you better believe it changed him.

Moses saw the light and he was changed. If you saw a burning bush, a pillar of fire, and the glorious countenance of God on high, you’d be different too. But Moses, in his enlightenment, in his illumination, came back not proud, but humble. In the enlightenment of what he witnessed, he came back not haughty, but veiled in humility. After all, he didn’t want the people to idolize him, to put him on a pedestal, to build a tabernacle around him.

For Moses knew that Moses was not God, but an enlightened witness for God – to a fragile people, still in national infancy, weak and wounded by four centuries of oppression, violence and abuse. No, Moses didn’t want to be worshipped by hungry souls, ready perhaps to miss the point. He just wanted to be faithful. And he was.

When Jesus went up the mountain and God’s glory in Him was revealed, He wouldn’t allow the witnesses to miss the point. Yes, He was revealed to Peter, James and John as God’s own expression, and they too beheld the form of God as Jesus. But then He led them down; to do what He came for; not to be trumpeted in Glory, but to serve. Not to be boothed up, but to go forth: to heal, to save, to love the children of this mortal coil who suffer still under sin and death.

Moses was changed by his encounter with God and, eventually, so were Peter, James and John. All were enlightened; for real, not for pride, as servant-witnesses to the Light of God: who wills all to be healed, loved and cherished.

Have you suffered? Do you still? From oppression? Violence? Bondage to fear and death and grief and worry? Do you know God’s precious love for you?

Last week, I drove up to Washington D.C. in the midst of its great snow. (Not many left North Carolina for D.C. last week!) But, I drove straight up 95, right across Memorial Bridge, up the gorgeously snow heavy Rock Creek Parkway, and after a stop at Booeymonger's for a bagel, I made my way to Chevy Chase, to the funeral of the woman who first showed me the precious love of God.

Fran Dabrowski was a neighbor. My dad lived next door to her when he was a kid in Chevy Chase in the 1950s, and in 1970, when I was a year old, my folks took me around the corner to Fran's house, where I fit right in. She had eight kids -- and in addition to helping to take care of me, she sheltered so many fragile persons in that old house on Leland Street.

When my parents divorced, I went to Fran’s nearly every day for a few hours of care and play. I basically lived in her house from age 1 to age 9, when she began a teaching career at Georgetown Day School, where she was also much beloved.

My first Christian experience was as a toddler in the Chevy Chase Methodist Church Cherub Choir, which she led. I learned about church, about hymns, about robes and weekly service to God. The first sentence of the message of God I ever learned, Fran taught me:

“All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.”

This humble, hardworking, woman (with eight kids of her own and a household filled with refugees from scattered lives) convinced me that God loved me and all creatures – great and small. I was small when this enlightened witness to Christ showed me the powerful love of Jesus, and I’ve felt great ever since. Not in pride. Not in glory. But in being included by a Gracious Lord who sent someone like Fran to find me.

Are you feeling small? We all do. And we all are. But I’m convinced God loves us, and we can grow in His love, by following His Son. If you know this, if you’ve seen the light in the face of some enlightened witness to Christ, then share it, with all the small, who need to see it too.

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.

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.

In Memoriam: Krister Stendahl

By Deirdre Good and Jane Redmont

Krister Stendahl, New Testament scholar, ecumenist, former Dean of Harvard Divinity School, Bishop in the Church of Sweden, advocate for women and lesbian and gay people, and pioneer in Jewish-Christian relations, died on Tuesday, April 15 in Boston. A memorial service for Bishop Stendahl will be held at Harvard’s Memorial Church on Friday, May 16 at 3:00 p.m.

At his core, Krister Stendahl was a priest. A reverent and exquisite presider, he celebrated a weekly Eucharist at Harvard Divinity School, early in the morning on a weekday, with a cluster of students and a handful of faculty and administrators whose affiliations ranged from Unitarian Universalist to Roman Catholic. He did this when he was Dean and again when he returned to the faculty after his time as Bishop of Stockholm, faithfully. He preached short, beautiful homilies, choosing his words well, always giving time to silence.

As Dean of HDS in the late 1960s and 1970s, Krister --most of us called him by his first name-- navigated a society, academy, and church in the throes of profound upheaval, the politics of Harvard, teaching, fund-raising, and leadership in the World Council of Churches. Yet it was his office we visited to talk about God. We were, of course, in awe of him --the Swedish accent, the fused spine, the slow, measured speech may have had something to do with that-- but drawn always by his kindness, his attention to each visitor, his discerning wisdom, and his palpable involvement with the Holy One of Blessing, who lives with us in the world and whose mysterious ways remain beyond those of our human minds and hearts. A man of solid ego and strong speech, he also knew the limits of the self. In his later years especially, he reflected on them with his customary blunt honesty and love of the Bible.

Krister's love of and skill with language translated into poetry as well as wit in the dialogue of daily life, in his practiced colloquialisms, in his sermons and lectures --and all this in English, his second language. He did not publish as many books as some of his learned colleagues, but when he did, his insights were memorable. Whether about the apostle Paul, the challenges of interreligious conversation, or the language of liturgy, they turned our thinking inside out and echoed down through the years. When Krister did not publish his words, we who were privileged to be with him at liturgies and lectures held the words and the sound of his voice inside us. There is a Stendahl oral tradition spanning at least half a century and only recently captured on video. One Good Friday in the 1980s or early 1990s, Krister preached the entire Seven Last Words of Jesus service at Harvard's Memorial Church. After the service, one of us asked him whether he might be willing to part with a copy of his text. "I had no notes," he said simply. So we carry his wisdom in our memories and into our own times in pulpit and classroom.

In his 1958 (Eng. 1966) book, The Bible and the Role of Women, written in the Swedish context of the debate on women's ordination, Krister Stendahl addresses the argument that because Jesus called only male apostles, only males may become priests. “By what right is this act made binding in ministry and interpreted that only males may serve in ministry?” he asks. In the cultural context in which apostles were identified with the 12 tribes of Israel, he notes, what other cultural alternative was there? He confessed in a talk to a gathering of new bishops at General Theological Seminary that he was tempted to ask Cardinal Joseph Bernardin how many Catholic priests were Jews. Wouldn't Jesus' Jewishness, he asked, rank more highly than his maleness in traits of the incarnation?

Of course there are New Testament passages that support women's subordination grounded in the order of creation. However, Galatians 3:26-28 breaks through this order of creation to describe a new creation in Christ overcoming separation between Jew and Greek, slave and free. The third pairing, “male and female,” alludes to the Greek translation of Genesis 1:27, “male and female created He them.” In Christ, says the Galatians passage, the basic division of male and female is overcome and the law of creation overturned. Krister points out that in the New Testament the question of any cultic role for women is never separate from the role of women in ordinary life, and that this role (subordinate, of course) is seen as founded in the order of creation.

It becomes extremely difficult then for us to assent to women's emancipation in civil life and to hold to subordination in the ecclesiastical area unless we make the church the last bastion of the “biblical” order-of-creation view. Yet that stance too contains a contradiction, because it is in Christ, not in the world, that there is to be neither male nor female. Stendahl writes, “If emancipation is right, then there is no valid ‘biblical’ reason not to ordain women. Ordination cannot be treated as a ‘special’ problem, since there is no indication that the New Testament sees it as such.”

Two months ago, barely mobile and already on the short road to death, Krister Stendahl presided at the memorial service of Dead Sea Scrolls scholar John Strugnell, who had been his colleague at Harvard. In attendance was Archbishop Demetrios, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, who as Demetrios Trakatellis had been a graduate student in New Testament during Stendahl's tenure. Krister, scheduled to give the final benediction, spontaneously ceded the place to the Archbishop and placed him at the center of the celebration, a small but powerful gesture, typical of Krister, ecumenical and gracious to the end.

Alumni and alumnae of the Stendahl era at HDS remember Brita and Krister Stendahl's Christmas party with the punch bowl of glögg, the spiced wine of Swedish winters. But Brita was never just a hostess. Krister Stendahl was one of those men who like intelligent women, marry one, and love her to the end. In six decades of marriage Dr. Brita Stendahl, a scholar of Scandinavian philosophy, literature, and history, was steady companion, luminous presence, and sharp intellect. Brita and Krister gave workshops together on topics from religion and humor to women's wisdom, traveled to interreligious convocations, and sat listening to the wisdom of others, year after year. Krister, lover and husband, was discreet and dignified in his Northern European way, but his and Brita's presence and radiance as a couple were constant. To remember Krister is to remember this partnership.

Like all holy and learned people who are also public persons, Krister leaves behind spiritual and intellectual children. He was a mentor to hundreds of us, perhaps thousands. In his death we all feel related to him, but know the weight of his absence for his beloved children and their children's children, living their private grief amid an international outpouring of affection.

Advocate and colleague, Krister welcomed the challenge of women at Harvard, in Stockholm, and at the World Council of Churches in the laborious journey to equal public, ministerial, and theological presence. He came to know that the God who calls us beyond our limits and into life abundant cannot be limited by gender in our visions or in our prayers. The language of liturgy, intimate as the language of love --Krister once called it “a caressing language”-- changed even as Krister remained faithful to the traditions of Christian worship that formed him. He began, earlier than most, using gender-inclusive language not just to speak of humans but to address God: without fuss, without speeches, and with the blend of reverence, poetry, humor, and seriousness that characterized his stance before God.

The Church of Sweden, recognizing the historic episcopate, uses the word “priest” for its ordained ministers. In good Lutheran fashion, it also understands them as pastors. Krister Stendahl was both. The memorial website at his parish, the University Lutheran Church in Cambridge, shows only a fraction of the pastoral life of the man who led institutions but who, without fanfare, visited a friend's relative in prison and prayed for a former student hospitalized for depression.

Asked why Jews and women became such a focus for his scholarly work, Stendahl replied: “The Christian Bible includes sayings that have caused much pain, both to Jews and to women. Thus I have felt called to seek forms of interpretation which can counteract such undesirable side effects of the Holy Scriptures.”

Think about it. Why would a white privileged European man concern himself with Jews and women? To graduate students he explained that what called him to this search was a concern for justice or righteousness as the Gospel of Matthew describes it. Justice is an imperative of God's Kingdom. Jesus is about tikkun olam, the mended creation. For the dispossessed or oppressed, justice is grace. Only the privileged separate the two. Accordingly, Krister was often present among those ordaining first women and then gay men and lesbians to the ordained ministry in the Lutheran and Episcopal churches. When Gene Robinson was consecrated Bishop in 2003, there Krister Stendhal was next to Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold. In pictures of the event he can be seen smiling and nodding. At the end of the ceremony, as the procession left the arena at Dartmouth, the hymn we sang was “For All the Saints, Who From Their Labors Rest.” When all eyes were on our new Bishop Gene Robinson, there before him with the other bishops, clergy, and presenters, walking haltingly with a cane, went Krister. This is how we remember him.

Café contributors Deirdre Good and Jane Redmont were both students of Krister Stendahl’s at Harvard Divinity School, Redmont as an M.Div. student, Good as a Th.D. student in New Testament. Redmont has also served as a staff member at HDS, a field education supervisor for its students, and President of the HDS Alumni/ae Council.


A question of privacy:
Mother Teresa's letters

By Deirdre Good

The publication of personal letters by Mother Teresa to Jesus, her spiritual director, a few clergy, and her bishop -letters that she specifically asked to be destroyed-raises ethical questions. The letters acknowledge God's absence in her spiritual life for some fifty years and contrast the already known public persona to the private reality but this is immaterial. What right does Mother Teresa's spiritual director have to release letters that Mother Teresa wrote either to or for him? Do we honor the requests of the dead or not? What right does the editor of the book, Joseph Kolodiejchuk, have to publish them?

These letters are all that remain of trunk loads of correspondence most of which she destroyed. Perhaps Mother Teresa knew she would be declared a saint. She already recognized the public nature of her witness and work. She wrote to Father Joseph Neuner, S.J., on March 6, 1962: "If I ever become a Saint-I will surely be one of 'darkness.' I will continually be absent from heaven-to light the light of those in darkness on earth." Could this kind of sentence mean that she could foresee what would happen to her letters and that she covertly approved of others seeing what she wrote?

Some letters have been public for years. But the recent publication of more must be seen in light of her canonization. Mother Teresa has already been beatified. Full disclosure of her spiritual darkness in a book with carefully controlled commentary and interpretation seems to be a way to contain and present this material before her canonization is complete. The editor of Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light addresses this matter only once in the book: "Providentially, Mother Teresa's spiritual directors preserved some of her correspondence. Thus, when testimonies and documents were gathered during the process for her beatification and canonization, the remarkable story of her intimate relationship with Jesus, hidden from even her closest collaborators, was discovered. In contrast to her 'ordinariness,' Mother Teresa's confidences reveal previously unknown depths of holiness and may very well lead her to be ranked among the great mystics of the Church." As a student pointed out in a class discussion, this paragraph doesn't answer the question. But it is the only explanation offered by the editor of the book.

Is it possible the letters signify, not unlike the Virgin Mary, a construction of a feminine portrait of the Roman Catholic Church that can legitimate its own moral failures and justify its moral stances? Mother Teresa was unwavering in her commitment to the Church's teaching on abortion, and she never advocated for women priests. For all intents and purposes, she was loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and teaching of her church. But, as the Catholic Church itself has demonstrated in the many cases of sexual misconduct now surfacing, she did have a "darker" side. One motivation of this re-imaging -- we might even say re-branding -- of itself on the contours of her life is that it represents the Catholic Church's attempt to come to terms with its own past and engage in honest self-disclosure. But the veiled nature of the signification -- the fact that they chose a feminine image to shore up the status quo of a church that has failed to grapple with its own sexual misconduct and other moral failures suggests otherwise. Like the Virgin Mary, Teresa is evolving into a paradigmatic image of the challenges, hopes and fears of contemporary Roman Catholicism. In making these new revelations of her inner life, the church may have changed our perception of her, all the while failing to change itself.

We might also ask about the motivations of the book's publisher, Random House. On September 4, Publshers' Weekly noted "Random House reported an 8% decline in worldwide earnings for the first half of 2007, to 44 million euros ($60 million) while parent company Bertelsmann posted first-half losses primarily due to Napster legal difficulties." Random House CEO Peter Olson indicates that the fall publication list of the next four months (including Bill Clinton's new book Giving) will go some way towards meeting the full year's financial goals.

The extraordinary challenge Mother Teresa's spiritual life poses is in danger of being subsumed into our apparently insatiable desire for personal disclosure, of becoming a vehicle for rehabilitation of the Roman Catholic Church in a particular way, and of returning a publishing house to solvency. But despite the potential exploitation of Mother Teresa's spiritual life and my own deep reservations about overriding the explicit wishes of the departed, I participated in both - I bought the book. And I am grateful both to the author of the letters and to those who made it possible for me to read them. The miracle is that, murky ethical issues notwithstanding, we can witness in her letters an authentic sojourn in the heart of darkness as she carried out her mission to quench Christ's insatiable thirst for all human souls.

Professor Deirdre Good wrote this piece in conversation with Professor William Danaher at The General Theological Seminary in New York City where they both teach.

William Stringfellow reads the Bible

By Greg Jones

William Stringfellow was a gay, chain-smoking, Harvard-trained New York City lawyer, who lived and worked among the poor of East Harlem in the last half of the 20th century.

In the late 60s, he was a radical supporter of the anti-war movement, an extreme critic of the Nixon administration, and a hands-on advocate for the poor and hated. He defended Bishop Pike in 1966 against charges of heresy. He supported and defended the first women to be irregularly ordained. He befriended the Berrigans in their anti-war protests.

To many, one might suppose Stringfellow was the classic 'liberal Episcopalian.' Yet, in much the way that Stanley Hauerwas rejects 'theological liberalism,' Stringfellow was not a theological liberal. Indeed, he was a misfit among liberals who shared much of his social justice vision. Walter Wink has said that Stringfellow, "seems to have come, theologically, out of nowhere." But he didn't come from nowhere. He came from the land of the Bible. It is quite evident that William Stringfellow lived, advocated and worked as he did based on his deep commitment to living under the Word of God in the Bible.

As such, alongside his social justice activism, Stringfellow was also a surprisingly bold critic of Mainline Protestantism's "virtual abandonment of the Word of God in the Bible" for a mess of modernistic philosophical porridge. His observation of things inside the establishment-friendly Episcopal Church, and other mainline churches in America, was that folk were neither "intimate with nor reliant upon the Word of God in the Bible, whether in preaching, in services in the sanctuaries, or in education and nurture. Yet it is the Word of God in the Bible that all Christians are particularly called to hear, witness, trust, honor and love."

According to Stringfellow, the curious abandonment of the Bible by the Church began as a Modern Western phenomenon, with the intellectualization and academic specialization of biblical study. In their exceeding zeal to be regarded as intellectual equals by a secular intelligentsia, Mainline Protestant clergy and faculty put 'objective scholarship' ahead of 'faithful engagement' with the Word of God in the Bible. In good modern rationalist fashion, they began to look at the Bible as a container of intellectual or philosophical propositions to be analyzed and understood – as if the Bible were no different than the writings of Marx, Plato or Buddha.

Stringfellow tells a funny story to illustrate how far the elephant of biblical indifference had gone into the Episcopal Church:

[In the early 1960's I served] on a commission of the Episcopal Church charged with articulating the scope of the total ministry of the Church in modern society. The commission numbered about forty persons, a few laity and the rest professional theologians, ecclesiastical authorities and clergy. The group met, in the course of a year and a half, three times for sessions of more than a week. The first conference, as I recall it, floundered in churchy shoptalk that anyone outside the Church would find exasperatingly irrelevant, largely incoherent or simply dull.

Toward the end of that meeting some of those present proposed it might be an edifying discipline for the group, in its future sessions, to undertake some concentrated study of the Bible. It was suggested that constant recourse to the Word of God in the Bible is as characteristic and significant a practice in the Christian life as the regular participation in the celebration of the Eucharist, which was a daily observance of this commission. Perhaps, it was argued, Bible study would enlighten the deliberations of the commission and, in any event, would not impede them. The proposal was rejected on the grounds, as one Bishop present put it, that "most of us have been to seminary and know what the Bible says: the problem now is to apply it to today's world." The Bishop's view was seconded (with undue enthusiasm, I thought at the time) by the Dean of one of the Episcopal seminaries as well as by the clergy bureaucrats from national headquarters who had, they explained, a program to design and administer.

[To me, the implication of the group's] decision not to engage in Bible study is that the Gospel, in its biblical embodiment, is of an essentially pedantic character – a static body of knowledge which, once systematically organized, taught and learned, has use ceremonially, sentimentally, nostalgically, and as a source from which deductions can be made to guide the religious practice and ethical conduct of contemporary Christians. If that is what the Bible is, then it is generically undistinguished from religious scripture of any sort and, for that matter, is of no more dignity than any secular ideology or philosophy. If that is what the Bible is, then it is a dead word and not the Living Word.

Such a view of the Bible authorizing, evidently, a merely academic use of the Bible, if pressed to its final logic, challenges the versatility and generosity of God's revelation of Himself in history and is a form of doubt deplored in James (Jas 1.5-8; 3.13-4.6) Yet, that very way of regarding the Bible is not only current among ecclesiastical authorities or seminary professionals, it has gained a wide acceptance in the last decade or so in programs of lay theological education in the several denominations and interdenominationally."

Stringfellow argued that Christians ought not primarily to think of the Bible as something to be dissected, figured out, and discussed as if it were a dead frog on a lab table – or an encyclopedia of ancient concepts. Rather, he argued that the Bible should be engaged with by living people in living ways – for in and of itself the Word of God is living and active.

Yes, to Stringfellow, the Bible is the Word of God, and as such is a thing not dead, but a Word militant, free and alive. Christians should be focused on living within the Word of God in the Bible in this world. Our primary vocation as Christians, therefore, regarding that Word of God, is to be open to it, to listen to it, and to live it – to live humanly and biblically as he would say. Yet this kind of open listening to the Word of God in the Bible – is the very thing we modern people are no longer very good at. Stringfellow says we can't listen to the Word of God in the Bible because we are not particularly good at listening to anything outside ourselves.

But this is the key for the faithful Church in Stringfellow's eyes. The single most significant thing a Christian must do is intend to be open to and to listen to the Word of God in the Bible. He says, "for that, a person must not merely desire to hear the Word of God but must also be free to hear the Word of God. This means becoming vulnerable to the Word and to the utterance of the Word in much the same way as one has to become vulnerable to another human being if one truly cares to know that other person and to hear his or her word."

Stringfellow explains that a person must come to the Bible quietly, eagerly, expectantly and ready to listen. "One must (as nearly as one can) confront the Bible naively," without preconceptions or baggage about it. The primary question of the seeker after God looking to encounter the Word of God in the Bible is – "what does this Word say?" "Not, what do I think? Not, do I agree? Not, is this relevant to my life and circumstances? But, straightforwardly, first of all, 'What is this word?'

At the same time, one must "approach the Bible realistically – rather than superstitiously – recognizing that access to the same Word of God that the Bible bespeaks" is given to us also in the event of Jesus Christ's incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection – the pivotal event of all human history – and in the incessant agitations of the Holy Spirit – and in the constitution of creation itself.

Stringfellow harshly criticizes Modernist literalism as a tendency which produces either an irrelevant Bible or a fundamentalist Christianity. Stringfellow would argue that the kind of Modern reductionism rampant among incredulous agnostics and credulous fundamentalists alike is false in that does not really engage with the living Word of God in the Bible. Moreover, this kind of biblical literalism is a denigration of the humanity of the reader or listener whose role in engaging the text is reduced to a passive one, and a flattening out of a text which is divinely multidimensional.

It is worth noting that Stringfellow admired Karl Barth, and Barth admired Stringfellow. Barth once said publicly of Stringfellow, "Listen to this man." For Stringfellow and Barth, despite their many differences, they both believed that theology ought to be no different than proclamation and witness to the Word of God. Stringfellow said,

"[This is what makes] Karl Barth such a threatening and unnerving figure among the professional theologians. ... For him to speak theologically is indistinguishable from confessing the Gospel."
The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ("Greg") is husband of Melanie, father of Coco & Anna, rector of St. Michael's Raleigh, and author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004). He blogs at fatherjones.com.

Mother Teresa's labors of faith

By Rona R. Harding

Tomorrow we are celebrating Labor Day, a day when we remember all those who labor for us. This past week, we also have remembered Mother Teresa, on the 10th anniversary of her death, who labored for more than 66 years in the slums of Calcutta, showing great love and mercy to the poor. The revelation that this was not always easy work is shown in several dozen recently released letters that she wrote to her confessors and spiritual advisors in the 1950s and ’60s, expressing doubts and struggles with her faith. It has been shocking to some that she sometimes felt far from God as she labored showing Christ’s love to those around her. My 95-year-old father, for example, says she cannot be considered a saint if she ever doubted. But I have a different view.

In 1981, I worked for two months in Calcutta with Mother Teresa’s sisters and brothers of Charity in the Home of the Dying Destitutes. At that time, Mother Teresa was in Rome nursing Pope John Paul II, who had been shot as he mingled in the crowds at the Vatican, so I did not personally work with her, but I participated in her work. To walk into the Home of the Dying Destitutes was like walking into Auschwitz at the end of World War II. All one could see were living skeletons, hollow bodies and pain. For that reason, Mother Teresa had instructed her brothers and sisters and volunteers to turn their backs and look first to a wall that had a crucifix of Christ on it, with the words “I thirst” written beside it. These words reminded us that as we ministered to the dying, we would be ministering to Christ. Then all of us prayed this prayer she had written which was transcribed under the crucifix: Dear Lord, Great Healer, I kneel before you since every good and perfect gift must come from you. I pray, give skill to my hand, clear vision to my mind, kindness and sympathy to my heart. Give me singleness of purpose, strength to lift at least part of the burden of my suffering fellowmen, and a true realization of the privilege that is mine. Take from my heart all guile and worldliness that with simple faith of a child I may rely on you. Amen.

Then, and only then, we would go to work. The men would go to the male side of the home, while the women would work on the female side. We would bathe, change sheets, rub with ointment the parched itching skin of the starving, cook food and feed them. Usually the dying would revive a bit when they were brought in from the streets, from the comfort and care they were given, before they died. Some would get better and be transferred to one of Mother Teresa’s rehab hostels, where they would be taught a skill as they gained more strength. The sisters and brothers would send for an Imam, or Hindu priest, or priest – whatever the religion the dying was – so that each would have last rites in their own tradition. Comfort and love filled the place. It was quiet and dignified. But the work was hard and thankless. The brothers and sisters worked six days a week, ministering on the streets, running an orphanage, the various hospitals and the leper colonies. They had volunteers who would come in on Sundays so that they could go to church. We started the day with communion at 6:30 a.m. (for me at the Anglican Church across the street and for them in their chapel) and ended the day together at 4 p.m. with an hour of silent worship at Mother Teresa’s Mother House, in the chapel in front of the figure of St. Mary, mother of our Lord.

I personally found the work rewarding, but recognized that I would not have survived three days in Calcutta without a purpose, for the poverty was overwhelming, more than I had ever seen before or since. Lepers without faces, fingerless hands, children with leper spots, continue to haunt me to this day. Although the Missionaries of Charity are doing a great deal to stop the disease from spreading in the body, Calcutta remains a city with more than 100,000 people living on its streets, where disease, hunger, violence and cruelty are rampant. It is not unusual to see a parent starving a child to make her more pitiful in order to beg for money. Nor is it unusual to see a child whose parents have cut off his arms and legs, in order to make him into a beggar for them. Such is the depressing environment of Calcutta. I cannot begin to describe the magnitude of the problems there.

So no wonder Mother Teresa was depressed from time to time and felt dry and thirsty for God. She was constantly ministering not only to the poor, her more than 900 brothers and sisters and volunteers, but also administrating the numerous ministries that her witness founded all over the world. St. James in his Epistle says, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” Or to say it another way, our faith must translate into works. There will or have been times in all our lives when we have not felt our faith, not felt the love of God, nor the love of our family members. But at such times we have lived out our faith as duty, believing in the will of God. This I believe Mother Teresa did in those dark times of her life, which all the saints have experienced, and yet remained faithful. St. James goes on to say, “faith without works is dead,” so by her works we can say her faith was alive, for she choose to believe, to love and to work, although she did not always feel it.

And finally, because Calcutta is such an overwhelming place, I believe that Mother Teresa in her love for all those she touched emptied herself completely from time to time. Her humility would not allow her to take credit for the honors she was given, for she was doing it all of God, for Christ Jesus. Her darkness in her letters, which she often called “thirst” to me shows that she entered into the passion of Christ, who thirsted for a better world. Her questioning at times her faith, as a recent Time Magazine article (“Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith,” Aug. 23, 2007) suggested, echo Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me!” And yet, she continued to work and love, finding solace in her work. For remember, these letters are not daily scripts, but only represent occasional periods in her 66 years of work. They say to us that just as Jesus felt thirst and passion, and just as Mother Teresa did, so will we from time to time in our lives, if we have not done so already. The secret is to continue to love, to believe and serve and life will return.

The Rev. Rona Harding is rector of the Church of the Ascension, Lexington Park, Maryland, in the Diocese of Washington.

Encountering Verna

Verna Dozier, writer and educator, died one year ago this weekend. The Café offers this remembrance.

By Kathleen Henderson Staudt

Late last summer, I was at the beach with my family, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Checking my email one day in the last week of August, I saw a note from Virginia Seminary asking our prayers for Verna Dozier, former faculty member there and beloved local prophet in Washington DC. She was the author of The Dream of God and The Calling of the Laity, and known as a prophetic voice in the church, calling “the church, the people of God” to claim as our own the work of reconciliation in the world, the work to which our Christian faith calls us.

That last week in August, 2006, Verna was coming to the end of a long illness and nearing her death, and the email asked for our prayers for her peaceful passing. As I absorbed this news, a surprising prayer welled up in me: recalling the story of the prophet Elisha, inheriting the mantle of Elijah. I prayed, “Please, let a portion of Verna’s spirit rest on me, and let the message she carried be continued in me, and in Your church.”

The next day, I was walking on the beach, my favorite prayer-place on these summer vacations. A passing hurricane had whipped up a strong sea-surge, covering the beach and creating dramatic waves, and an offshore wind now stirred the sea oats and dune grasses so that they bent deeply toward the churning ocean. The power of the wind that day reminded me of the power and prophetic energy I had experienced, reading Verna’s works, and being in her presence, and I prayed for her as I walked. Later I learned that she had passed from this life on that day, September 1, 2006. That spontaneous, prayerful connection with her, in those last days of her life, has led me to reflect more deeply on how Verna Dozier’s prophetic spirit and message have shaped my own understanding and experience of the call to Christian discipleship in this hurting and broken world.

I first encountered Verna Dozier’s writing in the mid 1990's, in an adult forum at the Church of Our Saviour, Hillandale in Silver Spring, Md. Bernice Harris Shook, an active participant in that forum, remembered having Verna Dozier as a teacher when she was a student in the DC public schools. This work in the church, including teaching at VTS as adjunct faculty, came only after Verna retired from her career as a school teacher. She would bristle when people referred to her post-retirement work of teaching in the church and ask "when did you begin your ministry?" Her work as an educator, she insisted, was just as much her ministry. That attracted me because at the time I was struggling to connect my growing inner life of prayer with my work and identity as a parent and a teacher, both in and beyond the church. I was convinced that my Christian faith was supposed to make a difference in the way I lived my life, and Verna’s work gave me language and a theological grounding for this conviction.

She herself grew up reading the Bible -- the Bible and Shakespeare were the only books in her household. A lover of literature, she understood the stories of Scripture as containing truths that are greater than factual truth, as telling the continuing story of humanity's relationship with God. That too spoke to my heart, as a poet and lover of literature. When she taught workshops, Verna would insist that every Christian should be able to re-tell the story of the Bible in 10 minutes, as a way of "making it our own." She read Scripture as the story of the “dream of God” -- God’s desire to be in relationship with us, and to see us in loving relationship with one another. From Adam and Eve, through the people of Israel, and the early disciples around Jesus, the story of Scripture records a God who is continually calling us to return.The church of our own time, she argued, still beset by the heritage of Constantine, has lost its understanding of “ministry” to a broken world as the work of all God’s people, focusing too much on the ministry of the clergy, the servants of the institution. The church, the people of God, she argued, is again being called to return to its original purpose – to love and serve the world that God loves. The prophetic energy of Verna’s message about the calling of the laity comes through clearly in her writing. I encountered that energy in person on the first of two occasions when I met her.

It was early Lent of 1996, and both of us had been invited to a party given by Martha Horne, then dean of Virginia seminary. I was wandering around when I spotted Verna Dozier sitting in a wing chair at the edge of the room, a frail figure, watching the proceedings quietly. I went to her and introduced myself, “gushing” like the fan I was about how much her writing had helped me to understand and claim my ministry as a lay person and a teacher in the church. She talked with me a bit about my story and my work, and then fixed me with her compelling, prophetic gaze, pointed her finger at me and wagged it sternly as she said to me, “Now: don’t you go and get ordained: Jesus was not ordained. Jesus was a teacher.”

I had sat down on the floor in order to hear Verna over the ambient noise, and so I was literally sitting at her feet as she said these words, and I have always remembered them as the message I received, sitting at the feet of the Teacher. They helped me tremendously in my efforts during those early years to name and claim a vocation as writer and teacher for which we didn’t have clear categories.

Verna’s was a well known voice in the Diocese of Washington. Her message is inspiring to lay people who hear and read it, but it is still not widely known, and my experience is that few people outside the Diocese of Washington have been aware of Verna’s prophetic message. Part of this is may be because her anti-institutional message is ultimately threatening to the structures of the church that could help to spread the message about the authority of the laity and our call to a mission of reconciliation within the “kingdoms of this world.” The closing paragraphs of The Dream of God still resonate today, for those of us who care about the mission of the church, the people of God, in this aching and broken world. Here’s what she writes:

The people of God are called to a possibility other than the kingdoms of the world. They must be ambassadors—again, St. Paul’s word—to every part of life. They witness to another way that governments can relate to one another, that money can be earned and spent, that doctors and care-givers and engineers and lawyers and teachers can serve their constituencies, that wordsmiths and musicians and artists and philosophers can give us new visions of the human condition. That is the ministry of the laity.

All of them need the support system of the institutional church. There must be those resting places where the story is treasured and passed on in liturgy and education. There must be those islands of refuge where the wounded find healing; the confused, light; the fearful, courage, the lonely, community; the alienated, acceptance; the strong, gratitude. Maintaining such institutions is the ministry of the clergy.

We have all failed the dream of God. The terribly patient God still waits.

Dr Kathleen Henderson Staudt works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area, and 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.

Of monuments and memory

By Roger Ferlo

I spend a lot of time in my seminary chapel reading memorial plaques.

The fact that I do this says less about the quality of seminary worship than the quality of my attention span. But then, the plaques in this old seminary chapel are really splendid things. The building dates from the 1880s, and its architecture reflects the quaintly Gothic tastes of an otherwise staunchly evangelical set of founders. To be fair, the plaques are not the first thing you see when you walk in. They were intended to be relatively inconspicuous. The most striking feature of the place—besides the fact that the wood stain on the pulpit doesn’t match the wood stain on the choir stalls, and the wood stain on the pews seems to be of a third shade altogether, and the door to the sacristy looks like it was purchased at Home Depot—is the painted inscription that arches somewhat menacingly over the massive east window: Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel. That fiercely evangelical injunction tends to focus the attention. So much for Gothic choir stalls—no aesthetic lingering here. The mission fields await you. You feel a little ashamed to be caught thinking about Home Depot.

But still, once you’ve settled into the daily round of prayer and praise and scripture reading, morning, noon and evening, day in and day out, when your mind begins to drift a little, and you even have begun to take that inscription for granted, you notice the plaques. They are mostly memorials to nineteenth-century seminary professors. Although many of their students would go far afield as missionaries, these men (and they were all men in those days) led touchingly stable, unsung and sedentary lives. Not all of them, to be sure. There is after all Philips Brooks (a seminary entry in the Episcopal calendar of saints) to whom that shambling Richardsonian pile known as Trinity Church Copley Square in Boston is itself a massive memorial. The sheer size of that building matches the notorious girth of the man himself. Here on campus, there is an appropriately largish plaque in his honor to be seen in a shadowy corner of the narthex, just to your right as you walk in the side door opposite the seminary’s old administration building (but not so old as to predate Philips Brooks). “Philips Brooks, Bishop of Massachusetts, Harvard 1855, Virginia Theological Seminary 1859.” It is telling that Harvard takes precedence here. The plaque was erected by grateful Harvard graduates and undergraduates in 1906, bearing the inscription “He bound Harvard to Alexandria.” One wonders what the resident faculty thought about this odd gift from that Yankee citadel.

It’s the resident faculty who haunt my days as I sit in chapel, contemplating my own work as professor and priest in a school and a church that would now seem as foreign to them as that great art nouveaux church in Boston must have seemed at the time. Their plaques are less pretentious. Near where I tend to sit, there is an eloquent memorial to W.Cosby Bell, “professor of theology in this seminary”:

A Man Who Loved the
Mountain Streams, the
Hearts of Men, the
Christ of God.
A Thinker who Sensed the
Wonder of Life and
Interpreted its Fulness to a
Bewildered Age.

You seldom hear the word apologetics any more (or you mistake it for apology, which Episcopalians find themselves spending all too much time doing). But Cosby Bell must have been an eloquent apologist for the hope that was in him. Our bewildered church could use a Cosby Bell in these contentious days.

I speculate a lot about the Kinloch Nelsons, (were they father and son? the official school history makes no mention). Their plaques hang side by side to the left of Professor Bell’s. Kinloch Nelson the elder graduated in 1868, having fought in the Confederate army. Just three years before, Union troops had evacuated the administration building next door, which they had used as a military hospital. These were bitter days. There was no chapel yet; built three years later, it must have provided these embattled alumni their first taste of recovery from the devastation of the war. Bell studied here for only a term. Did he carry with him, like the men and women returning from Iraq, traumatic memories of carnage? Did those memories cut short his time here, or haunt his priesthood? He returned to the seminary in 1876, and taught until the day he died in 1894, “Christ’s faithful soldier and servant to his life’s end.”

The other Nelson, Thomas Kinloch, was born in 1879, perhaps here on campus:

Strong and simple in his faith in God,
Generous in his sympathy for men,
He brought to his chosen task of teaching
A wise and understanding heart.

By the time he died in 1940, a different kind of war was looming, and the manly white Protestant world to which these monuments attest was beginning to shake from its moorings.

It’s still shaking. It’s important not to get too sentimental about all these inscriptions. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, as Cosby Bell himself might have said—about the dead say nothing but good. But there’s a back story to every one of these plaques, some of the stories well known, and included in our official history, some of them subject to more critical speculation. For one thing, there is much too much talk of men in all these monuments. And of course, this being Virginia, the most haunting back story remains the fact of slavery. Unnamed enslaved people haunt our family histories here, as no doubt they do elsewhere, even in Boston. What we used to call integration we now call diversity. For all their charm and eloquence, there is not much diversity in these chapel memorials. Until John Walker graduated from here in the early 1950s, our black students were kept safely away on a remote campus, remembered now only in faded photographs and the name of our library building. There is no plaque in Bishop Walker’s honor, although his portrait hangs outside the seminary refectory. We don’t seem to want to make plaques any more—life is too complicated, perhaps, memories too problematic, tenures too short. After all, in these conflicted days, who is it who would decide whose plaque goes where?


The Rev. Dr. Roger A. 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).

Two Christianities

By Deryl Davis

Do we need to be re-educated about Christianity? That was religion scholar and Jesus Seminar participant Marcus Borg’s contention in his address before the recent Church for the 21st Century conference at Washington National Cathedral. In his address, entitled “A Tale of Two Christianities Today,” Borg argued that the common understanding of Christianity of a generation or two ago has become “hugely unpersuasive” in our time and that adult theological re-education in local congregations is now one of our most pressing needs.

Drawing from his recent popular book The Heart of Christianity, Borg set forth two “paradigms” for understanding Christianity, the common “belief-centered paradigm,” which he said was passing away, and a “transformation-centered paradigm,” which he argued has emerged as a major movement in mainline Christian denominations. In essence, the belief-centered paradigm is based on assent to a set of specific beliefs, while the transformation-centered paradigm, which Borg holds to be the more authentic, “is primarily about a path, a way [of being], for the individual and the world.”

Borg contended that the belief-centered paradigm, heretofore dominant in the modern era, is largely a product of the “collision” of Christianity and the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment, rather than a product of early Christianity and the pivotal church councils of the first centuries. The transformation-centered paradigm is also only about 300 years old, Borg asserted, a product of a narrow circle of Enlightenment-era elites that has grown into “a major grassroots movement” in recent years.

Borg drew a number of important distinctions which he saw between the two paradigms. He asserted that the belief-centered paradigm focused on the afterlife and personal salvation, and was therefore “centered in one’s own well-being,” while the transformation-centered paradigm focused on spiritual transformation in the present life and was “at its best centered in God.” While the belief-centered paradigm turned religious faith into a “system of requirements and rewards,” the transformation-centered paradigm acknowledged that only a personal relationship with God and the sacred can change an individual. Not least among these differences, Borg argued, was that the first paradigm affirmed Christianity as the only way to God, while the second affirmed religious pluralism “out of a deep conviction that the God who created the universe has been known in all enduring religions.”

Examining the role of the Bible in both paradigms, Borg drew distinctions on matters of scriptural origin, authority, and interpretation. While the belief-centered paradigm views scripture as inerrant, infallible, and directly from God’s hand, the transformation-centered paradigm assumes a “historical-metaphorical approach” that understands scripture as a human product and a social construction representative of a particular people or peoples, place, and time. “What we have in the Bible,” Borg said, “is how our spiritual ancestors saw things, not how God sees them.” Borg argued that, rather than a reduction of scriptural meaning, the historical-metaphorical approach looked beyond the literal meaning of words for what they tell us about the generations of readers transformed by them. The approach is not dependent upon factuality, as is the literalist, Borg said; therefore, it is open to nuance and imaginative construction.

While strongly asserting his preference for the transformation-centered paradigm, Borg acknowledged that the spirit of God can and does work through the older, belief-centered model. The problem, he asserted, is that in recent years, adherents of the latter, literal scripture approach “have become aggressive and judgmental in the use of this paradigm” using it “to beat up on others.” Thus, the belief-centered paradigm has become “an obstacle and a stumbling block” for many Christians. By way of contrast, Borg offered the transformation-centered paradigm as a “neo-traditional view” of Christianity, recovering and retrieving what was most central to the faith before the collision with modernity occasioned by the Enlightenment.

Borg concluded his prepared remarks by noting commonalities between the two paradigms and pointing out the history of the words “faith” and “belief.” Both paradigms hold Jesus and the Bible as primary sources of revelation, both the Word of God, making Christianity distinct from all other religions, Borg said. Christians see Jesus as the “decisive” Word of God, Borg asserted, and understand Christianity as a transformative journey undertaken by means of a relationship with God in Jesus.

Borg contended that, before 1600, the word “believe” as used in Christian parlance did not refer to consent to a set of truths but rather to a commitment or loyalty to a path, as illustrated by Jesus. “The word ‘believe’ never had a set of statements as its direct object,” Borg asserted. “Faith is not about [that],” Borg argued, “but about a deepening trust in God in Jesus.”

Borg’s provocative remarks elicited a number of audience questions on the supposed decline of mainline denominations (it’s reflective of a former cultural expectation of churchgoing, Borg said); on literal interpretation of the ancient Christian creeds, especially statements about the resurrection (whether the tomb was empty or not doesn’t really matter, Borg said; what matters is that Jesus continues to be known as a figure in the present); and on the criteria for discerning the meaning of scripture (there are no objective criteria, Borg asserted; discernment is best done in the context of the Christian community and in relation to “progressive revelation” – understanding that specific meaning may change and grow over time). Borg concluded this segment of his address with a reference to Martin Luther, to the effect that “what is authoritative about the Bible is what is consistent with Christ. We know him through the gospels, we know the spirit of Christ as discerned through scripture.”

Deryl Davis is producer of the Sunday Forum at Washington National Cathedral and an associate faculty member in religion and drama at Wesley Theological Seminary.

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