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

To: All Queer Folks Who Have Focused on Suicide

by Louie Clay

Warning: Get a large salt shaker
and sprinkle all over your CRT.
More than a grain is required.
I'm glad you've gotten
lots of electronic hugs
I'll take you to lunch
if you can show up here.

But I wonder whether you need
a harder kind of support?

To the extent that the person
remains rational, and that's difficult
to determine, suicide seems to me
the severest form of a disease
that has long infested humanity,
especially disliked minorities,
the dis-Ease called Self-Pity.

I speak with the authority of a quean.
Self-pity is the only VD any quean requires.
Suicide is its most lethal manifestation.

Self-pity is a severe trap.

Take the version the alcoholic falls into.
"Nobody likes me," she says.
And then drinks to excess.
"Yes, we do; we love you"
say some nearby.
"No, you just love your reputation
for being good guys. You're nice
to me only because you pity me.
You do not really love me...."

That recording is broken, is broken, is broken, is....

"Oh, I'm the lowliest queer on the planet!
Life has not treated me fairly
and I have done a good job
of adding to the mess....."

Tempting? I hope not.

I am not trained in psychology,
only in friendship;
so if you need psychological help,
treat yourself to a professional.
Otherwise listen to a friend who cares.

One of the saddest things about self-pity
is the enormous self-absorption it requires.
I have first-hand experience of self-pity;
that's the source of my authority.
Sugar, it's not worth the bother.

I remember when the rednecks
had just stoned our house
for the third night in a row.
The first two nights I ignored them,
thinking, "They're just adolescents
with pubes starting to sprout.
They don't know what they're doing."

But by the third night, I remembered
that Hitler Youth were just adolescents
sprouting pubes too, and groaned
"Why am I here stuck in Middle Georgia...?"

I snuggled close to my husband
and started to cry. He pushed me away.

"Boo hoo! Boo how! Boo WHO?"
and "Ha, ha, ha!" he said.

"What are you doing? Won't you comfort me?"
I whined.

"Not tonight, baby.
Where's the man I married?
Quit worrying about those damn kids.
They'll be there in every town
and on every block when you and I
are dead and gone. I don't feel like
letting them control our bed tonight.

"Besides, you know how to make them
stop throwing rocks. You know
that you can quit going on TV
and writing articles. But do you want to?
Thank god, no. So show some
of the guts you're made of."

I slept like a baby after I found a healthier,
more adult way to get into his arms.

When we fall into self-pity,
we think we're the only persons
in the world who've ever had it unfair.
How absurd! Especially if we're U.S. citizens.
Most of the world is going to bed hungry tonight.
Even most Americans have not had anyone show them
the power and pleasures of the intellect
that you obviously know about
or you wouldn't be able to write so clearly
or listen to this prose poem.

Slap yourself in the face to wake up
to the enormous possibilities you're given.

Beware lest you come to like your pain.
Pain can make you feel real:
"I may be a bug. I may be a queer.
But at least I hurt; I know I am real...."

Find better ways to affirm your reality!

If you need a crying shoulder,
I have one, and you can rock
on my porch any afternoon.
But sugar, I hope you can find
your own inner strength
so that when you sit with me,
we can share and share alike.

Meanwhile, learn to laugh at yourself.
Schizophrenics never laugh at themselves.
Get enough rest.
Don't do things that depress you.
Learn to take itsy bitsy steps
in controlling your own life,
then bigger steps as you can handle them.
Associate with people who will nurture you,
not just commiserate.

Enough natter.

Love, Lutibelle

Hear Louie speak this poem:

Louie Clay (né Louie Crew) is the founder of Integrity and lives in East Orange, NJ with Ernest Clay, his husband of 40 years. He is the author of 2,375 published poems and essays.

"Priestly Formation" is a Term that Really Bugs Me!

by Pat Henking

I am developing a serious allergy to the idea of “priestly formation”. The term brings to mind two things: First is the setting of carefully mapped and measured strips of wood at precise angles on a bed of crushed stone or leveled sand that forms wet concrete into patios and walkways. This picture yields a vision of preparation for priesthood that is clean, neat, sanitary and programmatic. It presupposes that the candidate is malleable and in some sense wet cement, perhaps, in fact, unformed. And this vision fits tidily with contemporary expectations of education measured by well-calibrated assessments for the sake of specific outcomes.

Second is the image of military and sports “formations”. This image has the added benefit of suggesting – even conjuring - team spirit and mutual effort. But the overriding issue is that these formations are practice for war, for conquering, and for winning over others. Even though singing “Onward Christian soldiers” still makes me happily nostalgic, and more subtle forms of triumphalism still excite me, triumphal piety is no longer in vogue – and it does not suit my own theology and that of our Baptismal covenant at all. Furthermore, these sorts of formations are also planned carefully, executed deliberately, and complicit in a worldview that makes everything too neat and tidy for human life. There is a very good reason that professional football fields are some of the best manicured acres of real estate on the planet.

I find a threefold antidote to my allergic response: First, the fourth verse of “Glorious things of thee are spoken” sounds forth in my mind:

Blest inhabitants of Zion,
washed in the Redeemer's blood!
Jesus, whom their souls rely on,
makes them kings and priests to God.
'Tis his love his people raises
over self to reign as kings:
and as priests, his solemn praises
each for a thank-offering brings.

I believe John Newton has it right: Jesus makes priests (I will leave aside for now all the issues about kings.) We only really become priests when we know our souls rely – in fact, must rely – on grace alone. The point is simple – to bring thank offerings. Or more precisely, to preside at that place where people bring their hearts to God and God provides the sustenance for their souls. Or rather – our souls. This is not to claim that there is no content to our faith, nor is it to suppose that the clergy ought not to be a learned clergy. It is to notice that all the content is vocabulary – it is a vocabulary and articulation of all that it means to affirm that, “It is meet, right and our bounden duty always and everywhere to give thanks.” It is also a content – in both rite and ceremony – that brings us full circle to the realization that the Peace of God passes all understanding – including most especially the understanding of God’s priests.

Thus the single, most critical thing that must imbue the souls, minds and countenances of those who would be priests is simply that it is not about us – it is about our Lord and Savior and all that He reveals to us and in us of the love of God. Be careful here – that revelation is God’s Self-disclosure, not our own. It is most apt to be discovered in us if we have discovered our utter dependence on Christ who saves us – and Who most particularly saves us from ourselves.

Precisely here is the greatest value of residential seminary in my view: At seminary we worshipped, ate, worked and studied together. These things are measurable and so far the tidy images of formation are workable. But must it be taboo to discuss the messes? Because it is through the messes and the continual need to cope with them that we learned in seminary to trust Christ’s forgiveness, mercy, friendship, shepherding and love in community. We did not only read and mark our Bibles, practice celebrating Eucharist and preaching, struggle with exegesis or doctrines of the atonement together. We also argued with each other, denied or even betrayed each other, walked the block in despair with each other. We knew who was having trouble at home, was going to bed with whom, didn’t have enough cash to go out to dinner, was drinking too much and who had been molested as a child. We knew who was exhausted, who was sick, who was seeing winter snow flakes for the first time, and who climbed up on the rood screen to replace the missing trumpet of one of the angels. We knew who was going to bed crying and who was waking up laughing – and who wished not to wake up at all. And then again, we knew that we had only begun to know and that we must respect the hidden legacies of one another’s lives. None of this can be gained through distance learning or occasional programs or reading at home – and what is gained is deep, abiding assurance of the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Without dependence on the love and mercy, grace and presence of our Lord we would waste away in a priesthood we create in our own images.

The second thing that comes to mind is a discussion at a recent vestry meeting: In some now-forgotten context, we were talking about Heaven. Several people said that Heaven is a place of perfection, and that in that perfection there will be no problems and no suffering. Simultaneously several faces looked transfigured and someone asked, “What does the Bible say happens in heaven?” “God will wipe away the tears from every eye,” several members said at once. So, we agreed that our work as leaders of our congregation is not to make life perfect, but to make our life together one where we learn to wipe away one another’s tears in God’s Name. Years ago one of my colleagues wrote and published a paper about psychological transference and the role of priests: His idea was that people need to know that we are people. He wrote that if they cannot tell we are really people, folks will push us and push us and push us until they find out whether we cry and whether we bleed. In seminary, many, if not all, of us learned we cry and learned we bleed. And we learned to wipe away the tears. We learned how to find authentic spiritual ground within ourselves and within our Church so we could live and work and have our being among the people without making our needs their burdens. To be rather Evangelical about it, we learned to “be washed in the Blood of the Lamb” so we could come into our sanctuaries both humble and real.

The third thing on my mind is something I have heard attributed to Arthur Michael Ramsey’s pre-ordination retreats when he would explain that the work of the priest “is to come before the people with God on [his] mind and before God with the people on [his] mind.” I think this is the main reason I resent all efforts to quantify my hours at work as a priest. It is true that eternity can be found in a grain of sand, and some of the richest, grace-filled moments are small and fleeting. At other times birthing the nearness of our Lord can be an enormously long and painful labor. And yet this is the stuff of priestly ministry.

Nevertheless, this ministry is not simply ethereal or purely spiritual, it is incarnate. And here I return to the ugly word, “forms”. Our ministries take on myriad forms, and for some few of us the forms are tidy and neat like the color blocks of a balanced Mondrian painting. For others of us the forms are like Seurat’s work, filled with billions and billions of singular dots. There are those of us who make ministry look like Michelangelo’s Pieta and then there are the Picassos and Salvador Dalis among us. No matter our forms and styles we need skills. I, for one, am very sorry I didn’t learn about conflict resolution and the means of collaboration until a professor at a business school asked me to teach sections of his classes. But as long as someone would show us – kindly – that the fruits of the Spirit don’t go very far without commensurate skills, we can take ourselves off in any number of directions to gain the skills that go with the forms and styles and roles into which we are called. And that is the fundamental and the ultimate word – called. We are called and made by Christ to serve in the world He came to save.

The Rev. Pat Henking (General Theological Seminary 1979 and 1997) is Vicar of Faith Episcopal Church, Merrimack, NH. Pat has served several terms on Commissions on Ministry, the NH Standing Committee, the GTS Board of Trustees and various other committees. She has been an adjunct instructor in theology, Christian ethics, philosophy and organizational behavior. Pat is an avid fan of "Star Wars" and of the Boston Red Sox, with apologies to Yankees fans.

Faith and a Flashlight

by Linda Ryan

I have a small book of quotations I've come across at various times and on various topics. It was inspired by Jan Karon's Patches of Godlight: Father Tim's Favorite Quotes which gave me the idea to begin my own favorite quotes book. I used one of those little black-and-white composition books, small enough to put in a pocket and have added to it periodically over the years. There are barely five unused pages left, and I have a second little book just like the first waiting to be put into use.

This morning I wanted to find a quote to write about so I began looking for my little book which is always somewhere either on or close to my desk. I couldn't find it. I searched various piles of papers, books and magazines to no effect. I moved the calculator and the small pile of cards to be sent out but again, to no avail. So I resorted to my go-to implement, a small but bright flashlight. It took a few more minutes but I located the little book. Then it came to me: the flashlight was helpful not just for shining light on what I was looking for but gave me an epiphany as well. flashlight.jpgI could see many things with the available light of my desk lamp, but by using a small flashlight it concentrated my focus on only a few things at a time. An overwhelming task had been reduced to a small focused one, and it worked. I found what I was looking for and in very short order.

Then I began to think about what a flashlight does. It creates a beam of light that helps illuminate things. If I walk around in the dark where there are no lights, On every episode of CSI, the team begins their investigation by clicking on flashlights and, even in fairly bright areas, they find tiny clues that lead to the solution of a crime. There's never an area so bright that it can't use a little more light.

I can stumble over things that I would have seen had there been more light. A flashlight helps prevent that stumbling. It puts light in dark corners of the closet where things I had forgotten about were stashed or perhaps hiding. It shows me where the vacuum has missed small masses of cat-lace (hair shed by my boys which hides under chairs and tables and sometimes sits defiantly in the middle of the floor) and also the toy for which they've been groping under a chest or media rack. It makes what was difficult or impossible to see visible, and it forces me to focus on a small area. Perhaps that's the word I'm looking for -- focus.

I remember when I had panic attacks. It was an effort even to breathe and making a decision as to what I was supposed to be doing was almost impossible. I had written an essay on mental health issues that referenced panic attacks and gave some clues on how to get through them. It had to be a God-thing in that I remembered some of those tips several years later and in the throes of something that had just been a subject to write about. The major tip was to focus -- focus on the next thing that had to be done. The first step to focus on was taking a breath, then another one. From there the next thing was to stand up, then walk to the kitchen. By focusing on one small thing at a time, I got through the 20 minutes or so that, if I remembered correctly, was about the length of the average panic attack. When I was thinking about the flashlight today I remembered the whole episode and thought how similar that remembering to focus was so much like using my flashlight to illumine one small area.

Then I started thinking about faith. What exactly is it, where did I learn it and how does it affect me and my life? That's a big question because faith encompasses a whole range of beliefs -- who is God, what is God, who is Jesus, who is the Holy Spirit, what roles do they play in my faith, etc. In Education for Ministry (EfM) before our last curriculum change, we had an exercise that attempted to nail down precisely what it was that each of us believed, why we believed it and where we had learned it. We referred to it as the Grid because it began as a table with a number of columns, each with a specific word like "God.". Under each column heading was a series of questions, each in its own block under that topic and those questions asked for specific answers. When I worked on it as a student, I put six solid weeks of thought into it and still never finished the exercise. I did it again when I became a mentor, and still never finished it. It isn't really part of our new curriculum and that is a relief, in a way. I'm also sorry to see its demise because I think it was a great exercise, just maybe too daunting in its depth. But then, wasn't the whole purpose to gain depth? To use a kind of flashlight to lighten up the dark corners?

It's easy to recite the historic creeds on a Sunday morning but if someone asks me what a precise phrase means and why I believe it, I have to stumble around and try to come up with the answer. I think maybe I need more flashlight work when it comes to that subject. Like CSI, I need to focus on small areas and not be overwhelmed by the larger issues.

Maybe being able to explain my faith isn't something that will change the world or even solve one of its myriad problems, but then, I have to remember that as huge as the world's problems are, individuals and groups shining the equivalent of flashlights on small areas have helped to change things, whether things solely of faith or where faith intersects good works.

The world could use a little more light in a great many places.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter . She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale.

Embodied teaching

by Maria L. Evans

"Take,​ ​eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the
remembrance of me."--from the Words of Institution, Eucharistic Prayer A, p.362, Book of Common Prayer

I wish I had a dollar for every case of a less than one centimeter diameter ductal carcinoma-in-situ of the breast that I've shown at our hospital tumor board for the last 14 years, looked at our clinical medical students, interns, and residents, and said, "I don't know if this is the luckiest woman in the world or the unluckiest one. She's 99% likely cured after her sentinel node, radiation, and Tamoxifen, but she's hung with a cancer diagnosis for the rest of her life, for something that really, biologic-behaviorally-speaking, is a notch just below a full-blown cancer. The bigger thing is her risk for subsequent breast cancer."

On Monday, March 17, 2014, that person became me.

Stage zero ductal carcinoma in situ, 3 millimeters in diameter, all removed on the needle biopsy, no residual tumor seen in the lumpectomy, two negative sentinel nodes, a course of radiation, and the thrill of taking Tamoxifen for the next five years.

I had to laugh that the most common question that has been asked of me is not "how are you?" but "did you look at your own slides?" (Answer: Yes, but my associate signed out the actual case. I was, after all, kinda busy at the time.) I mean, really, my DCIS (we tend to call it by its initials) pretty much looks like everyone else's DCIS. I'm happy it's now residing in a fixed paraffin block and on a few microscope slides in a drawer in our storage room.

But I had an added hurdle to deal with that most people in my shoes don't even have to consider.

Remember what I said earlier about the monthly Tumor Board conference? We do a conference where we show and discuss every full-blown cancer case to every one of our trainees from 3rd year med students on up. My case history, my mammograms and ultrasounds from the last several years, my tumor in living color, projected three feet high on the smart board. We discuss what's in store for the management of every patient. We discuss their various body parts and what's going on with them...and I am the chair of that conference.

Several folks said to me, "You know, we don't have to show your case if you don't want to." I said, "Are you kidding? This is a very classic case and they need to see the changes in the mammograms over time. It'd be a disservice not to show this case. Also, it sends a bad message when we say that they can learn from all the patients except the ones who also happen to be their teachers." I put on a very brave face while thinking, "Oh my God. I've got to talk to all these young docs and docs-to-be about my boob." Then another thought crossed my mind. I remembered the time I had a thrombosed hemorrhoid. None of the students or residents wanted to examine it, since I was one of their attending docs and teachers. It was clearly uncomfortable for them, as well as me--only in different ways. I strongly felt this had to be done, but I also knew there would be discomfort for them, and a very real chance I'd tear up or my voice would break.

I prayed about this one a lot...and in my prayer time something came to me. Jesus didn't just teach with his words, he taught with his body itself. He taught with his healing touch, of course, but the fundamentally more important thing was that he taught with his broken body, hanging on the cross--and that three days later, the end of that body wasn't really "the end." It's also clear that this method of teaching was uncomfortable for his disciples--so uncomfortable, in fact, that it was down to only a devoted few present for the very end.

"Well," I thought to myself, "If Jesus could be vulnerable to the world with his broken body, I suppose I can stand a little vulnerability and discomfort about my broken left breast."

The April Tumor Board date came, of course, and we discussed and showed my case just like everyone else's, with one addition. I turned to the group and said, "I guess you all have figured out with the age and the initials M.E. on the title of this case, that this patient is me. You have an opportunity today you don't normally get in this conference. I'd like you to take a deep breath, and ask me anything--and I mean ANYTHING. I'll try to answer as best as I can."

Everyone squirmed in their seat in silence at first...and one by one the questions trickled in...at first they were very clinical. But then someone asked me, "What are you most afraid of about this?"

I took a deep breath. "Well, I'm not afraid of this particular tumor. It's gone, and I'm only a stage zero. It's highly unlikely I'm going to die from this. But I'm pretty nervous as to how the radiation is going to make me feel...and I'm really nervous thinking about the genetic testing that I'm going to do once my deductible is squared away and the insurance will hopefully pay for it. Not so much about the breast side of things--I've been diligent about my screening mammograms for a long time, and I know the drill there. But I don't like the idea of possibly having the BRCA gene, because if I have that, it also comes with a 40% risk of ovarian cancer, and I'll have to give serious consideration to having my ovaries yanked. I'm way more afraid of ovarian cancer."

All my career, I've made my living being just a tad intimidating with the youngsters. But in my heart, I knew the real teaching would happen if I could bring myself to being vulnerable, and a lot of it did, over the next few days, in the hallways, and at the other side of my two-headed microscope. It would go something like this:

"I'm really lucky," I continued. "I have a very curable tumor, I have insurance, and I know this stuff like the back of my hand. But I lie in bed at night and think, "How do people pay for this stuff when they don't have insurance? They don't, that's how. They go bankrupt trying or they don't even do the things that you and I routinely know need to be done...and even when they are able to make at least some choices, they're doing it with far less understanding than I have. I have found myself crying over the pain of a broken world a heck of a lot more than I've been crying over me. If I have cried for myself, it's from having been shielded from the truth about my unseen privilege. It's not popular to say the playing field needs to be leveled when it comes to health care, but I believe it more than ever."

The reality is that all of us have opportunities all the time to teach with our bodies. Some folks have no choice or few choices as to how that teaching occurs. How will those of us who do have some choices, teach with our bodies in a way that we reveal our vulnerability in a Gospel sort of way?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, is a grateful member of Trinity Episcopal Church and a postulant to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. She occasionally finds time to write about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid.

The Tao has no gate

by Donald Schell

PART 2/2

Just after my two and a half weeks of driving in Malawi, I was talking with Cleve McIntosh, a South African country doctor who has studied with Richard Rohr at the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Listening to my driving experience reminded Cleve how Richard Rohr says that it may take crises like falling in love or facing serious illness or other grave suffering to create the liminal spaces where godly transformation becomes possible happens. Cleve’s recollection of Rohr’s words made further sense of my experience driving in Malawi and cast my mind back to another surprising experience of crowd behavior and grace in shared consciousness.

May 23, 1987 was a morning of unexpected crisis and danger at home and a time and falling even more deeply in love with two of my children and our good friend. The Golden Gate Bridge Authority had closed the Bridge to cars that Sunday morning, the Bridge’s 50th anniversary, so pedestrians and bicyclists could reenact the 1937 Bridge Walk that first opened the bridge to the public. They estimated 80,000 walkers might show up and had planned porta-potties and Park Ranger supervision accordingly.
At 5:30 a.m. we set out - my seventeen year old daughter, my baby son strapped to my chest in a Snuggli infant carrier, and a very good friend aiming to get to the bridge for the 6 a.m marking the beginning of the anniversary celebration and opening the roadway to pedestrians. Our two middle children didn’t want to go so early, and my wife planned to make breakfast with them to greet us when we got back to head to church.

In the first quarter mile of our walk, we fell in with a joyful crowd converging toward the bridge. We smiled and chatted with strangers and enjoyed an unusually sunny San Francisco as our numbers swelled. I was elated to think we’d get to walk across the Golden Bridge, pedestrians only and no cars allowed again, just as it had been the morning my mother walked with the crowd opening the bridge in 1937. By the time we finally (exultantly) reached the span, people filled the pedestrian walks and the roadway completely.

What we still didn’t know was that almost the very moment we’d set out, those determined to be first across had burst pass the officials readying the beginning of the ceremony and rushed to cross the bridge. In the middle of the bridge the San Francisco crowd and the Marin County crowd met and created an impasse. People continued to come, continued to patiently crowd on to the bridge. None of us had any idea that we were joining a powerful human current with nowhere to go.

When we reached the bridge we walked on and moved forward, but slowly and then more slowly. I wondered how long it would take us to get across. About half an hour in and perhaps a quarter of the way across the bridge we stopped, unable to move at all.
Even at impasse it took some moments to get where we were and what was happening. We were stuck on the bridge. We were suspended two hundred feet above the water. No one could move forward or back. Behind us people who hadn’t yet felt the impasse continued to move slowing on to the bridge.

Someone mentioned sardines in a can. No one responded. The crowd was getting quieter and quieter. For long minutes that felt like hours, we tried to turn around and face back the way we’d come. When someone shouted, “push!” and burst into nervous laughter, several calm and insistent voices, simply said immediately said, “no,” or “just breathe.” And then we found a voice as those and others calmly and quietly said, “pass the word back – no way forward - turn around.” We’d wait and someone would say it again and pass the word back in a hand off of repetition. Nothing else was happening. We worked to stay standing, two feet on the ground. The people right around me who could see the baby helped hold others back.

Afterwards I saw an aerial photo of the bridge bearing us, straining under the weight of our impasse. The bridge, ordinarily a long, gentle arc from land past the towers to its apex in the middle is flat from end to end. A solid mass of humanity ninety-foot wide and a mile and seven tenths long was the heaviest load the bridge had ever born, and well past anything the engineers had ever imagined it would bear. I can point to where we stood still short of the first tower.

Eventually tiny spaces opened up and we could move enough to turn around. Then with more space we began to inch back toward land. And as we moved the spaces to breathe grew. Our immediate chunk of that crowd took two hours to inch our way back to land. The earliest to arrive out at the middle of the bridge were still finding room to breathe and move an hour after us.

With the earth back under our feet (and no cell phones) we hiked back home to comfort a very worried mom and siblings who’d also missed church, first wondering where we were, then watching the news and hoping we and all those other people would be all right.

The news was telling us that the third or so of the crowd of a million people that had actually gotten on to the bridge were the heaviest load the bridge had ever borne. We’d been part of a catastrophic crowd event that somehow didn’t end in anyone’s death. We’d been part of a miracle. There were tense moments and plenty of frightened and foolish thoughts. But the crowd didn’t squeeze anyone over the edge. No one was trampled. No one had a heart attack. But somehow, by the grace of God, the mind of 800,000 people faced fears and didn’t panic, cared for everyone’s safety, and worked together to solve a massive human impasse. 300,000 of us (maybe more) owe our lives to one another.

Driving through crowded villages in Malawi and sensing how we survive by caring for one another, and reflecting on Richard Rohr’s pointer toward meeting God in falling in love or serious crisis, I’m finding something new in that twenty-seven year old memory. Perhaps in those extraordinary moments when “the crowd” doesn’t become a mob, actually finds a way to act in concert, perhaps the miracle we glimpse is the work of God reconciling all, drawing all into communion, something hinting at Gregory of Nyssa’s daring assertion that the Body of Christ is all humanity.

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

Driving in Malawi

by Donald Schell

I had an extended religious experience driving in Malawi. It only dawned on me after several days of driving what I was experiencing. Trying to remember, understand and write about it, some previous experiences of strangers and crowds made new sense. The experience was persistent but quiet. I want to tell you about it, and hope you’re willing to ride with me for a bit here as I find my way.

Last month I was working as a volunteer driver and photographer for my wife’s organization, Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance. Ellen is GAIA’s International Programs Director. For most of the year she works from the U.S. communicating with a remarkable network of GAIA staff in Malawi Africa via Skype and email. She insists the fifty or so of them “really are the program people,” which is GAIA’s strength. And part of what makes that communication and collaboration work is her annual visit of some weeks with GAIA’s Malawi staff and their work.

I was looking forward to this return trip to Malawi – my fourth and Ellen’s twelfth, and was excited to have assigned tasks as a driver and photographer. I had big expectations of the photography work and as that unfolded, I wasn’t disappointed. Watching people, events, and places with camera in hand moved me toward a contemplative engagement. I was privileged to photograph holy moments, and capture parts of courageous and compassionate stories.

I’d also figured I’d enjoy the driving. In San Francisco, I frequently bicycle and leave the car home. In the city, I think drive safely, but my mind is on best routes through traffic, whatever I’m traveling to, and I may be listening to NPR as I work on both. Bicycling is much more focused, not tense, but alert in a different way. It’s not just survival. Bicycling in the city I sense the human presence of other riders, drivers, and walkers more than I do driving. Cycling in the city asks a rider to be present to others, to give them will, faces, and intention, to be present to specific anonymous human beings under the persistent threat of being hit by a car or hitting a pedestrian. On the bike my interactions with cars, other bicycles and pedestrians have more prayer and human communion to them than just “Lord keep me from getting hit.”

Outside my day-to-day city context, I really enjoy driving. Country driving, particularly driving winding roads and hilly terrain I sometimes touch something contemplative, perhaps riding a flow that moves through land and living things. And driving in other countries (and on the other side of the road), I’ve long been intrigued at the communication (the traffic language?) I must learn to drive in another culture.

In the fifty-one years since I got my driver’s license, I’ve driven back and forth across the United States eleven times. I’ve also driven in France, England, Scotland, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Mexico, and El Salvador. When we lived in Idaho, I enjoyed driving our old Toyota Land Cruiser pickup truck on ruinous dirt roads to remote picnic and camping destinations. And on two of my three previous trips to Malawi, I’d done extended driving stints. I knew driving there would be interesting, challenging, and satisfying work.

Before my kilometers and hours driving in Malawi last month, I had just glimpsed possibilities of spiritual practice or religious experience behind the wheel. Each day driving last month, I noticed more and more clearly something godly or graceful was happening to my heart and mind as I was driving. My hair-raising, exhilarating experience of the one mind and body of gathered humanity put heartbeat, stride, sweat and glance to a glimpse of the mind of Christ (or communion of saints?) in random human gatherings.

Malawi has relatively few tourists, but it’s a beautiful and deeply hospitable country, proudly describing itself as “The Warm Heart of Africa.” NGO workers, missionaries of various kinds, and international business people would agree. Almost seventy percent of the country is Christian (with very high church attendance and participation). Twenty-five percent of the country is Muslim (also high participation in services). And five percent are described as “other,” including traditional African religions and a global smattering of Buddhists, Sikhs, and Hindus. Compared to newsworthy problem-spots, Malawi’s religious mix is stable and neighborly.

Early mornings and very late afternoons, it seems that the entire neighborly population of Malawi is on the road. In California when we say “on the road,” we mean we’re “going somewhere,” probably driving a distance.

In Malawi, people, bicycles, animals, trucks, minibuses, and cars drive, wander, cycle, and walk, all literally “on the road,” living bodies, moving vehicles, clicking hooves and rolling wheels on the tarmac. Because it was a British colony, Malawi traffic drives on the left and traffic circles are far more common than “robots” (Malawi’s name electric traffic lights) or STOP signs.

This poor and mostly rural country is also one of the most populous in Africa. In a non-urban setting, population density means that wherever you travel through Malawi’s open, undulating savannah, grasslands, brush, cornfields, occasional huge trees and jagged rock outcroppings, you know there are literally thousands of mud brick houses just out of sight from the road. Wherever you go in Malawi people are on the move.

The people, bicycles and vehicles that jam Malawi’s roads are on the road in greatest numbers when it’s hardest to see them – just before dawn, sunrise, late afternoons and dusk. In the pre-dawn and dusk darkness, some drivers don’t use their headlamps. What does break the darkness is a near equatorial sunrise and sunset, blindingly beautiful light.

Through a village center (as the highways do) at any time of day you share the road with people and all kinds of wheeled traffic - walking, bicycling, ferrying wide loads on bicycles, double-riding “bicycle taxis,” driving and riding jam-packed mini-buses, and piling into and out of the back of pick up trucks. Big, heavily-laden long haul trucks, Land Rovers and BMW’s, NGO four-wheel pickups like ours, tiny, travel-weary Toyotas, and tractors pulling trailer loads of freshly harvested tea push. Each pedestrian, cyclist, or driver is inevitably part of this steady flow and we all must ease, pause, and slide our way through it.

Traffic isn’t frantic or even hectic, but it is dense and complex. In my previous visits I’d come to think of driving in Malawi as participation in a conversation with hundreds speaking at once. There is no single voice apart from the humm or whirr of voices. We walk or drive or cycle through a complex human field of intention in motion. The stakes are high and everyone knows it.

Other than the common understanding of how to negotiate a traffic circle (give way to traffic and if you’re going on through make your way to the inner ring of traffic), the traffic seems anarchic. Who has the right of way? No one knows and few try to establish it. Which side of the street belongs to pedestrians or bicycles? Both. Where do people cross the road? On their own, unique line toward their destination. It’s not surprising that Malawi’s traffic fatality rate is the second highest in Africa. What did surprise me moment to moment, and seemed genuinely miraculous, was how few near/misses we saw.

Every successful transit through a jammed village, each lane and timing negotiation passing or being passed by a big truck when you’re also sharing the road with a goat, a couple of freight bicycles, a bicycle taxi, and mini-bus is a miracle that counts on some human connection and something like common mind among the several minds and intentions I’ve just named and could see.

There’s far too much going on at once to be able to calculate or plan reliably. You’ve got to observe everything…and judge nothing. That was the point that started to seem prayer-like and had me thinking a lot about the differences between and among observation, judgment, discernment, critical opinion, and simple interpretation.

Occasionally driving in the U.S., I will quietly vent a frustration or negative opinion about another driver, a pedestrian or, if not their person, an action that someone has taken. Driving in Malawi we (everyone on the road) seemed to know that there was no time for judgment, no time for rule-generated rights of way. Moment by moment, driving choice by driving choice, in a primal way, we were caring for one another, putting all our attention into the good of all of us. Because none of us could afford even a moment to frame an opinion of another, because no one wanted anyone to get hurt, we were moving with compassion, with love. Though it was just barely or intermittently conscious, this random assembly was “us,” all the distinct eyes and minds and independent agency negotiating (reconciling?) our way forward. One body, one mind, one Spirit.

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

Garbage disposal meditations on retirement

by Donald Schell

I was at my office sorting through books and papers, gear and artifacts when the plumber called. We’re closing the office at the end of June when I formally retire and begin to draw my pension from Church Pension. My office is across the street from St. Gregory’s where I used to be the rector, and in fact, was my last office as the rector. The project of sorting, cleaning out, and purposing forward the accumulation of forty plus years of priesthood and teaching is daunting. Part of it feels like grieving. Some if it is oddly joyful. And I’m while I do this project I’m also enjoying making myself a new study/office at home.

My house is about five blocks from my office and when the plumber called (well before he’d said he was coming) and said he was waiting in front of the house, I hurried home to let him in, showed him the leaking, dead garbage disposal, and set my computer on the dining table to begin work on a piece of writing while he (and a plumber colleague) worked in the kitchen. Apparently the spirit of the Disposal took possession of my computer. Here’s what appeared -

At twenty-three and a half, the Garbage Disposal was feeling old, but it knew had served faithfully, taking whatever garbage the family dished out. Though it rarely complained, a disposal can get a little weary. As the days grind on, blades wear down - like an old horse's teeth (or a human's for that matter). Joints begin to collapse and fluids start leaking out in troublesome ways. These are embarrassing things that disposals don't like to talk about.

The Disposal had offered to resign several times. It would stop grinding and wait quietly to see who noticed. What did they think what it couldn’t make its blades spin? Without speech or language, it could only say “mmmmmm.” “Restart” was what they seemed to hear it say. They’d simply muck out what was in it, turn that hidden little crank on its underside, hit the reset and try again. The Disposal was trying to say “enough,” but whatever they heard, they kept saying, "You can do it." The Disposal didn’t welcome those words, but tried to live up to their optimistic visions of it. They didn’t seem to understand that trying hard always had a limit. The Disposal couldn't last and knew it. Felt it actually. Its seals were disintegrating and water was leaking out the bottom, a very sad way to go after so many years of service.

Two young plumbers arrived. One did remark that he was a year younger than the Disposal, but otherwise they were kind. They respected the disposal and commended its long, faithful performance. They gave their estimate on replacement cost. $300. The Disposal did its best to hold everything together waiting to hear the Owner's, "yes." And thankfully, the Owner did say "yes."

The Disposal was even more relieved than it had imagined it would be. Time to hand on the baton. Out to pasture. Over the hill. Maybe some of its metal would be recycled. Maybe next time it would be part of a jet engine and get to travel. Or if it was really lucky maybe some of its steel would go into a stainless alloy and get made up as silverware. Imagine getting to taste the food the way the cook meant it to be tasted! But the Disposal was ready for whatever came next.

Now the Disposal was sitting on the kitchen floor. They’d installed its replacement. They flipped the switch. How the replacement’s “whirrrr” took it back. So very enthusiastic. The Disposal smiled at memories of bright, sharp blades and feeling ready for whatever came. "Bring it on," it used to say to itself. And in another way, that's what it was saying now. Whatever is next, bring it on.

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

Signs of Spring

by Maria L. Evans

Almighty God, we thank you for making the earth fruitful, so
that it might produce what is needed for life: Bless those who
work in the fields; give us seasonable weather; and grant that
we may all share the fruits for the earth, rejoicing in your
goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. --Prayer for agriculture, Book of Common Prayer, p. 824.

Here in the Midwest, we've struggled all winter with subzero temperatures, yet I caught myself back in January engaging in one of my favorite mid-winter activities--what I refer to as "seed catalog porn." Ever since my childhood, one of the best parts of January and February is getting all the seed catalogs and daydreaming about the tomato plants, pepper plants, and flowers that I might have in the upcoming spring and summer. I always end up buying more seeds and plants than I ought to, giving a bunch of it away, and growing more garden than a person who lives alone ought to have, even with ambitions of canning some of it.

Now, on the cusp of spring, I'm seeing all the various photos on social media, where my like-minded friends have been starting seeds in everything ranging from muffin tins to egg cartons. After another blast of subzero weather to herald March's arrival here, there's something simply heavenly about picture after picture of fragile green sprouts, bravely showing a single delicate pair of green leaves atop their nondescript white stems. It's as if they are peering out the window at the frigid winter on the other side, saying, "Just you wait--I'll be out there momentarily."

You know, some years, winter just seems harder and harsher than others. But because I have lived over 50 of these transitions in my life, I know in my deepest heart of hearts that one thing is certain--spring will come. It WILL come. Might not be on my time frame, and not particularly to my liking in some ways--but it WILL come. Even when I'm dead and buried, it will still come.

We hardly ever see the above prayer for agriculture show up liturgically in the winter; we might see it used in Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer in early spring/summer, or on Rogation Days. Yet any good gardener will tell you that there is much to ponder in the cold, barren winter. There are always new things to try, or wild ideas that we keep to ourselves for fear our friends will think we've lost it.

In fact, I came up with one of those crazy ideas while cleaning off some shelves. Somehow, I ended up with too many freebie recyclable shopping bags. You know the kind--the ones the size of a large grocery bag with handles. I had just been perusing the seed catalogs, thinking about how I wanted to do my tomato plants in pots, rather than out in the yard (because I really hate cultivating and weeding.) Suddenly, I thought, "Hey! I can fill these with dirt and put tomato plants and pepper plants in them...stick a stick in them and zip tie the plants up as they grow...and with the handles I can move them around during the growing season to better spots in the yard!"

Now, I have no idea if this is going to work or not. I'm sure when people drive down my road this summer, they'll think a crazy person lives here, with a rainbow of recyclable shopping bags in the yard, tomato plants sprouting out of them. But if it ends up in a plethora of tomatoes, that I just have to give away, I'll gladly endure the scorn. If it fails, well...I'll just come up with a new crazy idea next year.

It's an analogy that works in thinking about the future of our church.

It can be incredibly depressing to read stories year after year of declining membership, schism, and hurtful statements in the comments line where it's hard to tell who's meaner--the evangelicals, or the anti-theists. Sometimes there's not even any solace in the "insider" social media groups--seems like there are some even uglier fights breaking out there.

You know, perhaps we're just in a string of harder winters than usual. In those times, the tendency is lose sight of the fact we've made it through hard winters before--and that spring always comes. It always comes. Not as fast as we'd like, and not always in a way to our liking, but spring always comes.

Truth is, we're doing the work of a hard winter. We're dreaming of a new church, perhaps even with the excitement of perusing those seed catalogs. Episcopal News Service continues to be filled with all sorts of news of new seedlings sprouting everywhere, fragile and yet defiant. Maybe some of these ideas will appear a little crazy to the neighbors--or even to us. But you know, signs of spring are still signs of spring.

Where are the places you see the tiny seedlings of a new church waving its tiny green leaves in defiance of the hard, harsh winter?

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

Lent: gazing at the face of evil

by Derek Olsen

I went to a Methodist seminary in the South. In describing their call to ministry, a lot of people there talked about a conversion experience. Several of my friends had “mountain-top experiences”—which is its own genre of conversion story—where they gained a real sense of God’s loving presence in their life. As they struggled through seminary or ministry, they would look back to this mountain-top experience to give them a renewed sense of purpose, an affirmation of the goodness of the God whom they serve.

I have something like this—but it’s just about the opposite of a mountain top.

This was about fifteen years ago. I had graduated from seminary and was serving as a pastoral intern of a large Lutheran parish south of Atlanta. One evening, I got a call from the senior pastor: one of our parishioners had been arrested and was in the Fayette County jail; I needed to go down, talk my way in, and see how he was doing.

I can’t say I was terribly surprised when I heard who it was. He was a troubled young man with some developmental delays and a history of anti-social behavior. What did surprise me was the circumstance of his arrest. He had been apprehended after a 911 call from two boys whom he had approached in a wooded area beside the golf cart trails that snaked through the community. In his golf cart was a coil of rope and a roll of duct tape; he had intended to kidnap and molest them.

I must have spent an hour and a half with him that night. Through halting words and tense silences he told me of his own childhood, about the abuse that he had suffered, and the nights of loneliness and fear. About his craving for affection and the warping of his understanding of love. In that time, he revealed a tortured world where his actions made a kind of sick sense. Physical abuse was the only way that he knew how to express his own desires for intimacy; he was only doing what he had been taught by bitter experience.

Leaving the prison that night, I stood in the parking lot as the darkness fell around me. I was suddenly confronted with a vision of what faced me. Like a serpent, it wound its coils through generations, crushing innocence, suffocating love. Like a virus, it replicated itself, broadcasting itself through acts of violence and betrayal. Like a plague, it drew power from darkness and secrecy and from those who would turn their heads, unwilling to gaze directly upon its virulence.

That night I had a conversion experience. But it was not a vision of God. I gazed upon one of the myriad faces of Evil.

Just as I was convicted by the presence and reality of evil, I was equally convicted with the understanding that this is what the Gospel calls us to fight. Our preaching of the Gospel is not about the proclamation of moral platitudes; it is about shining the harsh light of the truth into the shadowed corners and driving out the things that that feed on darkness. It is about naming and confronting abuse and addiction and vice and the comfortable complacency that would rather turn its head to look upon more pleasant diversions than to confront the darkness in our midst. It is about resisting the powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. When I get fed up with church committees and the petty politics that are an inevitable part of parish life, I am reminded of the reality of that against which we struggle. Remembering my own moment of conversion recommits me to a proclamation of the whole Gospel.

As the Church turns toward Lent we are called to contemplate not only mortality but sin. We are asked to search out the dark places of our own souls. Where are the corners of our being that block the light of Christ and create the shadowed nooks where the darkness can fester and breed? Where are the alleys of our hearts that we resolutely avoid for fear of what we would find lurking there?

I know that in the coming days I will see Facebook posts of friends proudly announcing that they are giving up chocolate for Lent. Predictably, I will be annoyed. I will take a breath, pray for patience, and remind myself of the words of Leo the Great and John Chrysostom, two of the greatest preachers, West and East. They remind us, in different words, written to different times and places, that—among other things—our fasting from food is a sign of a deeper fast: a fast from sin. That in the days of Lent in particular we strive to uncover in ourselves those things that draw us from the love of God and neighbor, to root them out, and to let the Gospel take seed in our hearts in their place.

This Lent let us choose the deeper fast. Let us commit ourselves to love the light more than the darkness. Let us commit ourselves to look at our own behaviors from which we would gladly turn away—where we harbor the seeds of darkness. Let us turn towards the light of Christ and look with honesty on what it reveals in and around us.
Let us learn love again.

Dr. Derek Olsen is a layperson in the Diocese of Maryland where his wife is a priest and his daughters are an acolyte and boat-bearer respectively. He serves on the vestry at the Church of the Advent, Baltimore, and as Secretary of the Standing Commission on Liturgy & Music. An IT specialist by day, Derek created and maintains the online Daily Office site The St. Bede's Breviary. His reflections on life, Anglo-Catholic identity, and liturgical spirituality appear at Haligweorc.


by Kristin Fontaine

I've been thinking about addiction as a result of all the news swirling around Phillip Seymour Hoffman's death. Many columnists, bloggers, and twitter users have condemned him for losing control. However, one of the best things I read was the suggestion that we should celebrate the extra 20 years he gave himself by being clean for as long as he was. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to look at people who pull out of addiction and get clean as more similar to cancer patients whose disease has gone into remission. We would never say some of the things that have been said about Mr Hoffman to someone whose cancer reemerged after years of being in remission.

Given the powerful nature of addiction, and how unpredictable it is from person to person, celebrating the gains rather than demonizing him for his failings seems the kinder way of looking at the situation. I have friends who lost family to addiction, lived with an addict, seen the damage left behind for children of addicts, so I am not inexperienced in the devastation addiction can leave it its wake.

Looking at the extra time gained, gives credit where credit is due to the tremendous battle some addicts face in trying to survive their addiction. Moving more firmly to a disease model of addiction (and for that matter mental health issues in general) acknowledges the effort the person made to control something that we don't even fully understand medically yet. So the next time I am tempted to say 'what a waste' when I hear of someone who 'fell off the wagon' and died as the result of addiction, I want to refocus and treat them like anyone else who has been diagnosed with a severe, recurring illness, and take joy in the extra time that was granted by their effort to get help in the first place.

As a result of recent personal experience and of thinking and reading the many thoughtful posts that came out as a result of Mr Hoffman's death, I came up with my own metaphor for addiction.

I had an itchy patch of skin that didn't want to heal-- in part because I kept scratching it. In the moment, it felt very good to scratch the itch, but I kept damaging myself in the process. Very short term relief set the healing back each time.

Now my rational brain recognized this and I did my best not to scratch and damage the healing skin. My rational brain can remind me to use my medication and to trim my fingernails; however, if you've ever had a really bad itch, you know that the moment your mind is on something else, you look down and find that you are bleeding once more. All the rational brain thinking can't overcome the sneaky hind-brain when the rational brain is distracted, sleepy, or overwhelmed.

I don't know if I can convey the level of compulsion in words, but the experience has given me a visceral reason to celebrate every day an addicted person stays clean rather than blame them for losing a battle that they did not get to choose in the first place.

Kristin Fontaine blogs at Ceramic Episcopalian.

Snoring in the Realm of God

by Maria L. Evans

O heavenly Father, you give your children sleep for the

refreshing of soul and body: Grant me this gift, I pray; keep

me in that perfect peace which you have promised to those

whose minds are fixed on you; and give me such a sense of

your presence, that in the hours of silence I may enjoy the

blessed assurance of your love; through Jesus Christ our

Lord. Amen.

--Prayer for sleep, Book of Common Prayer, p. 461

For the last couple of years, now, I've found time to volunteer at least minimally for a cold weather shelter ministry in Columbia, MO, called Room at the Inn. As I preparing to drive down recently and overnight there, I was thinking, "Just what is it that draws me to drive 90 miles away to participate in this ministry, besides the fact I wish we did a similar one in my town, and would invest my time to help start one?"

This year, I realized what it was, about 3:30 in the morning. It was sitting in the quiet, hearing the sound of roughly 40 people snoring.

You see, snoring has a universality to it. Anyone can do it. Most of us don't even realize we ARE doing it. (Unless, of course, we have a bed partner who is annoyed by it and proceeds to wake us up and inform us of it in vivid detail.) Snoring is not restricted to any race, belief system, or socioeconomic status. It's simply the result of the combination of certain anatomic characteristics of the head and neck, combined with deep sleep. Yes, it can be a sign of pathology--things such as sleep apnea--but sometimes it's just the way we lie in bed. Not all snoring is the same, but it's certainly something that crosses a lot of social boundaries.

In some ways, it's a sign that we feel safe enough to sleep that deeply, and perhaps that is where the difference between rich and poor come in. I suspect the homeless don't always get the chance to sleep deep enough to snore, for as long. It's probably hard to sleep that deeply when you are being rousted off of benches and out of parking garages by police and security. In the cold, there's a danger in falling asleep that deeply if one is not covered well enough to withstand the possibility of hypothermia. It's hard to feel safe enough to sleep soundly when there is always a risk of being rolled by passers-by and your fellow homeless.

I suspect there were other universalities among us in their dreams. I imagine some were dreaming of people long gone, some of flying, some of searching for something. A few might have been dreams where everything is safe and warm. However, I just as likely suspect that not all the dreams were necessarily good dreams. Perhaps some had monsters, some were about loss, and perhaps even someone was dreaming the infamous "final exam dream."

This is all part of what we discover when we participate in ministries where we are given opportunity to meet people where they are, in a way that we discover who they are, by listening to their stories and about their lives in the hours before they fall asleep. We discover that the Realm of God inches just a wee bit closer to the realm of humanity, when we help make the things happen that reveal the universal natures of all human life.

As I sat there in the wee morning hours, I simply enjoyed the din of the nasopharyngeal evidence of deep repose, feeling honored that I was one of the shepherds that was helping make this happen for 40 people who don't often get that opportunity. I can't fix very much at all in these people's lives. I can't avert them from the tragedies that started them on the road that led them to this shelter, nor can I dissuade them from poor choices that also may have contributed to that journey. I can, however, give them a safe place to snore.

What are the tiny intangibles that reveal the Realm of God to you in the mundane noises of life?

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

Real passion and real oppression

by Maria L. Evans

Look with pity, O heavenly Father, upon the people in this land who live with injustice, terror, disease, and death as their constant companions. Have mercy upon us. Help us eliminate our cruelty to these our neighbors. Strengthen those who spend their lives establishing equal protection of the law and equal opportunities for all. And grant that every one of us may enjoy a fair portion of the riches of this land; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
--Prayer for the oppressed, Book of Common Prayer, p. 826

Ever have one of those days where what scrolls on our news readers vs. what trends on our social media sites of choice are so mismatched, it's mind-boggling?

I'd recently had a day where my news reader had given me an awful lot to ponder--political instability in South Sudan (and the evacuation of non-essential U.S. personnel from the embassy in Juba), continued unrest in the Nuba Mountains and near the border of Sudan/South Sudan, a recent underage prostitution sting in Arizona, and the flight of Syrian Christians to Turkey. But when I switched tabs to see what was trending on social media among my friends, it was a bevy of opinions on A&E's suspension of Phil Robertson of "Duck Dynasty." My jaw dropped when I saw the number of browser scrolling inches devoted to whether a cast member of a reality TV show running his mouth in an interview was either lower than pond scum, vs. a victim of oppression of his free speech and/or religious rights.

The prayer above is a great reality check for the kinds of oppression towards which we ought to invest the bulk of our mental and physical energies. But even with this reality check at hand, the bottom line is all about presence. We invariably become more invested in events or situations where we feel present. We buy the overpriced roll of summer sausage from the high schooler on the doorstep, raising money for band camp, not because we need that summer sausage, but because we know that youngster as our neighbor. We volunteer in various ministries because somehow we have discovered a two-way relationship with those we feel called to help. Yet TV entertainment creates a sort of delusion where we might either think we "know" an entertainer enough to want to offer our support; or conversely, that somehow an entertainer's disagreeable personal opinion has a direct effect on us or someone we love.

Now, I'll be the first to admit there is certainly an indirect effect when a famous face says or does something that is hostile towards a group of people. There have also been plenty of times I've personally felt the hurt from careless public commentary. However, we are not alone there--I'm confident Jesus felt those same things from time to time. I'm certain the Gerasene hog owners had very little to say that was complimentary about Jesus. Nor did the merchants in the temple, nor the various folk in the towns where Jesus and the disciples were not well received.

The amazing thing about Jesus, though, was that he remained able to continue to invest his energies towards being present for the victims of oppression in his day--women, lepers, the blind, and all those considered "permanently unclean." Yet at the same time, he could be present to those in power even if that presence was to speak some uncomfortable truths to them face to face.

The Good News in Christ invites us to widen our understanding of oppression while feeling our way through a whirlwind of opinion and posturing. In fact, his life and ministry calls us to find ways to love disagreeable people with disagreeable opinions while simultaneously working towards equality for the oppressed. It beckons us to remain present to a life pilgrimage of mending our broken, hurting planet, where the road leads smack dab to the middle of the strong opinions and reactions that comprise the world's tension.

How does our disconnect between our real passions and our abstract opinions change when we focus on the definition of "oppressed" as "those who live with injustice, terror, disease and death as their constant companions?"

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

Life, Love and Loss

by Eric Bonetti

As we celebrate the holidays, we often think of those we love, those we've lost, and of the successes and failures of the past year. But how often do we think of these issues in their larger context? Do we recognize that change is an essential component of growth? That loss is an intrinsic part of love?

I've had some occasion to think about these issues over the past year. Last February, I left a job that I very much loved; I deeply mourned its passing.

The job was with a small non-profit that provides affordable housing to persons in need, with an emphasis on persons with disabilities. The position was, itself, a bit of a surprise, as I had neither sought the opportunity, nor ever paid much attention to the issues relevant to the job. Instead, the job found me.

Within days of starting at the job, I discovered that I had a passion for serving those in need. The hours were long, the work hard, and the pay adequate, at best. But the chance to serve others made the long hours not just tolerable, but very much enjoyable.

After leaving the job, I spent some time regrouping, unwinding, and catching my breath. But as I began my job search, it quickly became apparent that few non-profits were hiring, particularly for the sort of senior position that I was seeking.

My response was to begin informational interviewing. In a series of meetings with dozens of colleagues, friends, peers, and mentors, there was one consistent response: "Have you considered sales? You'd probably really like that."

As a result, I took and passed the real estate exam here in Virginia. Since then, I've joined a residential real estate brokerage, and have so far very much enjoyed selling real estate. Even prospecting -- a task many agents regard as, at best, a necessary evil -- has been tremendous fun.

At the same time, there've been the predictable moments of self doubt: "Am I going to be successful? Is this the right job for me?" Overall, those moments have been few and far between, but they've certainly been there, and times like these can rattle even the most confident among us, particularly after a painful separation from a previous job.
Things came into perspective, however, on my very first transaction. While I can't share the details, the situation involved someone at high risk of homelessness, and circumstances where my experience with related issues proved very helpful. Indeed, one person involved in the transaction indicated that most realtors had been far from helpful.

Coincidence? Perhaps, but I think not.

Of all the hundreds of transactions that occur every year in my office, many of them for high-end homes, what were the chances of stumbling on someone whose needs so closely aligned with my past experiences? Or that one of the dozens of other agents in the office wouldn't quickly snag the opportunity?

Clearly, something was at work here, and it became apparent that my change of jobs was not really a closing of one door, but the opening of another.

The Romans recognized the hand of the divine in such situations through the god Janus. Typically depicted as having both forward- and backward-looking faces, Janus was the god of change and transition, the guardian of doorways, the middle road between barbarianism and civilization. As such, some scholars assert that Janus was among the most powerful of the gods, commonly invoked along with the mighty Jupiter.

A Christians, I suspect we often give short shrift to change as an aspect of the divine. We understand God to be at work in our lives through though the Holy Spirit, but we fail to appreciate change and loss as being both signs of the divine, and in many cases of being sacred in and of themselves.

Instead, we succumb to the all too human tendency to view loss as something inherently and regrettably painful. Pain in turn in seen as something to be avoided whenever possible--as something with almost evil qualities.

In doing so, we lose sight of history as grounded in the resurrection. While we view history as linear, we often see loss and death as the end, versus as a new beginning. We forget that many of the very same qualities that the Romans venerated in the person of Janus are present in our God, our theology, and our understanding of our role in the larger world.

At the same time, our understanding of the divine is one that, through the death on the cross, looks to transform evil to good. Unlike Janus, whose temple doors were closed in those rare times of peace and opened in times of war, and for whom war and destruction was an integral part of life, our God works to transform evil into good, death into life, and loss into renewal.

As I look back over the past several years, I now see that many events in my life, seemingly random at the time, were in fact part of a larger, carefully constructed pattern. I'm also impressed by just how often I have failed to see this pattern, but just blundered along, oblivious to any larger context or meaning.

How many times have you seen the hand of the divine present in your life, but visible only after the fact? How many times have the random events of life proved, in retrospect, to have been parts of a well-ordered plan? And how many times have painful losses been the path forward to a resurrection and a new beginning?

Eric Bonetti is a former nonprofit professional with extensive change management experience. He now works as a realtor.

Truth will out

by Torey Lightcap

The truth, they say, will out.

A few nights ago I was in a dimly-lit eatery in Denver International Airport, lingering over a panini and watching people watch their phones. The people at the bar were lingering over ESPN with the same artificial interest you see around almost every TV at almost every bar. Virtually all the human beings in the room had their backs to me, and everyone felt distant - the whole environment a constructed reality, distantly held.

The government shutdown had been all over my friends’ Facebook feeds for better than a day, and this had me feeling a little spiky to boot. The cavalier attitude with which some were treating the subject was truly shocking. Trying not to feel too self-righteously indignant, I wondered what it would be like to wake up and to find oneself labeled Nonessential.

Gradually, as the food on the plate and the beer in the glass disappeared into me, two disparate streams of thought began to flow into one another. The first was that I get a little testy about working extra hours whenever someone on a plane innocently asks me that sixty-four-thousand dollar question, “So what do you do?” Over the past nine years I have enjoyed enriching conversations in the answering of that question on airplanes, and equally have been able to learn about other people’s lives and loves. God, and the hidden truth of our lives in Christ, has often been at the center of such conversations. But tonight I was just tired. Tired and grumpy.

The other stream of thought was that crazy shutdown and the hubristic intransigence that had given rise to it. There had to be better ways of dealing with conflict than shuttering government services for what looked to me to be nothing more than a childish political revenge scheme.

By the time I had signed for my check and walked off, I made a decision to lie about something. I decided that if asked what I do, I would lie and say that I was “a nonessential government employee.” This, I reasoned, would have the double benefit of bringing both awareness of a much larger issue and and keeping me from hearing an hour-long confession I was not prepared to hear.

All the way to the boarding area, standing around waiting, and finally in my assigned seat, I tried to expand the size of the lie to cover any questions my seatmates might have. I anticipated such questions, remembering that “Once you tell a lie, you need ten more lies to cover the lie.” How far out did this net have to stretch?

I’m not proud of it, but this is what I came up with: if prompted, I would say I was a civilian teacher on contract to the Pentagon and worked with most branches of the Armed Forces. I worked nine months out of the year as a teacher, spent an additional month conducting research, and then laid out the other two months. My fields of specialization were mob psychology and deprogramming(!). The deprogramming thing had been receding ever since 9/11 because of administrative policies of non-negotiation, which meant that I was spending increasing time teaching the intricacies of mob psychology and crowd supression. (To spice it up, I might say that I worked hard at promoting the more humane approaches of this often tricky craft, and that I wondered if this somehow set me apart from my colleagues.) I made up terms that seemed conceivable (to me) coming out of the mouth of such a person, and I thought about what kinds of things scholarly journals would say about these areas of work. I thought about what it would be like to spend hours and hours watching recordings of satellite imagery and drone footage, and then listening to top military brass hash them out. And anything beyond any of that -- anything I could not easily imagine a response for -- I would just say that my security clearance didn’t permit me to say. Above all, in tone I was to be pragmatic yet hopeful about the government shutdown because that’s who I really am (hopefully pragmatic), and anything else was going to just sound blatantly phony.

It didn’t feel -- well, it didn’t feel all that good to find within myself the capacity to do this mental legwork just to make and spread and cover over a lie. But I was committed.

You know how these conversations go. “So what took you there?” or “Business or personal?” or whatever. You can see the question coming. I got the business-or-personal? one, swallowed, and hedged. I was playing chicken with myself and losing.

“Bit of both,” I said truthfully. “I was with a cohort of friends who are all involved in roughly the same work I do.”

The double-bind! Not only had I made the next question inevitable (“Oh really? So what do you do?”), I had also opened up a new aspect not accounted for in my planning. Quick: How many people could there possibly be who teach depogramming and/or mob psychology in the Armed Forces? Five? Could there be five? Because there were five of us on the trip. Oh, but that’s real life. That’s immaterial. I never said a number; there could have been three or ten or twenty of us.

There was, however, no next question. Just a weird quiet. “What takes you to Omaha?” I asked.

“I’m from the area north of there. I have a very close cousin who died the other day. The funeral is on Friday.”

Turned out north of Omaha meant close to where I live. I was sorry to hear about her cousin. Was it sudden? I’m sorry. Cancer? That’s terrible. What was your cousin like? Small, engaging talk about important things. Who I really am in my vocation as a priest received a small mention, but it was coming out of my mouth without the need to protect or explain it.

And just like that -- as carefully as it had been born, as thoughtfully as it had been knitted, as pragmatically as it may have been needed -- the lie expired. Whatever I actually had to offer this conversation was good enough; the lie, now dead, would have been an insult to someone’s humanity in a moment of vulnerability. Worse, it would have come disguised as an object lesson, delivered with impolitic ego.

Empathy and compassion are like microwaves that zap our exterior stories and lies into submission. When we hear of another’s pain -- when it’s not a constructed reality but a real-live pain with a name and an address -- the opportunity arises within us in less than a heartbeat to be aware of another, to be human, to answer pain not with smothering platitudes or even theological precision, but with listening care. Just care. Just being-present-to, and letting everything else rest for a minute. For all our “skill,” our “tools,” and sometimes in spite of them, there’s no substitute.

And (especially in the Midwest) that minute can be a fast one. To the rest of the world it’s just a couple of people being decent towards each other. No hugging, no tears. No big epiphanies.

I had boarded the plane outfitted with a hubristic lie about being nonessential. For the briefest of hours, I met someone, whose name I don’t even know, who reminded me about what it meant to become “essential” when called upon to be that, to be whatever that meant. The truth had gotten out, and it proved, as it always does, to be entirely sufficient in and of itself.

Then it was on to baggage claim.

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


by Linda Ryan

I had to clean the debris out of my purse again recently. It seems to get cluttered up with bits of paper, essentials like my iPod, Kindle and cell phone, pens, ChapSticks and just about anything else that will fit in there. In the process, I ran across a small printed piece of paper that’s been in there for who knows how long. I have no idea where I got it, but there it was.

I was hungry and you formed a humanities club and discussed my hunger. Thank you.
I was imprisoned and you crept off quietly to your chapel in the cellar and prayed for my release.
I was naked and in your mind you debated the morality of my appearance.
I was sick and you knelt and thanked God for your health.
I was homeless and you preached to me about the spiritual shelter of the love of God.
I was lonely and you left me alone to pray for me.
Christian, you seem so holy; so close to God But I'm still very hungry, and lonely, and cold...

John Stott wrote this based on a passage from Matthew 25, and it almost defies the reader to ignore it. Now, when it seems that the safety nets of the poorest and neediest of our citizens are being swiftly cut it seems more applicable than ever. What in the world are we doing?

Some insist we are a “Christian” nation but how can we be if we ignore the very people Jesus spoke about the most – the poor, the ill, the widows and orphans? How can we claim it if we enable the rich to get richer while the poor only get poorer? Whether we are Christian, a member of some other religion or no religion at all, we all bear a share of the blame.

The health of our nation depends on the health of its people, and our score right now is low and getting lower. Cuts to education, the elderly, the working poor, the children and the marginalized are weakening us on many fronts. Involvement in wars in other countries doesn’t win us many friends abroad as we penalize the soldiers and veterans who do the fighting by cutting their housing, training and benefits which doesn’t win us many friends at home. Our children are less able to excel in the world education standings and our old people are treated almost like freeloaders and nuisances. The homeless are almost invisible, even as they lie on the sidewalks and park benches. Who cares? Obviously not big business or even our own elected officials.

Matthew records Jesus’ words about the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned and the marginalized but he also recorded something that should be uppermost in the minds of any Christian, “Whatever you did to the members of my family, you did it to me.” Of course, the ones who ignored those same people received the opposite message and a condemnation. It seems we pick and choose which instructions from Jesus we want to follow and too often the ones we look at are the ones that line up with our personal wants and desires.

Some preachers preach against the “social gospel,” preferring to encourage the “name it and claim it” or “prosperity gospel” instead. They put the focus on “I/me/mine” rather than “ours.” There are also some politicians who seem to put the prosperity gospel ahead of the social one when they hang on to the benefits they receive as elected officials while cutting the possibility of those same kinds of benefits for others. Christianity, whether preached by ministers or practiced by politicians, isn’t about “I/me/mine,” just as Christianity practiced by so many ordinary folks. Jesus didn’t restrict his teachings or his healings to people who voted for him, gave him big campaign contributions, practiced Judaism or even were from his own family or town.

I wonder what Jesus would say if he walked around our country today? He’d probably thank us for our prayers for the poor and suffering but ask what were we actually doing to fix the problem. He’d probably want to disown the lot of us because we’re all part of the problem unless we’re part of the solution. That being part of the solution is the tricky part, though. It means giving up some of the “I/me/mine” and handing it out to the “them,” in short, making the “I” “us.”

It occurs to me that I have a responsibility to do something, anything that can make even the smallest difference. The epiphany produced by Stott’s words need to have an action to complete it. What am I willing to do about the problem? And what are others willing to do in turn? Our future hangs in the balance. And Jesus is watching.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter . She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale.

What is old and what is new

by Kathy Staudt

In the upstairs choir room at our church, on the bulletin board, there is a set of crayon drawings by Sunday school children.. One of the Sunday school pictures has my daughter’s name on it. Another has the name of her closest Sunday School friend. My daughter is now 25. The picture was probably made when those girls were in third and fourth grade, i.e. in 1996 or 1997.

The bulletin board where those drawings hang was once a room divider used in the undercroft , to divide up the various grade levels of Sunday school. Someone moved it up here at some point for storage, or maybe to create 2 levels of Sunday school in this space. But no one ever took the pictures down.

And I find I can’t bring myself to take them down, either. I feel sentimental about that Sunday School picture. It reminds me of an era when I felt that my children shared a church life that was important to me, when they were part of a healthy church family, learning the basic stories of the faith and experiencing worship in community. It was the era when life in church was transforming me, giving me satisfying leadership roles as an educator and prayer leader, and steering me toward a vocation that has been real and life-giving to me. My life in those years was quite wrapped up in church, and I am still “active” in my congregation. But the vocational path I started on in the 90s has also led me to different expressions and experiences of the Christian life. I still value and treasure that era of family life in church, and continue to be fed by worshipping with the next generation of younger families that have come. I come “home” to worship, I support this church financially, and I help out where I can with leadership. But the congregation now is more a “home base” from which I go out, not the place where most of my ministry and social life are focused, as they were in an earlier time.

The room where these pictures hang is still called the choir room, and it is where the choir stores our stuff: robes and music, and where most of us vest. But it is no longer used for choir practice, either; It is up a steep flight of steps, with no bathroom on that level, and the aging of choir members makes it harder for some of us to come up the steep stairs to this room, though it still houses a piano and metal file cabinets full of music. (As well as a number of tables piled high with music to be filed!). The room comes to life when the children’s hand-chime choir rehearses there, but their rehearsal happens in a space surrounded by clutter from the past.

Certainly there is no longer the same kind of “Sunday School,” no longer the large choir program that we had 20 years ago -- but the things associated with that era in our common life are still lying around. No one (myself included) seems to have the energy to retire these reminders of the old way. I have been noticing that many other churches I visit have the same kind of clutter lying around in their parish halls and meeting rooms. It is the kind of clutter we stop noticing when we have lived in a house for a long time. Just a lot of stuff that we aren’t really using any more, but we haven’t had the energy or a reason to move or toss or put stuff away. And the sorting and tossing that would be required seems like more than we want to take on.

I know something about the emotional energy this kind of sorting takes because in the past year I have moved our household from the home we lived in for 24 years, into a new and less cluttered space. In the same year I have also helped to downsize and sell my mother’s condo, as she moved into assisted living. Both projects began with a slow sorting process, a lingering over this or that thing or book or file or piece of paper that held a memory. And revisiting those memories was important. As my Mom was doing it, we took things slowly, even though her daughters were itching to get on with the move. She needed to handle those things, tell those stories, before tossing files and mementos into the trash, as she then did. In my own sorting and packing, I found that after a time I Just needed to get someone to help me who wasn’t invested in the stuff, who had a vision for what this place would look like when it was cleared out, and how the space could work for the next owner, the new buyer, or in the case of our own move, for the next stage of our life as a couple and as a family. The realtor, the decorator, and ultimately the "College Hunks Hauling Junk" became important allies in the spiritual work demanded by moving.

It is easy enough, from the outside, to say, “Just throw it all away, simplify and start over again!” But in fact the process necessarily involves some real decisions about what to keep and what to toss. My mother took comfort in knowing that her daughters would take some of her most valued possessions, and the process of adding those family treasures to my own household has deepened my sense of continuity between my new home and my origins, and the places I have come from in life. I kept boxes of family memorabilia, for example, knowing I had space in the new house to store it, and wasn’t ready to part with it yet; The sorting out of “treasured things” from “stuff” is a long labor of love, and takes a lot of energy before the time comes to call in the “College Hunks” and say “just take the rest away.”

We have known for awhile now that at this moment in the life of the Church, there are things that need to go, and things that need to be remembered, and the process of discerning which is which involves a conversation between the generations, some story-telling, some mutual listening, and a lot of emotional energy. This is what Phyllis Tickle means (quoting Bishop Mark Dyer) when she refers to the “rummage sale” that goes on in the church every 500 years or so, an event that she calls the “great emergence,” which we are in the midst of now.

When I look at that room in our church building, I ask myself, “What is this room for, now?” And I find I don’t have an answer to that; right now it is mainly a room that stores stuff from the past. It will take some creative thinking, and conversation with a next generation of leaders, if it is not to remain simply a cluttered room, but a place where some new creative thing can happen in the life of the church. In this way it stands for the larger, physical presence of our particular congregation in the place where it is. What is here that is worth cherishing and remembering? What is clutter that needs to go? These are serious questions that I think we need to be asking ourselves, as leaders and long-time members in congregations, who care about both the past and the future of the church. And it is a conversation that needs to happen across generations.

When I go up the old choir room to collect my robe and music on a Sunday, I sometimes notice those church school drawings still on the old room divider. And I think of a saying of Jesus that cries out for our attention, in this time of transition in this church.. Asking his disciples how much they’ve understood of his teaching, he declares: “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old..” (Matthew 13:52 (NRSV) Words to reflect on and act on, as we move through this new time of “emergence” in the Church.

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.

Church Camp: This isn't "like church" it IS church

by Donald Schell

My wife Ellen and I just returned from a week at the Bishop’s Ranch, an Episcopal Diocese of California Conference and Camp Center in Healdsburg California. We were there as grandparent participants in the annual Family Camp that Bishop Bill Swing asked us to found twenty-five years ago.

It was the longest our grandson had been away from his parents and the longest time we’d been responsible for him. He is three years old. He experienced a the different kind of independence and interaction with many adults that the temporary village of Family Camp makes possible. He did arts projects alongside us (or vice versa). He began exploring water games in the swimming pool. We participated in daily Eucharist with us. We read him bedtime stories and talked about how he missed his mom and dad. At the end of camp he was eager to see them and then wondered if we could bring them back with us for “more camp.” The three of us had a rich and joyful time together.

For Ellen and me, it was also a return; we’d been away from this Family Camp for ten years. Starting when our youngest was fourteen months old and for fifteen years, we’d led and participated in this camp as parents-leaders, me as camp dean shaping staff, guiding chapel and collaborating on program development, and Ellen as camp nurse and collaborating on program development. We shared leadership over those ten years with other volunteer staff

– an energizing and inspiring convenor/gatherer,
- a storyteller,
- an artist who could conceive and guide hands-on multi-generational arts projects,
- a musician gifted to inspire even “non-singers” to join our music making.

Together we grew this event until our team was leading an annual, multi-generational gathering of a hundred or so people, capacity for the Bishop’s Ranch. For a week each year new and returning parents and children, grandparents, uncles and aunts, teenagers and infants and a handful of close family friends lived, worked, prayed and played together.

This year, the twenty-sixth Family Camp in this ongoing tradition, we joined regulars and newcomers to welcome Kate Flexer’s new leadership. At a closing Family Camp Eucharist last year Elizabeth and the whole community had blessed Kate and Jim in the new role they were taking on. Kate is a parish priest from El Camino Real, our neighboring diocese. She and her husband Jim Hinch (a writer and editor with the voice and spirit to make people glad to hear daily announcements and a great gatherer and people-organizer) we were working with a team that our successor and Kate’s predecessor, Elizabeth DeRuff had gathered -
-musicians Fred Goff and Christopher Putnam, two skilled classically trained musicians who also love community singing and practice both with their congregations in the diocese of California,

- artist, Rene Billingslea, is a visual artist on the faculty of Santa Clara University with the imagination to create projects that will engage people of many levels of skill and the different attention span of differing ages,
- guitarist and youth encourager, Craig Benson, a water resources specialist from California’s far northern reaches who brought a strong ecological voice to our chapel and program.

Elizabeth DeRuff herself, the priest who’d led Family Camp for ten years after my wife and I moved on, was back for a couple of days with her husband Dave, who’d carried the role of energizing and inspiring convenor/gatherer for their ten years. They’d come back to spend a couple of days with the Family Camp community. Kate invited Elizabeth to preside at one of our six daily all-generational, Gospel-enacting, sung and danced Eucharists.

It was a joy to Ellen and me to be back and to sense the camp community’s deeply rooted continuity and lively development. I was pleased and startled to see the culture, customs, and ritual of family camp growing so recognizably from patterns of its earliest days. Undoubtedly part of the continuity we saw in the chapel was thanks to the ongoing participation of Rick Fabian, my longtime work partner in parish work founding St. Gregory’s, San Francisco.

As you’d expect in any community that had passed the quarter century mark (!) at lot had happened in the ten years we’d been away. Several families had moved on as their children had grown up. New families we’d never met before had made this camp a regular part of their summers, often finding their way into the extended leadership network Elizabeth and Dave DeRuff had fostered. Moms, dads, uncles, aunts, and grandparents were continuing to devote a week of their summer vacation to being together and with their children and continuing to do the work of Christian and human formation together. It was recognizably and undoubtedly…yes, church.

An old friend, a Family Camp regular since her now grown older daughters were toddlers, was at camp with her young teen.

Her husband, an attorney who’d developed a bad case of laryngitis, was reluctantly healing at home. He deeply understands and values community and loves Family Camp, and he thought keeping silent for the whole of camp would be harder than not speaking as he healed at home.

My friend offered the word “church” to describe what we were experiencing and what twenty-five years had built. She said, “You know, this isn’t just ‘like church,’ this IS church. It really is another parish of the diocese. Think about it – every day we’re sharing Eucharist and offering our prayers. We pray at each meal and eat together. We work together, caring for the children and giving them safe space to grow and find their freedom. We listen to each other and help people celebrate great things and make their way through hard things. There’s a lot of congregations where people don’t spend this much time praying and working with their fellow congregants in a whole year.”

I recognized the simple truth my friend was offering. This Family Camp (like other ongoing gatherings at Episcopal Camp and Conference Centers around the country) does what our best congregations do. Whether playing together or facing the flare-ups of conflict and working them through, we were practicing love and looking for the presence of the Spirit among us. We were becoming and experiencing ourselves as the Body of Christ. We were engaged in genuine human and Christian formation of the most powerful sort as Episcopal Camps do (and as ECCC and Forma, our network of Christian Education and Formation professionals are working to help the whole church understand)

In our first year of camp Ellen and I and our planners made a serious planning mistake. We sent word out in diocesan communication channels that Family Camp would be “more fun than Club Med.” Does our congregations sometimes make the same mistake. In that first year some campers were dismayed that we were counting on people to participate and to pitch in to help a build a community. The families who didn’t see what we were building together for taking their kids to movie matinees and an amusement park in the nearest town. We talked together a lot that year, staff and participants, about what we were doing and how to tell the story and invite people in. The next year our promotion line was “Come and help make it happen!” The talking together during camp that first year and the shift in how we invited participants made a huge difference to the shared experience of the second year of camp.

Like any congregation, Family Camp has a congregational culture, Family Camp ways of doing things. Part of that culture lies in the chapel, meal and activity practices we offered and which participants embraced. Part of the culture was shaped over time as leaders and participants together developed a shared story. Camp makes a tradition and continues to welcome change. It’s not just what camp does together - every year Camp has welcomed new participants (this year, it was about twenty out of a hundred participants, a typical proportion) and helped them join in making Camp happen, invited them to share practices, told the story, and invited them to make their own invitation to camp activities. My friend’s calling this “church” feels accurate. Family Camp is a yearly week-long practice in the Communion of Saints.
I told my wife what our friend had said about Camp being real church. Ellen added her thought that the gathering bell calling us to daily sung Eucharist, to gather to sing grace before every meal, and to find our way to the day’s work brought participants an undeclared, hidden taste of monastic community. Her observation also felt true to me.

We’d seen this happening in our fifteen years leading the camp -

- When Family Camp gathered around a lesbian couple that we prayed through the agonizing wait while domestic court considered their move to adopt their foster daughters,
- When we provided solace and five days of day care for parents coping with insurance claims and sifting through the ashes of the family home that burned down the first day of camp. We heard the horrifying news with them at dinner our first evening. We prayed with them, and then for the week folded their kids into the camp community as mom and dad commuted home daily and back to camp each evening for dinner and after dinner singing and storytelling as camp was the only shelter the family had that week.
- As we grieved and laughed and wept with a mom who was at camp between chemo sessions in stage four cancer and heard her wish that if she didn’t make it, her husband and daughter return to camp the following year to bury part of her ashes at Family Camp. Family Campers reached out through that year as she was dying, and the dad and daughter did return for the next year’s camp. We had her ashes with us in the chapel through our week of camp and prayed for her and her family, and at our concluding Eucharist we celebrated an all-generations-included Eucharist and committal service and said our good-byes.
- During the months away from camp, when campers were scattered to their home parishes, other campers, grandparents, parents, and at least one child in the ongoing Family Camp community died. And of course children grew and we all aged and welcomed young adults are children’s ages into leadership with us. The ongoing Family Camp community moved through a whole generation of time and more.

Loving stories of what we’ve been through and done together, of the friends who’d died and of those who’d moved away are part of Family Camp, the cultural work of remembering and shaping the narrative of a shared journey.

Coming back after a decade away, I was moved as moved seeing how completely the Family Camp community had embraced ways that we’d begun as I was delighted to experience how creatively and naturally the community had found ways to grow and expand its repertoire of practices and customs.

It was hugely evident Elizabeth and Dave, our successor leaders, had done a great job of steadily building on experience, recruiting more volunteer leaders, welcoming newcomers and building the culture. Talking with Kate, my younger colleague who has taken on this annual pastorate to share it with her husband and other lay and clergy volunteers, I realized how much I’d learned from all we tried together at camp, practices and experiences that I took home to congregational life and crucial growth in my skills as a collaborative pastoral leader.

When we started this Family Camp twenty-five years ago, our youngest son was fourteen months old. We returned this year as primary caregivers (for the week) of our three-year-old grandson. This year’s new leaders, Kate and Jim have their own small children. Whole-hearted participation (by all) and full-time leadership (for some) necessarily overlaps with full-time parenting. It can only happen with a leadership team of other parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents working together.

We were a couple of years into Family Camp when I first heard the African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child.” I thought immediately of Family Camp. Because we were leader-participants with a toddler and two other children at the beginning, we had to build shared leadership into this model of weeklong community. But what shared leadership helped create is a culturally resilient, vibrant community that is, as many adult campers say, “What church back home should be.” And stepping back into this continuing community ten years out, what I saw so clearly what my friend had said, this isn’t “like church,” it IS church.

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

Reading labels

by Linda Ryan

There. It happened again. I'd bought a lovely set of light green sheets (on sale) several years ago and they'd been sitting in the armoire ever since. This morning I decided that their time to shine was now. I opened the package and started to put on the bottom sheet. Hold it. It was too long and too deep. No, it was labeled as the size I needed for my mattress but the size was followed by the word "long." Apparently I overlooked the word "long" when grabbing them from the shelf in the store. You did it again, I told myself. When are you going to learn to read the labels more carefully? I had read the label or I'd have gotten a king size or something instead of the size I needed, but somehow I missed that one little word that made the difference.

Labels. They've become a standard part of my life these days. As a diabetic, I have to read food labels carefully to make sure I don't get something with too much sugar or too many carbs or no nutritive value whatsoever. I'm learning to look at clothes labels a bit closer, remembering the pairs of jeans I bought that said "petite" on the hanger but which turned out to be "long" when I got them home. And then I think of people who seem to have labels attached to them and I wonder...

Everybody's got labels whether they hang them on themselves or someone does it for them. Even though we probably shouldn't, we do it anyway because it gives us a tag to say something about that person or even a whole group. They're people "like us" or people "not at all like us." They are of the wrong political persuasion, some other race, some other denomination, the list could go on probably forever. I'll admit I have my prejudices; tell me someone is one of those__________ (fill in the blank) and I'll probably give them less credence than I would someone I felt was more in my line of thinking. Should I and do I read their books? Probably not, although I have done it on more than one occasion just to try to see where they are coming from, to use the popular phrase. Sometimes I have found out that I was horribly wrong about a person or group but have felt pretty rotten about it. As a result, I learned to change my thinking on the subject. Sometimes, though, they reinforced my conception (and preconception) of whatever it was that I felt made them "one of those." Underneath it all it was all based on labels, internally or externally applied, rightly or wrongly read or understood.

One of the best/worst labels in the world is that of "Christian." Who is good and who is not depends on a person's personal theology, religious and political affiliations and sometimes even social status. It feels like Jesus and his teachings are in the center of a tug-of-war with people and institutions from both ends of the spectrum trying to pull him over to their side, even if they pull him in half to do it. Each group claims the label "Christian," but it seems that only the people nearest the middle see the actual damage being done by the tug-of-war and aspersion-casting. Some of those would take the rope, put Jesus in the center and then hold the rope in a circle with Jesus on the inside, everybody else on the outside. Some would put Jesus in the center and surround him with people facing outward, holding the rope between them and everybody else. Then there are those who put Jesus in the center and then sit around him, throwing the rope aside as unneeded and unwanted. I think those could wear the label of "Christian" very well. The others? Well, maybe they're Christians too, just not the same. Their label is a bit more tattered or maybe I just see it that way.

Jesus quite often looked past labels and spoke/healed those who were outside the circle that an observant Jewish man would normally avoid. He also put labels on people like the Pharisees. Why would that be okay for him but not for anyone else -- like us? The thought disturbs me. I'm sure someone would argue that Jesus was the Son of God and could see the hearts of those around him whereas anyone else has to go on intuition or observation, but does that really work? It gets me back to the old argument about whether Jesus was really fully human, fully divine or a mixture of both. Sure, he could do a lot of things ordinary people couldn't, even miraculous things, but he could be what we would call rude too -- like when he intimated that the Syrophoenician woman was like a dog to lick up the crumbs under the table where others were allowed to eat. Was that his human side coming out? Granted, he went ahead and did what she asked of him in a characteristically human way of changing his mind. Then I remember that even God changed God's mind on a couple of occasions, even showing remorse. So can God use labels and we can't?

When it comes down to it, perhaps I need to have my glasses prescription changed, or perhaps I need to change my way of scanning labels. Perhaps a second or third or tenth reading might be in order to ensure I have all the information and that I did read it correctly without skipping words -- or adding words. And maybe I need to ask myself why is this label on this thing, person or group, who put it there and for what reason? Then it should be easier to determine whether or not there's any veracity to the label or whether it should be consigned to the dumpster or maybe just aired out or laundered.

As for the sheets, a simple tucking of more than the usual amount of sheet under the mattress solved the problem of the length and width. They will probably pull loose from time to time as I turn over in bed, but hey, it might remind me of the value of labels read correctly for things where size or the like really matters. As for labels for people, that is a whole different story.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter . She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale.


by Linda Ryan

Every now and then I have an itch to write something but haven’t got a clue what to write about or even where to start. Years ago I started little notebook in which I put thoughts and quotations that I found in various places like books on the Internet or in televised interviews and the like and when I get stuck for something to write about, I dig out my little book and start looking through it. Quite often something pops up that says to me this is something to think about today and something to write about. Maybe the writing will be good, maybe the thinking will be faulty, but at least it’ll keep the brain cells working and maybe provide an epiphany of sorts.

The quote that stood out for me this morning was one from Mark Twain that I think I found on the Internet in which he says, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and lightning bug.” It started a whole train of thought.

Growing up back East I was quite familiar with both lightning and lightning bugs. One of the joys of summer evenings when I was a child was looking at the gathering darkness and seeing tiny flashes of golden light signaling something that I couldn’t understand but providing beauty that I could enjoy. Sometimes we would catch lightning bugs and put them in jars just for the joy of seeing them close up. They were beautiful although they did have a certain pungency when you caught them or released them from their jar. When it came to lightning, though, that flash of light could be fearsome. I remember being terrified of it as a child, hiding my head in Mama’s lap while the storm raged outside in our family dog cowering under that the seam chair in which we sat. It took a while but I learned to see the beauty of lightning even though I would never attempt to try and catch it in a jar like I did the lightning bugs. Bright flash or gentle glow, you couldn’t mistake one for the other but each was part of creation and played the part it was intended to play. And each had its own beauty.

People who work with words, journalists like writers, preachers, motivational and other public speakers, etc., know the importance of having the right word rather than the almost right one. What if Patrick Henry had said, "Give me liberty or give me another option" or Rhett Butler had said, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a dime." It wouldn't be quite the same or have the same impact as the original lines. Imagine what the difference would have been if Jefferson had penned, "... the inalienable right to longevity, options and the pursuit of good humor"? We might then be searching for the Fountain of Youth or an ice cream truck as an ultimate goal. If Jesus had just chosen a few less vivid words, Matthew 23:33 might have come out as "You nasty people! You boogers! How can you elude being sent to the compost pile?" instead of "You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?" Or what if he had tried to calm the storm on the Sea of Galilee with, "Cool it!" rather than "Peace, be still!" I wonder how people would have responded if he’d told them that they were going to be cat herders instead of fishers of people?

There are always old jokes about people learning other languages and then trying to practice them in meetings or sermons on native speakers only an inflection is wrong or the person uses the wrong term and ends up insulting the listeners rather than impressing or flattering them. It's about knowing the right word, the right way to say it, and then actually being able to do both at the right time. In high-powered negotiations or in attempts to tell people the good news, it's not enough to use an almost-right word.

Choosing the right word can be an exercise in frustration at times. No matter how delicately I want to put something, sometimes I just can't come up with something that will convey what I want to say in a non-confrontational, non-judgmental, non-hurtful way. I’ve begun trying to think before I speak but it doesn’t always work. I think I need more practice at it. Or perhaps I need to sleep with a thesaurus under my pillow. I cringe when I think back to times when I’ve been at funerals and heard someone tell the family of the deceased that “Now they’re in a better place” or “Now you can get back to normal.” They undoubtedly mean it to be comforting or reassuring, but somehow it just seems like the wrong words. How do they know the better place for that person wasn’t being alive and in the arms of the family or that “normal” covers a lot of territory, including taking an indefinite, indefinable period of time to adjust to not having someone around? I don’t want to be guilty of being that kind of Job’s comforter, meaning well but perhaps sticking a spike in the heart instead. At times like those when there are so many wrong words sometimes a silent hug or a “How are you?” is better. Or in the heat of a discussion a “This is what I hear you saying…” is better than a quick-witted rebuttal that doesn’t reflect what the first person was really saying.

For me, the “right words” are “Jesus loves you.” Period. Full stop. No “Jesus loves you if…” or Jesus loves you but…” Changes might be necessary for other people to love me but I don’t think God puts that kind of restriction on me. In this case, less is more and the right words don’t need any embellishment. “God likes you” is nice, but how much more emotion or depth of feeling is conveyed with “God loves you.” Love covers a lot of territory and a bunch of sins. If you love someone you can forgive a lot more than if you just like them. Love is commitment, like is attitude. Do I want a God, or a Jesus or a Spirit with attitude? Not really. In this case, I want love, not like.

Both lightning and lightning bugs have their own place in nature’s order, the brilliant flash or the gentle glow. The right words can be either one or anything in between the two – at the right time. Determining when is that right time and what that right word is becomes a daily challenge.

I think I’ll have to remember to use “God loves you” more often, both to others and to myself. If I have confidence in that maybe the right words will come and the almost-right ones will fade away. It’s worth a shot, anyway, or maybe the right word “try”?

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter . She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale.

Part 2: Iona, martyrs on the beach and falling in love

by Donald Schell

After forty years of asking people to try and reflect on new ways of practicing church, I’m still loving helping our gathered communities discover fresh ways to do this, to be church, to gather openly in Jesus’ presence inviting all in, but this visit to Scotland, seeing how my daughter is making her life without church community, sensing how common that is among her friends and colleagues, seeing Britain’s empty or repurposed churches (a bar, a warehouse, an urban club, subdivided into housing), I sense an inkling of a future of loss; so much that we love and hope to hold on to is dying.

Of course we see a comparable secularity around my home in the San Francisco Bay Area. San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle may have the highest proportion of “nones” in the country. Recently one of our San Francisco papers ran an extended story in the Style section on imaginative repurposing of unneeded church buildings. The article celebrated imagination that saved these ‘no longer needed” handsome buildings from demolition.

Here, on this visit to Iona, while I’m delighting in the integrity of this community’s hospitality and clarity of mission, as I’m loving praying twice daily in the Abbey chapel, I also feel a grieving. There are young people here in our gathering of eighty or so people, but they’re few. The faith of fellow pilgrims my age, the majority of our group are people in their 60’s, touches me deeply. Hearing their stories, I hear depth and integrity and generosity. These are people who have taken holy risks. Their questions are alive. They’re here because the Spirit is still grounding them and still making them restless for more.

The Spirit is here and it’s my joy to be present to her. But even here I keep wondering whether our little fragment of North American and European Christians will find a grace to navigate the precipitous losses we’re experiencing. Will we re-find our integrity as communities and people following Jesus? It’s not a new question. Philip Newell (who with his wife Ali is leading this Iona gathering) tells us George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community - - - and a distinguished Church of Scotland minister - - - enjoyed asking people he’d just met, “Are you a Presbyterian or a Christian?” McCleod wasn’t just offering a provocative jest, though he was known for his wicked sense of humor. He was asking a real question from his experience working with the poor of Glasgow, people already outside the margins of the church in the 1930’s. Will you follow you Jesus? Do you know where he leads us?

I wonder what Darwin’s friend Fitzroy would make of Philip Newell asking us to hand round a stone from an Iona beach that he informed us was 2.8 billion years old. The rock came to me last, after eighty of us had held it before. It felt warm from being passed from hand to hand, and knowing how old it was, it felt alive, as though it were speaking to us. Later I talked to a young, open, evangelical earth scientist who explained to me what told us that rock was that old and why we don’t find rocks older than that (though we know how much older the earth is). What would Darwin and Fitzroy make of her and me?

Philip and Ali Newell, our leaders this week were wardens of Iona. Philip has written extensively from that experience looking for connections among Celtic spirituality, eco-awareness, justice, reconciliation, and peacemaking. And from her work as a university chaplain at Edinburgh, Ali is offering body prayer and song and sacred dance in response to Philip’s presentations.

Birthing and dying are in every presentation. Grief and joy.

Darwin, partly from his work but more profoundly in his grief, let faith go, but he has made a clear mark on our theology. As Philip tells it, science and the global environmental crisis are pushing us by our loving, grieving, and hoping toward a new relationship to the earth and to our own Christian tradition, a new relationship that’s also, in part at least, ancient. We’re hearing of Columba founding his community here and of the Celts borrowing inspiration and discovery from the wisdom of their own pre-Christian tradition. We’re hearing loving talk of the church’s death and God’s birthing new kinds of Christian (and other communities). We’re hearing of Pelagius’s vision of church and community, of the courage to see God in every human face. And we’re worshipping in the Abbey Church that George MacLeod rebuilt to welcome such conversations in community.

After yesterday’s plenary session, after Philip’s passionate evocation of the discoveries of Teilhard de Chardin which he put alongside earlier writings and intimations from the Celtic church and other writings and teaching from the church beyond the firm hand of Empire, I offered him the words of Gregory Nazianzen, words inscribed over the door of St. Gregory’s Church in San Francisco, “All that is prays to you,” a fourth century poet theologian’s clarity that the whole universe prays its praise and supplication to God.
At lunch another participant in this gathering who has been working fifty years for Scottish independence offered a button that simply says,“YES.” Beyond specific politics and votes, in the stillness we feel which is actually our continuing rush of forward momentum from the Big Bang, what else is there to say?

Yesterday we walked the long pilgrimage of the island. Seven miles or so. Lots of stops for prayer and reflection. It’s been our one, perfect sunny day. Today, it’s the rain and gusty bluster that Columba and his monks also loved.

Today Philip reminded us that Viking raiders killed 68 of the community’s monks on the beach where last night we enjoyed a performance piece in movement and song. It’s not enough to simply re-assert the old things we’ve heard and said before.

Behind everything I’m hearing and praying here, I’m hearing words of the poet Christian Wiman, writing in his just completed, My Bright Abyss, Meditation of a Modern Believer. He’s written this book in prose, ten year’s of reflections from a young (by my reckoning) husband and father who spent ten years in treatment (and sometimes past his doctors’ offering any hope) as he faced cancer. This was my preparation for hearing Philip’s clear-eyed advocacy for listening to ancient Celtic voices and voices from all humanity to learn a livelier Christian way to embrace the whole of life.

“All talk of heaven seems absurd to me, though I believe we have souls and that they survive our death…I don’t know what it means to say Christ died for our sins (who wants that? Who invented that perverse calculus?), but I do understand – or rather intuit- the notion of a God not above or beyond or immune to human suffering, but in the very midst of it, intimately with us in our sorrow, our sense of abandonment, our hellish astonishment at finding ourselves utterly alone, utterly helpless.”

That’s part of the graced place Christian Wiman found, a place where, he also insists, God is not beyond or immune to our joy. It’s a place where the Celtic love of the earth and the post-modern knowledge that we’re living in a time of ecological disasters and mass extinctions can embrace (like peace and justice in the Psalter). A place of renewed wholeness, knowing we are not alone and that death and extinction have always been part of this glory.

What held Christian Wiman through the raw, sometimes terrifying decade of praying and reflection he recounts, what changed his life before that and propelled him to begin praying was that –
“…I fell in love. It was that sudden, the rift in my life and mind that stark. Perhaps I’d never met the right person, as they say, and at thirty-seven years old finally got lucky. Perhaps the interior clarity and candor that one needs to find real love had, in my case, always been clouded by the need to create, life deflected by art…whatever the case, when I met Danielle, not only was that gray veil between me and the world ripped aside, colors aching back into things, but all the particulars of the world suddenly seemed in excess of themselves and thus more truly themselves. We, too, were part of this enlargement: it was as if our love demanded some expression beyond the blissful intensity our two lives made…the great paradox of love, and not just romantic love, is that a closer focus may go hand in hand with broadened scope. ‘To turn from everything to one face,’ writes Elizabeth Bowen, ‘is to find oneself face to face with everything.’”

Falling in love, Wiman writes, was what pushed him and Danielle to begin praying when neither was believing or practicing any faith. Falling in love is part of the story of Darwin and the world he discovered and ached to understand in Chile and perhaps what put prayer beyond his reach, but there’s still grace in Darwin’s falling in love. We hear falling in love too in St. Columba’s embrace of this island and of mission from it, and in the way George MacLeod felt Jesus’ embrace of the poor of Glasgow that moved him to a vision of rebuilding this Abbey with their hands and hopes.

Day after tomorrow, I’ll take the ferry from Iona and begin my journey home, arriving two days after our thirty-eighth wedding anniversary. My wife visited this island the summer before we were married. I’ve found her a token from the island that feels like a suitable, joyful marker of our years together and a grateful acknowledgment of the falling in love that began us. I’m eager to bring home my stories and photos from Iona. I hope to return here with her.

And I hope and pray to invite us all to trust the falling in love of our lives and the hints we hear of the heartbeat of God because, despite us and because of us, in our falling in love we’re “face to face with everything.”

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

Part 1: Traveling across my life to Iona

by Donald Schell

Quite early this morning I boarded the train at Stonehaven (near Aberdeen) crossing Scotland East to West to Glasgow. In Glasgow I’ll catch another train to travel up the coast to Oban. From Oban, I’ll take the ferry to Mull, then board a bus for Fionnphort where the day’s last ferry to Iona will be waiting for us. Tonight it will be dinner, prayers, and sleep in Iona Abbey.

I hope to hear and feel something of how George MacLeod’s creation-centered, Christian humanist vision of community and service claimed and rebuilt the ruined abbey church as a place of renewal for his work with Scotland’s urban poor, a place where he could continue to explore Celtic creation-centered spiritual traditions going back even beyond the great, maligned teacher Pelagius, because, as MacLeod liked to say, “Matter matters.” And I hope to feel and hear how the community and rebuilding the Abbey changed George MacLeod.

I first hoped to visit Iona in 1971. Today my half-remembered reasons that visit did not happen, and whatever else kept Iona on my “someday” wish list so long fly like dry leaves before the train’s forward rush.

I’ve just completed a good visit with my older daughter. Visiting her was the other reason I made this trip to Scotland. Since she came to Britain to do her graduate work, I haven’t seen nearly enough of her. Nearly two decades have passed, she finished her doctorate, did an exciting post-doctoral fellowship, got a good university appointment and now an extraordinary new appointment. She’s nearing mid-career and has accomplished big things. Yes, this is her dad speaking, but it’s all true. Meanwhile though, I notice that my fullest acknowledgment of this adult woman’s accomplishment pushes me to noticing my own impending transition – moving life and work and vocation through retirement to whatever lies beyond. Seeing her confident performance center stage fills me with joy – she belongs there! But, to stick with the acting imagery, I also feel like someone who once played Hamlet and who now is cast as Hamlet’s father’s ghost. The good path of life inevitably leads to grief, loss and death. The commonplace truths we've heard lifelong begin to mark real boundaries.
In 1971 - the time before this that I came closest to visiting Iona - my daughter, this person I’m still coming to know as an adult and an accomplished professional, wasn’t yet two years old. She was relishing her newly acquired solid sense of upright balance and demonstrating an inspiring, sometimes amusing post-toddler determination to explore the whole world. Sunday-by-Sunday in England that summer we took this small child with us as we visited English churches for liturgy.

In the seminary community in New York, we’d learned to outfit her for church with soft-soled moccasins and soft toys. She sensed enough of what people were doing in worship to still her voice, rarely speaking and then only softly to us. So in her moccasins and with stuffed toys, to our seminary-formed thinking, she behaved in a dependably age-appropriate way for church. And to protect other worshipers from visual distraction, we’d seat ourselves in the back of the church or stand by the back door where we could see and hear and she would have the freedom she needed to listen, watch, and explore.

We discovered that Church of England congregations in 1971, with a few delightful exceptions, did not appreciate her quiet freedom. The couple of Roman Catholic churches we visited were better. But in Anglican congregations (not so empty as today) predictably someone would turn to raise an eyebrow, toss a scowl toward her and us, or shake a quiet “shushing” “no to sounds quieter than a closing door or carefully lowered kneeler. After service someone would ask us, “Don’t you realize people come here to pray?” or, when they recognized we were American, they might helpfully offer, “Mothers here prefer to stay home with their children until the children are old enough to behave properly in church.”

As a soon-to-be-ordained Episcopal clergy person, what I saw and heard then was how much work we needed to do reshaping and re-visioning the church, and what I’d heard of Iona made it a promising sign that a church renewing itself could bless and change the whole world. In 1971 my personal, joyful hope in 1971 was that I could help us discover what was possible in church life. The Spirit was moving. Something new could happen. Church could be deeper, and richer, more alive, and church could welcome all of us – even two year olds. The questions themselves felt joyful -

How could we renew old ways of being church community?

How could we make ancient traditions and practices live?

How could we frame a fresh welcome to the strong hopes of those outside the church?
- because despite the weekly “shushing” by the elders and watchkeepers of congregations, it felt like we were witnessing a new beginning. Today those surviving middle-aged elders of 1971 are the oldest white-headed seniors in churches. Today my children are grown and one of them, the priest, is giving his heart and soul to hopes for real Good News and genuine, caring, serving community. Meanwhile the white-headed seniors wonder why there are so few children, so few young adults, so few middle-aged people in church.

The little girl in moccasins grew into a historian who traced the footsteps of 19th century explorer naturalists over the Andes, across the world’s driest desert, and even across the choppy seas they charted to visit with Tierra del Fuego penguins. With her language gifts she built relationships in unfamiliar cultures and settings. Librarians and archivists generously directed her to treasures of unpublished correspondence where she heard the voices of emerging 19th scientists as they shared ideas and discoveries and all the news of friendship. In conversations, shared expeditions and lifelong correspondence, these friends invented and developed the disciplines of natural science research.

Last summer along with the momentous news of this daughter’s new job, she shared her joy and relief that her second book was at the publisher with a scheduled release date.

How do we find our way to relationship and community? What does it cost us to reject someone from the community? My daughter’s book tells the story of Darwin and the circle of friends and acquaintances he belonged to, a story of discovery, evolution, and a seismic shift. She’s also telling a story of faith and skepticism. As she documents the creative power of lasting friendship, she also tells of tragic misunderstandings and estrangements. And Darwin and his friends stumbled into questions that we hear so many places and ways today in our public arguments about faith, reason and inquiry.

Fitzroy's declared opposition to Darwin erupted in 1860 at a gathering of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford. A scheduled debate about Darwin's theory between Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce (Bishop of Oxford) provoked a chaos of voices from the whole audience, and people heard and remembered Fitzroy, in his uniform as a Rear-Admiral, rising to wave his Bible over his head shouting to warn the thousand gathered people not to take the word of a mere human over the Word of God in Genesis. That he’d helped spawn evolutionary theory (and a list of other losses, disappointments and tragedies) pushed Darwin’s old friend to an eventual suicide. And for Darwin himself, his beloved daughter’s death killed his hopes that any wise or loving Presence moved behind evolution. How do listen openly? What does it cost us to stay in conversation?

I’ll be in Iona this evening. A week on the island staying at the Abbey. Philip Newell will be guiding us in his most recent work in Celtic Spirituality, a vision for the wholeness of the earth, and the peace-making witness of George MacLeod.

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

How long O Lord

by Maria L. Evans

In the wee hours of May 3, at a time of year we're enjoying the luscious green of the grass, the budding of the wild plums and the redbud trees...it SNOWED.

The latest I have ever remembered it snowing in Northeast Missouri was April, most significantly the Great Easter Blizzard of 1973. Never in May. Allegedly the last time it snowed in Kirksville in May was either 1903 or 1904, I can't remember which. But no matter, you understand the issue here.

I walked outside to take the dogs out, looked at the sky, shook my finger at the clouds, and yelled at the top of my lungs, "NO! Stop it! You put spring back RIGHT NOW!" Yeah, right. Like THAT had an effect.

Sounds a little bit like "How long, O Lord," doesn't it?

If we spent the time to index the Psalter by topic, it doesn't take long to realize impatience with God is one of the major themes in the Psalms. Elements of "How long, O Lord?" can be found in several Psalms, perhaps most notably in Psalm 13. "How long, O Lord?" addresses a tough topic--our impatience with the time frame for God to reveal what God does--both on a personal and societal level.

Perhaps at a personal level, we most acutely feel it in times of transitions that seem to take too long--when we're between jobs, when we're trying to straighten out or finances, or when we're dealing with a chronic issue in our family dynamics. Why is it that, at times, joy seems to be so fleeting, but misery seems to last forever?

Likewise, at a societal level, we probably most acutely feel it in the wake of tragedies. How long, O Lord, will innocent people fall victim to shootings and bombings? How long, O Lord, will women in the developing world die in childbirth? How long, O Lord, will drunk drivers slam into pedestrians? How long, O Lord, will people use the Bible to foster hate and exclusivity?

Nothing ever seems to move fast enough, and some things don't seem to move at all. Yet deep down I realize there really have been changes for the better, both in myself, and in the world.

I suppose a lot of that painful anxiety of a sense of inertia has to do with the personal relativity of time. Think of that four-year-old who's just been put in "time out." How many times have we heard the pitiful voice in the corner wail, "I've been here forever! I'll be good, just let me out!" over a five minute punishment? I used to think that was just pure drama, but one day the thought crossed my mind, "Well, you know, when a person's four, five minutes is a much more significant chunk of that kid's life than it is of mine."

In the same vein, I imagine a God who hears our petitions and understands our pain and angst and fear, and yearns to help us understand that this difficult thing we are going through is not as big a chunk of time as we think it is. Our entire sphere of experience is confined to our lives we've lived up to now.

Take that May snowfall. All day in the office, as people went in and out, the chit-chat was all about the snow. Some were absolutely convinced it's global warming. Others were divulging their apocalyptic Christian beliefs. Still others were denying global warming and saying "it's nothing--it's just the weather."

When I was asked my opinion, I said, "Well, it's hard to say, I think. I really do think there's global warming going on--but I also know that we've only been keeping accurate weather records in this country since about the 1880's. It's kind of like the blind man and the elephant. We have only this 135 year window to try to figure out what "normal" is in something that's been going on for millions of years. Really, we can only get a handle on the little cycles of weather. The big ones, not so much." (I avoided that Apocalypse stuff.)

That's probably true with God's plan, too. We can study the cycles in our own life and see in retrospect how God might have been there all along, even though we didn't see it at the time...and just as we can study the weather records, we can look back at the stories passed on to us through the Bible and see the cycle of Creation, Sin, Judgment, Repentance, and Redemption in the Hebrew people, the people of the early church, and in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We're not the only one on the planet who had trouble seeing God's intent at the time something was happening.

The challenge for us in any of these difficulties, personal or societal, is to not get caught up in the tar pit of our despair. For those of us who regularly do some aspect of the Daily Office, it's a place where the regular reading of the Psalms can help. We cycle through them every seven weeks in the Daily Office, and the mere repetition of that practice offers opportunities for the Psalmist to match our mood more than random chance would seem to suggest. I've always been amazed at how often "How long, O Lord?" pops up at a time I'm thinking "How long, O Lord," myself, or when the "My enemies are ganging up on me," psalms line up with the times I feel surrounded. Likewise, the Daily Office will cycle back around to the ones with the "Praise God for this, that, and the other," theme, and when they match my mood, I can shout them with gusto...or when things are rough, they remind me to find something to praise, despite my difficulties. I admit, I'm biased, but it's why I would recommend doing at least a tiny snippet of the Daily Office every day as a #1 spiritual practice. If it does nothing else, it at least makes me aware of the cycles that make up more cycles that make up the big cycle of a God who both desires justice and gives mercy--and how to discover my role in it.

Ultimately, though, we are back to the blind man and the elephant without the lynchpin of that little thing called faith. Maybe it's a little less about God "doing something" for us or "stopping something" for us than it is about us learning to see the cycles and trust them in the same way we trust the sun will rise in the east and set in the west, or that even when the snow falls in May in Missouri, the sun will come out and melt it--and that God will provide the courage and the grace to live out today whether things happen on our time frame or not.

What were the cycles in the story behind the last time we looked at the clouds and yelled, "How long, O Lord?"

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

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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Harvard students reflect on a week of marathon terror

By Luther Zeigler

Harvard seniors Ali Evans and Robert Tamai crossed the finish line of the Boston Marathon just under the four-hour mark at approximately 2:49 p.m. last Monday. A minute later they heard a blast they would never forget. According to a report in the Harvard Gazette, Evans said: “when I saw the smoke rising and heard the initial screams, I turned to Robert and yelled, ‘Run, man, run!’” As the two students sprinted to safety, Evans says she shouted the Lord’s Prayer “at the top of my lungs, repeatedly.” Friends of Evans and Tamai, who were at the finish line to meet them, were ten yards from the first explosion. Amazingly, they were not injured.

The undergraduate President of our Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard, senior Graham Simpson, was at mile 25 near Fenway Park when the two bombs exploded. In a homily delivered this past Sunday evening, Graham described his experience of the chaos of that moment: “I had no idea what had happened until I started receiving texts from people asking me if I was okay and what was going on. It seemed impossible to believe at first, but we started walking back towards campus, deciding right away not to take public transportation. I was overwhelmed as I tried to sort out what was going on and what my friends and I should be doing . . . . Even once I crossed the river, the situation continued to overwhelm me. I was safe and so was everybody that I knew. But it was immediately clear that dozens, if not hundreds, were hurt and that at least two people were dead including an eight-year-old boy. My phone continued to buzz with texts asking me if I was all right and if I knew what was going on. I received so many texts that read simply, ‘Love you,’ words that had never felt more heart-felt and sincere. Sadness, relief, anger, sympathy, fear, and love all swept over me, in a cloud of contradictory emotions.”

Yet, as was to become clear the next day, the Harvard community was not spared by the tragedy. One of the victims to die in the blast was Krystle Campbell, a former Harvard Business School employee whose mother and brother still work at the University. On Wednesday afternoon, the business school community gathered to remember Krystle and the other victims. Led in prayer by my fellow Harvard chaplain, Fr. George Salzmann, hundreds were on hand at the Business School to express their support for the Campbell family and to lean on one another.

That same Wednesday, I worked with students and other Harvard chaplains to organize a candlelight vigil in Harvard Yard on the steps of Memorial Church. The Harvard Glee Club opened the service with song as dusk came over the Yard, illuminated only by the candles of the hundreds gathered. Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Humanist chaplains were all there, united in their commitment to peacemaking and in their stand against violence.

Harvard juniors Tara Raghuveer and Anqi Peng both spoke at the vigil. Peng, whose Boston Marathon race stopped just short of the finish line when the explosions hit, said that when she returned to campus all she wanted to do was find – and hug – every one of her friends. But Peng also commented on the incredible outpouring of selfless generosity she witnessed by police, bystanders and local businesspeople in the chaos at the finish line. As Harvard University President Drew Faust put it in her remarks that night, it is precisely these simple acts of human goodness that we should notice. Quoting the words of Toni Morrison, who recently spoke on campus, Faust reminded us: “We tend to overlook goodness, and we must put goodness in the center of our lives.”

Jonathan Walton, the new Pusey Minister of Memorial Church, offered a benediction to close the Wednesday evening vigil, in which he observed: “Anxiety is understandable and anger over senseless acts of terror is appropriate.” But, Walton entreated: “Don’t allow your anxiety or your anger to take your mind to an awful place. Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.” Looking out at the flickering points of candlelight, Walton sent us out with the words: “As you blow out your candles tonight, let the light of God light you up.”

But then the violence returned the next night, as the two suspects emerged from the darkness in a violent outburst on nearby MIT’s campus, leaving one of its security officers dead and others badly injured. The older of the two brothers suspected of bombing the marathon also ended up dead in the streets. Then came the manhunt for the younger brother in neighboring Watertown, followed by the lockdown that kept us all confined in fear and anxiety until this young, nineteen year old boy was captured on Friday night.

As we learned more about the Tsarnaev brothers throughout the day on Friday, and their deep ties to the Cambridge community, it was no longer possible to dismiss them with mere labels like ‘Chechnyan terrorists’ or ‘radical Muslims’ as some in the media were inclined to do. For, truth be told, they were one of us, American kids from the neighborhood, our neighborhood. Here is how senior Graham Simpson put it in his homily:

“When Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured Friday night, I felt relief. I hoped for some sort of justice. I was satisfied that our law enforcement had successfully pulled off their manhunt. But I felt very uneasy, confused and further saddened. How could a 19-year-old that lived within two blocks of one friend, had worked at a Harvard pool with another friend, and had played one-on-one basketball with a third committed such hateful acts? He seemed like such a normal American citizen. He had wrestled at his high school, won a scholarship, and liked to play FIFA. It doesn’t fit for me. I could feel no joy at Facebook statuses of ‘Got him’ or consider going out to the parties that had been rescheduled in celebration of his capture. I did not – and still do not – know how to react. An unclear muddle of thoughts fills my head.”

Meditating on one of the readings for this past Sunday, Psalm 23, Simpson concluded his homily by wondering aloud whether the Christian life may itself be a paradox that holds together both the inexplicable suffering of this life and the hope of new and fuller human relationship:

“I am trying to accept that it is okay to feel conflicted and confused at times like this. That is part of what makes us human. And it is in these moments that we can reach out to God and feel the Holy Spirit. The Lord is with us in green pastures and he leads us beside still waters. The Lord also walks us through the valley of the shadow of death with his rod and his staff. And sometimes we are not sure whether we are in the green pastures or the valley of death’s shadow. Maybe we can be in both places at the same time. We can experience the suffering of the cross and the hope of the resurrection. . . . The shepherd protects and guides us, but the shepherd also feels our pain and fear. And as Christ is in all of us, we must all feel each other’s pain and also protect one another. We look to the hope of a new day, but that does not mean that we cannot mourn and lament. Perhaps it is in the midst of this contradiction that we are called to live.”

The Reverend Luther Zeigler is the Episcopal Chaplain at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Boston Marathon 2013: discovering the elder son

by Scott Petersen

I laced up my running shoes Tuesday morning. Here in Georgia as the morning began to heat up I ran defiantly. I ran my four mile route on Tuesday morning because Monday night, the news of Boston began to dribble across my facebook page. The TV news was no better. Like the elder son in the prodigal son story I found myself angry. I watched the two blasts over and over. There was blood now on Copley where there once were people cheering. I watched in horror as something precious to me had been turned black. They hit Boston! This was the Boston Marathon! Tuesday morning I laced up to run. I laced up because... well... screw the terrorists.

I don’t mean to be crude. This is exactly how I feel. I am from Massachusetts. I grew up in Acton. My mother was from Melrose. I went to UMass. While I have not physically lived in Massachusetts for now 17 years, the place is a part of me. My people? We can be crass. We can be emotional. We can be tough. Cursing comes with it. It is like a staple. It definitely is an occupational challenge. The sentiment came easy.

In 1993 I ran Boston. I left with the pack in Hopkinton. I heard the cheers at Wellesley. I discovered to my dismay the four hills that make up “Heartbreak Hill.” I remember turning on to Copley with my legs feeling like deadened iron cords. What stays with me to this day twenty years later was the way that all along the race, people I didn’t know cheered me on. In 1993, weak and weeping from accomplishing 26.2 miles, some gracious volunteer handed me a medal. That medal with a photo of my finish and my “numbah” hangs in my office. A great day. A triumph. Tuesday morning, as I thought of my hometown, the race, the people who lined the streets to cheer and then saw the conflicting scene of explosions that marred the day, all I could think about was “Screw the terrorists.” Silence the race? Yes. Stop it? Not for this runner. I admit that it is not the prettiest sentiment. It is the only sentiment I could muster.

The trouble with this sentiment is that I am a priest. Except for the possible cursing of the fig tree, there is nothing in the gospels that I could show to others to say “You see! Jesus said it first.” As a priest, I’ve been called to proclaim Christ’s love. I’ve been called to try in live into a message of reconciliation and forgiveness. My sentiment is an obvious disconnect from the message I have been called to share.

As I ran Tuesday, images of Rembrandt’s The Prodigal Son bounced around in my head. The stern, unflinching image of the elder son drew me in. On a morning like this I found I understood him better.Prodigal%20Son%20Returns.jpg

Why the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt? For the past two weeks I have been preaching on Rembrandt the preacher. We’ve been exploring some of the scripture based paintings that Rembrandt’s painted. The last painting of the series is the Prodigal Son. Before the events of Monday unfolded I had been thinking about the painting with the others.

The elder brother in Rembrandt's painting is the image of his father. They both have rich red robes. They each have full luxurious beards. In seeming opposition to the father’s hands and the embrace the father shares with the returned younger son, the elder son stands alone. The elder brother gazes sternly upon his kneeling brother. His hand are tucked back and difficult to see. The father is open. The elder brother is not.

The parable of the prodigal son is found in Luke. In Jesus’ parable about what God’s love is like, the father goes out to the elder son to invite him to the feast. He does not force him to do anything. The father reminds. The father encourages. He does not chase. The parable ends leaving you wondering what decision the elder son will make.

Will he go to the feast?

Rembrandt leaves you wondering too. The elder son is locked there in perpetuity gazing in fierceness at the lavishness unfolding in front him. He looks so much like the father. so similar yet so far apart.

I wish I could tell you that after pondering the prodigal son I had an epiphany and found it in my heart to forgive those who chose to rip apart my cherished Boston Marathon. No such luck. The sentiment continued that evening at our prayer vigil. It continued Wednesday on my run. I can even see the t-shirt. On the front there is a BAA logo and the back says, “Training for Boston 2014- Screw the Terrorists.”

I do know this though. I know that the time to pray is not when we have recovered from some hardship. We must begin when we are in it. What I saw for the first time in both the parable and in the painting is that maybe it is ok to be the elder son for a while. Maybe it is ok to recognize that whatever God is that when I look in the mirror, I am not He. The father is the father because he calls us to a love that can sometimes only be gawked at. The elder son is not condemned by the father. The Father's love continues to astound. The elder is loved just as much as his wayward brother. While he looks and resembles his father in mantle, beard, and height, he is not his father. It is a distance only to be invited too. Maybe put more succinctly, a distance to be journeyed through.

Does the elder brother make it to the feast? I don’t know. I’d like to think that eventually he does make it.Today, Wednesday, two days after the bombing, I give the terrorists to God. All I can do is stare.

Lace ‘em up. See you in Boston 2014.

The Rev. Scott Petersen graduated from VTS in '07 from the Diocese of SE Florida. He currently serves All Saints Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Atlanta. For comment or to join him for Boston 2014 you may email at revpetersen at gmail.com

*Painting by Rembrandt


by Linda Ryan

Every man must do two things alone; he must do his own believing and his own dying. -- Martin Luther

According to the US Census Bureau there are an estimated 7,071,341,675 people on this planet at this minute. Oops. Another minute is gone and the total has changed to 7,071,341,912. That's an awful lot of people. There are some places where there are population densities of hundreds of thousands of people per square mile and others where human beings only travel through because the land is unsuited to human habitation without massive restructuring, but how do you restructure a sand dune a hundred feet high to provide a living space? It's beyond my pay grade to try to figure out how it could be done, and I'm definitely sure I wouldn't want to live there.

The world is much smaller than the world in which my parents and grandparents lived. Undoubtedly the thing that has most contributed to this shrinking world is the development of instantaneous communications, via radio, television, cell phones and the internet. For my grandparents, letters and newspapers and the occasional person passing through town brought news that was already history before they even heard of it. There were probably times when they felt lonely and cut off from the rest of the world, but that was just the way it was.

These days people seem to have lost the concept that being alone doesn't always mean being lonely. Social networks on the internet and text messaging on cell phones mean that, barring being in a place with no bars on the phone or no wi-fi for the laptop, someone in a strange city can still be connected to friends and family. They may be a bit lonely, but they don't always feel totally alone.

Despite the rise of instant connection and, in a sense, the end of virtual (if not actual) aloneness, people are still lonely. Oh, there are some who are perfectly comfortable being alone and don't feel more than the occasional hint of loneliness but they are few and, unfortunately, far between. Most others have succumbed to the norm that one must (almost) never be alone because alone is bad, social and constant connection are good. There are, however, times when one is, despite all intentions to the contrary, alone, even in the middle of a crowd. Whether it is because they feel they are invisible to others, bear visible scars or disfigurements, are dirty or unkempt because they are homeless for whatever reason, or whether there is pain that focuses all one's attention on it, there can be people all around and yet one can feel totally alone. Then there are those who are seemingly in perfect health, well cared-for and prosperous who feel like an empty shell, realizing there is a void there where something like faith should be. As Brother Martin said, a person must do their own believing, and in the aloneness of their existence at some point they must come to it on their own.

I confess that when I read Brother Martin's statement my mind went to times when I've felt alone. One is when lying in an emergency room bed some years ago, suffering intense pain and waiting for someone to tell me what was wrong and that it could be fixed. Minutes seemed very long but I was aware of the bustle outside the curtains of my cubicle as well as the retching of the person in the next cubicle. I remember a television program about a day in the life of a hospital emergency room where a woman was brought in following a terrible accident of some sort. She was bruised and bloody, and she was surrounded by people talking, poking, prodding, inserting tubes and IV needles. All the people were talking and giving orders but to the woman, her seeming isolation led her to cry out, "Will someone please talk to me?" I've felt that way, even though I haven't been in that same situation.

I have a feeling that's what Jesus endured on the cross. He had people all around, looking at him, some gawking and some mourning the horrifying sight, and he also had the isolation of overwhelming physical pain. His cry of "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" was a reaction very similar to the woman's "Will someone please talk to me?" only directed to the One with whom Jesus had always been in contact, even when he was physically apart from others. This time, though, Jesus was dying in a public place with people all around, yet he was dying totally alone. Alone in the midst of a crowd.

Even to those called to a state of that apartness we call "alone" or "solitary," there is usually some connection with other human beings as well as with God. They say no Christian can be truly a Christian unless they are in community but I wonder, would the desert fathers and mothers have said the same? They may have lacked human community, but they sought, and frequently found, a greater one.

The world has changed a lot since Brother Martin spoke those words, yet they are as true now as they were then, maybe even more so. There are some things a person just has to do alone.

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

Fear and faith

by Maria Evans

Be our light in the darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. --A Collect for Aid against Perils, p. 123, Book of Common Prayer

You know, the month of December 2012 changed everything I ever thought about danger. Now, I'm no stranger to danger. There have been many episodes in my life that had elements of personal and professional danger. There have been times in my life I have feared I would not live to see the next day or even the next minute. There have been times in my life I feared being professionally thrown under the bus. But in a space of a few days in December 2012, all of the landmarks, all of the signs of how I traditionally saw danger, lost their historical meanings.

I was on my way home with our Diocese of Missouri mission team in Lui, South Sudan. The plans were to have about a day and a half stopover in Kampala, Uganda, fly home via Entebbe/Amsterdam/Detroit/St. Louis, and then I could kick back and await Christmas safe and sound, back home in rural northeast Missouri. Now, probably not a single thing overtly dangerous happened to me, personally. But the series of things that happened seemed almost hard-wired to remove all the waypoints on how I internally map danger.

To folks back home, I was the one in the dangerous place. Before I went to Lui, I wish I'd had a dollar for every one of my friends who had reported to me what the US Department of State said about travel to the Republic of South Sudan (which was basically, "Don't even think about going there." I think my favorite line in the Department of State's travel advisory went something like, "If you are going to live in or travel to South Sudan despite this Travel Warning, please take the time to tell us about your trip by enrolling in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).") I was well aware of the danger of infectious disease, because I had the typhoid, yellow fever, and rabies shots to prove it, in addition to a box full of malaria prophylaxis pills. I knew what was happening only a day or so's journey away at the Sudan/South Sudan border. I knew how politically unstable the country still is. Yet I felt absolutely safe. The only time I realized that Lui was still a dangerous place was a time when I casually met a uniformed, armed officer on the street, and the children walking alongside me were suddenly walking behind me. Something unspoken showed me that fear of violence is still present in even the more peaceful parts of South Sudan.

En route home, we stayed over in Uganda, allegedly one of the safer countries in eastern Africa. As I told friends, "Wow--it's just like Hawaii, except every fifth person is carrying an automatic weapon." Every place we went, there stood the ubiquitous "dude with a gun.” Trip to the gas station? Public restroom? Market? There's a Dude With A Gun. At the guest compound where we stayed, not only were there Dudes With Guns, there were big iron gates and a tire shredder embedded in the pavement. As we drove around the city, it was clear that even modest affluence meant gates, walls, tire shredders, and Dudes With Guns. I saw gated, guarded, walled compounds that had outhouses in their back yards. These things obviously took precedence over indoor plumbing.

We visited the Presidential Palace in Kampala. All during my time in Lui, although women wearing pants was not the norm, no one seemed to worry much that I did. Once inside the gates of the Ugandan Presidential Palace, however, I was given a piece of fabric to wear over my pants to simulate a skirt, in order to be allowed access on the tour--which I did, despite the chuckling amongst my fellow missioners that I was "in drag." We visited the ammunition bunker that became Idi Amin's torture chamber and stood in the exact spot that 350,000 Ugandans drew their last breath and were summarily dumped in the lake for crocodile chow. I can't even begin to describe the emotions that go with being physically present in a place where so much death and despair once dwelled but has ended. About all I can say is that despair is not silent there, even though no one has been killed there for years. I kept thinking, "A place where this happened not that many years ago, can't possibly be a safe place. But my trousers seem dangerous to THEM."

En route home, I had a little more up close and personal security screen in Amsterdam than I was used to getting from the TSA. (You know how TSA agents say, "Now I'm going to touch the sensitive areas with the backs of my hands only?" Well, the Dutch don't use the backs of their hands.) Despite this feeling uneasily intrusive to me, it obviously did not feel intrusive to the Dutch nor to the other international travelers in line with me for the "special screening."

Finally, within 24 hours of arriving at home sweet home, suddenly the shootings in Sandy Hook were front and center on the national news. My disorientation was palpable. Yes, at one level, I knew a terrible tragedy had taken place. I realized how jarring and unsettling it was to so many people's safety. People let their children on the bus to school expecting them to come home safe. It was clear several children did not that day. TV commentator after TV commentator spoke of the danger, and person after person commented via social media and blogs. Yet another part of my brain was saying, "Unsafe? Really? Here? I just came from a place where less that 1/3 of the children I met don't have a drinking cup to prevent Nodding Disease, and at least that many children die each month from malaria." I realized I was in one sphere, fully present in the Sandy Hook tragedy, but in another sphere, completely numb to it, because I was still more fully present to a different type of danger.

What I've come to realize in these last couple of months being back home, is that danger has two aspects. One aspect has to do with the physical parameters in which we live. I was far more likely to be bitten by a scorpion or a poisonous snake in Lui than I was to show up on the world news with people using my head as a soccer ball--even with the real threat of political instability in South Sudan. At home I am far more likely to be kicked in my head by my own mule than I am to be physically assaulted or burglarized--even though I live in the Meth Belt. Most of our dangers are far more personal and internal than we realize. Yet to both everyone who's been the victim in a violent crime, and everyone who has successfully defended themselves from one, there is a real parameter to those experiences. Sorting out the actual from the possible is mentally and emotionally taxing, as well as difficult and messy.

The other aspect is "if people feel a danger, that danger is real to them, and not to be trivialized." Danger translates to fear, and fear translates to either paralysis or reactive behavior. Things we fear cause us to react from our parasympathetic nervous system rather than from either our head or our heart. Someone with a personal or political opinion squarely opposing mine, and being rather adamant about it, may well be reacting to a danger that he or she feels viscerally. Making room for that disagreement while at the same time being true to our own individual principles seems to be an important aspect of it. The Bible is full of "don't be afraid" messages, and the message of Jesus is that the antidote to fear is love.

Before I traveled to Lui as part of the Diocese of Missouri's mission team, I stratified danger. Things that felt dangerous to me were most important, followed by things that are dangerous to those close to me, followed by danger that people I don't even know face in their lives. My disorienting experience with danger has left me unable to stratify the needs of my world as any more or less important than the needs of THE world. The only things I know for certain are rooted in my understanding of Christianity and the particular brand of it I've chosen to practice.

I know the Christ-like response is to love, listen, and include when my spinal cord itches to fear, flee, or fight. Our shared heritage as Anglicans has taught me this involves being serious about honoring my Baptismal Covenant, to continue to be active and diligent in prayer, in the reading of Scripture and in corporate worship. It means to be serious about mission as a vehicle to inch a broken world just a smidgen closer to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Anglican Christianity is about agreeing to remain at the table and sharing the Sacraments with anyone who believes in the power of sharing corporate worship, even when we vehemently disagree with each other. Honoring our Baptismal Covenant means to reach out to "the least of these" and be generous with our time, our expertise, and our physical means when the world says it is impractical, foolish, or crazy. It means being open to the will of the Holy Spirit rather than our own spirited wills. Sometimes it means speaking when no one else dares; sometimes it means being quiet when we are dead set on everyone seeing it our way. It means trusting that God is capable of holding these whopping dissimilarities when our brains cannot. It means accepting that most forms of change are never seen in our lifetimes and we may never know if we were in the right or in the wrong about some things in the span of a single human life.

This, I believe, is the main ingredient to faith. May each of us be mindful of the possibility that when we pray the Collect for Aid against perils, we are also praying to be part of the solution in dangers we don't even know enough to ask, or imagine--or disagree.

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

Becoming a pilgrim soul

by Richard Groves

“Iona of my heart, Iona my love.
Instead of monks’ voices, there shall be lowing of cattle.
But ‘ere the world comes to an end, Iona shall be as it was.”

I have been back at work for about a month now after returning from a three month sabbatical. So many good friends and acquaintances have asked, How was your time off? I still don’t have a very good elevator speech! I wonder how to communicate with integrity about an intimate and sacred time — without ‘giving away the gold’ too quickly—a reference to the Grimm’s Fairy Tale where the seeker is warned to be circumspect when telling others about his treasure, lest the deeper meaning be lost in the process. But when there is time and space [at least an hour or so], I have appreciated the chance to share and re-live with others some of the experiences that I suspect will continue to shape my soul forever. Here are a few reflections on those months. I share them especially for those of you who helped make my sabbatical possible. In the meantime, if you and I are lucky to have the time during the weeks and months ahead, I would be honored to offer more specific stories in detail. Please just ask! Like anything that is good, joy is doubled in the sharing.

As a child of my culture, I often catch myself saying, or at least feeling that there is never enough time or that time is running out. Time is money, we say. In this perspective TIME, or the lack of it, is a big problem, even the enemy. In fact, when our life is dominated and pushed by limited perspectives on time, the soul, which naturally perceives in terms of infinity, is silenced. An entire month retreat on the Isle of Iona [in the Scottish Hebrides] was like inhabiting a parallel universe of time. Being on a small island [just 3 miles long X 1.5 miles wide] and unplugged from internet, cell phone and life’s usual demands created a spaciousness where the soul could settle into its natural state. I sensed a new found ability to engage in a slow dance with time... where the quality of presence in each moment reminded me who I really am underneath the busyness and poor attempts to control my environment. Time also slows down when we are closer to the natural world. Lao Tzu’s advice to return often to nature came to mind. ‘How will I know when I am ready to return?’ the prince asked, ‘When you speak with the bugs, the grasses and the wind and they speak back to you.’

Iona still speaks an ancient Celtic language. It is as if the island itself is an anam cara for the pilgrim. It is a ‘thin place’ not just because of geography and history, but because for fifteen centuries pilgrims have sensed that it is an out-of-the-way place with little to distract us outwards, hence there is a power to draw us inwards. My anam cara mentor told me that in such a place, even a leaf on the bottom of your boot can carry a message. The threshold times of sunrise and sunsets... the untamed elemental presence of sea, wind and rain are the primal language of our Mother Earth who is in constant communion with Father Spirit. In this time zone, a perspective slowly emerged that I had forgotten since childhood. Time is neither the enemy nor a problem. True, time does not stand still. But at any moment we are all capable of standing in the flow of time and change while sensing a profound connection with Something/Someone that is unchangeable and eternal.

As I was returning to Europe’s mainland from Iona, I wondered whether perhaps at my age, this would be the last TIME for such an extended retreat experience. But while my soul’s voice could still be heard with crystal clarity, I realized what a loss it would be to condemn myself to the consensus reality of time. Our culture feels guilty about taking time for space, healing, listening and breathing. We often don’t think twice about spending significant amounts of money on entertainment, vacations or our physical environment. None of these are wrong, of course, but we also need models and mentors who encourage us to find the space just TO BE. Even if we can’t manage or afford an extended retreat, we can become more intentional about creating opportunities to unplug and listen deeply to soul. The location is less important than the intention. In the words of Rumi, ‘Allow yourself to be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you truly love.’ My post sabbatical advice is that, because life tends to be so over stimulated, it can take considerable time to decompress before our still, small voice within can be heard again. The typical weekend break is not long enough and even our travel styles can keep us distracted rather than inwardly focused. I am writing these reflections, not because I have done a great job pacing and balancing my life, but because I see a little more clearly now how much I deprive myself and others if there is not periodic, intentional space for grace in my life.

The soul is a compass for healthy living. It offers a deep, innate sense about life’s direction, purpose and meaning. It may run on autopilot, using today’s jargon, but our direction can be thwarted by another ‘self’ which tends to subtly pull us off course over the years. We can tell when this small self is disconnected from soul because chronic symptoms appear like stress, exhaustion -- even emotional and physical illness. I found that on Iona, there was a chance for recalibrating to True North. My retreat felt something like a 60,000 mile ‘check up,’ for my 60-something body. It took me some time, almost two weeks, to even know that I had been running on near empty for a while [the metaphors betray my upbringing in Detroit, the Motor City]. Since Mary’s death four years ago, I was drawing from reserves and a personality style [#3 on the Enneagram] that allowed me to stay busy and engaged. In some ways thes was a gift not a curse. It allowed me time and space to hold my grief in tension as I learned new ways to be in the world without a spouse and workmate at my side. But now I needed something more.

The first day I arrived on Iona for retreat, I saw an old weathered sign above one of the few public buildings on the island, “This island is set apart. It is a motherland of many dreams which yields its secrets only as you listen to the sweet songs heard by St. Columba and an endless stream of pilgrims over many centuries. To reach the heart of Iona is to find something eternal... fresh vision and new courage for every place where love or pain may call us.” I could not get these words out of my mind and heart. Iona had called me. I was being given permission to listen to her ancient wisdom. But I was not quite sure how I would listen with the ears of my soul.

The Celtic thirty day retreat is more like a vision quest than a structured program. The prime directive was to spend as much time out of doors, regardless of the sometimes wild weather. Out of the house and even the church, all the domestic protections we normally surround ourselves with exposed me to what is REAL. There is a kind of guidance available in the natural world that is primal and unmistakably wise. I never heard voices or saw visions, but in the words of Iona’s 5th c. sage, St. Columba, “Angels nor saints have I seen but I have heard the roar of the western sea and the isle of my heart in the midst of it.”

I guess I should not have been so surprised that after two weeks of prolonged exposure to water, wind, earth and fire, another kind of guidance showed up in the form of dreams. In our course work at Sacred Art of Living Center, paying attention to dreams is one of the classical ways to listen to soul. Since 2006 I have been faithfully recording my dreams almost nightly. But I was not prepared for the kind of wild and mind blowing ride that my Iona dreams started presenting to me. Is this what happens when a body is fully rested? Is the dream the intersection where body, mind and spirit converge to clarify the soul’s compass? There was nothing scary about my Iona dreams but they did reveal special insights that will give me courage and direction for the rest of my life. It was a clear confirmation that if I did not continue to do what I was born to do, something essential inside me would die. But it was time to do it in a new way. Indeed Iona was revealing fresh vision and courage ‘for every place where love or pain may call.’

The only scary part of returning to Iona was that I had spent so many special times there over the years with my wife, Mary. It is a bittersweet thing to return to a place so laden with love and memories. Ten years earlier, a different kind of vision was offered to both of us during a retreat on Iona that took the form of the Anamcara Project. I can remember like it was yesterday the excitement and possibility of reincarnating the Anamcara vision with which John O’Donahue had set our souls on fire – IN OUR TIME.) But that was THEN... what would it be like to be on Iona now, ALONE?

I had chosen the month of October for my retreat because it was an especially ‘thin’ time of the year in the Celtic Tradition. The end of the month marked Samain or New Year’s Eve for the ancient Celts. And the dates of November 1 and 2, the days of All Saints and All Souls, celebrate the anniversary of the Ars Moriendi, the Sacred Arts of Living and Dying. These are the high holy days of our Tradition and I couldn’t imagine a better place on the planet to be.

I don’t know why I should be so surprised that they all ‘showed up’ towards the end of my retreat-- John O’Donohue, Columba and of course Mary. It was more than wishful thinking or an overactive imagination. It was like the world of dreams and the Other World were so perceptible that even the rocks, the sky and the ocean were starting to speak. Don’t get me wrong, I still did not hear voices. But I did experience a profound transformation of grief and loss into love and joy in a way that I never would have expected. The gift of Iona is a kind of deep knowing that I will never be alone again. I have had an experience of another dimension not in my head, but in my heart and soul.
The final days on Iona were like a grand reunion and send off. I spent the last night camping under the full All Hallow’s Eve moon. And then there was a final lucid dream where Mary said, ‘I knew you would come back again.’ I replied, ‘But I’ve been waiting for you.’ ‘You’ve been very busy,’ she smiled. ‘But that’s ok, I have all the time in the world now.’ ‘So what’s next?’ I asked. Mary replied, ‘Well, this could be the start of a brand new adventure.’ Her last words were full of anticipation, ‘Are you ready to discover what a soul marriage could mean for us?’

So I return to ‘normal life’ with only one new expectation and resolution: to keep learning more about the Larger Beloved Some One/Some Thing that forever holds all of us together with such love.

Reprinted by permission: Richard Groves is the co-founder with his wife, Mary, and Executive Director of the Sacred Art of Living Center.

Spring training

by Emily A. Mellott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making a place

by Kathy Staudt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


by Maria L. Evans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never read the comments

by Eric Holloway

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

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

((long pause))

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

((long pause))

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

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

The slaughter of the innocents

by Marilyn McCord Adams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 2 Jesse Tree: Eve

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

"It's all your fault!"

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

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

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

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

Work together.

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

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

Day 1 Jesse Tree: Adam

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tread carefully.

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

The three trees and the end of the world

Crisis, Hope, and Imagination, The Blessings of Beginnings and Endings
by Donald Schell

I’m thinking our annual year-end collision of Thanksgiving and Advent’s apocalyptic, last judgment readings just might be a happy or blessed accident. Reflecting on our experience of beginnings and endings, praying to find God present in both, we can’t escape the territory of personal and human crisis, fearful and hopeful imagination, and our faithful practice when we see that things we’ve counted on will certainly pass away.

Talking recently with my twenty-five year old actor son, I asked whether he felt the broadly generalized cynicism I feel from many in his generation. (“Sarcastic” is what they seem to call it).

I know as well as you do that cynicism is far from universal among twenty- and thirty-somethings. And in fact I’m inspired by the splendid hope that my son and his friends invest in their acting work and the unwavering hope they show as they struggle to make lives for themselves in heart and soul intensive poorly paid artistic work. When clergy colleagues at or near retirement edge lament the state of the church, I insist that I see steady, faithful risk-taking ministry led by younger adults. And then through my wife’s work in international development, I’m privileged to know some very young committed health and development workers. Sincerity and whole-heartedness are by no means dead.

But my son knew what I was talking about, voices we both know that match the cultural snapshot, the media presentation, and the stories from parents and friends

-cynicism about relationships,
- a mistrust of any leader or artist who presumes a whole-hearted quest for compassion, truth, love, or beauty, and
- a fixation on amusements that seem calculated to numb with deliberate banality or adrenalin-driven intensity.

“It looks like a holding back,” I said to him, “Do you sense people are protecting themselves by anticipating disappointment? Are these people afraid to imagine or trust something good or hopeful?”

“Dad,” he said, “don’t forget that we’re the first generation in history to know that the world could literally end in our lifetimes.”


“Global warming. Losing the planet.” And to the threat of climate crisis, he added his memories of 9/11 when he was fourteen and in his first month of high school.

“With terminal threats around us,” he said, “I’m not surprised that some people don’t find much reason to hope,” he said.

“But you haven’t quit hoping,” I said.

“Yes,” he agreed, “I do hope, but sometimes I don’t understand why.”

Then he was surprised to hear that at his age, I and many of my friends expected our political leaders would blunder us into thermonuclear war. I didn’t expect to reach the age of 30. People our age who said, “Don’t trust anyone over 30” didn’t expect to live beyond that threshold themselves.

What keeps us hoping when we have good reason to believe the world as we know it might end? I notice that in neither my son’s case nor in mine did the end of the world itself seem like something to hope for. In the religious environment that I grew up in, I suppose that made me a bad fundamentalist. And yes, I did have one very scary “left behind” moment at about twelve when I woke up from a Saturday afternoon nap and couldn’t find anyone in the house.

Did first century Christians and Jews actually HOPE the world was about to end with a trumpet and apocalyptic destruction? Sometimes it seems they did, sometimes it seems they enjoyed imagining the collapse of any pretense of civil society as much as they believed the collapse would also prefigure or provoke a divine cataclysm. Was theirs an ironic or satirical vision? Did they look and pray for apocalypse to protect themselves from disappointment? Whether they enjoyed it or not, Jewish communities in Jesus time and early Christian communities that sprang from them had a taste for apocalyptic, lurid, hair-raising evocations of the end of the world.

My generation, born just after World War II’s Jewish holocaust and the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has little taste for apocalypse.

While writing this piece I came across Christy Wampole’s New York Times piece, “How to Live Without Irony.”

Wampole’s ironic hipster is just slightly older than my son. But she’s describing a related phenomenon and positing similar reasons; glimpses of apocalyptic destruction like 9/11 and our many hurricanes, despite the Advent readings, don’t add up as Good News. Church (and other value-shaping community organizations) aren’t speaking a trustworthy hope for people in their twenties and thirties.

My actor son was three in 1990 when we moved to the house he grew up in. Around the perimeter of 25x40’ city garden I planted twenty trees. Some grew tall and full (and some of them didn’t make it).

Two of the tall trees are out front. Our California live oak, literally grown from an acorn, is now big enough to support our gardener standing in its branches eight feet up to shape and trim it. The more delicate, feathery Norfolk Island Pine is as tall as the house.

Out back three redwood trees I planted by our back fence just shot up as redwood trees do – California’s giant and long-lived redwoods grow tall very, very fast for their first twenty or so years. When ours got to thirty feet, we started topping and thinning them, hoping the garden book was right, that by planting them close together and keeping them topped and thinned, we could cajole the giants tree into making us a tall hedge. As they got big, I planted a Cecil Brunner climbing rose in their shadow. It snaked up through the redwoods toward the sun and began blooming in their crown, shiny levels and radiant pink-white blossoms giving the trees a regal glory.

Topping and thinning the trees didn’t stop them from thickening their trunks. My wife feared we had a tiger by the tail, that, despite the gardening book’s assurance we could keep them a hedge, we were in danger of losing a battle with their wild nature. “They’re blocking the sun,” she said. “They’re determined to keep getting taller, and won’t they eventually drop a huge branch on someone’s head?”

I loved the intense dark green of the trees, their mysterious shadows, and the radiant glory of the roses that topped them, but eventually agreed that the three trees needed to come down.

It took a crew of three men and several days to get the trees down and out and to dig their massive roots out of the earth. In the process we learned that the middle tree’s roots were badly diseased. It was more than a big branch poised to fall in the wind.
We replanted with trees that wouldn’t aspire to such heights, and in the restored sunlight of our garden, we planted tomatoes, green beans, and lettuce.

I was showing our newly sunny garden to a guest one afternoon when our next-door neighbor - not the downstairs neighbor we knew, but the upstairs neighbor who’d never spoken - began shouting at me from his fourth floor deck, “How dare you take those trees down?!” I tried to offer a neighborly explanation, but he flat refused to believe that I’d planted the trees and dismissed our discovering the decaying roots. “They were beautiful,” he said. “You had no right.”

I told him we’d replanted with new trees that would do better in the limited space, trees that would stop growing at about the height we’d been forcing the redwoods to stop. “They’re gone and it will take a whole generation for anything new to grow up,” he insisted. “I cried to lose them.”

Sometimes I miss them too.

Another friend recently shared this poem from Brazilian liberation theologian Rubem Alvez -

What is Hope?
It is a presentiment that imagination is more real and reality less real than it looks.
It is a hunch
that the overwhelming brutality of facts
that oppress and repress is not the last word. It is a suspicion
that reality is more complex
than realism wants us to believe
and that the frontiers of the possible
are not determined by the limits of the actual
and that in a miraculous and unexpected way
life is preparing the creative events
which will open the way to freedom and resurrection...
The two, suffering and hope, live from each other.
Suffering without hope
produces resentment and despair,
hope without suffering
creates illusions, naiveté́, and drunkenness...
Let us plant dates
even though those who plant them will never eat them.
We must live by the love of what we will never see.
This is the secret discipline.
It is a refusal to let the creative act
be dissolved in immediate sense experience
and a stubborn commitment to the future of our grandchildren. Such disciplined love
is what has given prophets, revolutionaries and saints
the courage to die for the future they envisaged.
They make their own bodies
the seed of their highest hope.
―Rubem A. Alves, Tomorrow’s Child, 1972

Trees that threaten to fall. Global warming and mutually assured destruction in a thermonuclear war. Contemplating a possible end and making art. Founding a new church congregation when “the church is dying.” Might the seeming contradictions of this double season bridging Thanksgiving to Advent give us a hint for finding God’s work in the seeming contradictions of Thanksgiving and Advent’s apocalyptic readings? What lets people find creative tension and god-like hope from looking unflinchingly at destruction and still risk new creation?

By the way, Advent hasn’t always been “the beginning of the liturgical year.” An older tradition (still remembered in Elizabethan times) regarded the Annunciation to Mary (March 25) as Christian New Year. Ancient Christian tradition had fixed the Annunciation on the same calendar day as Good Friday (calculated from other calendar considerations). But calling Advent with its eschatological, end of time themes our beginning, the Christian New Year may be on to something tying all that destruction, stars falling from sky, earthquakes and portents, fire and brimstone to the birth of Jesus? T.S. Eliot in the “Journey of the Magi” has his wise man narrator ask that and observe,

“…were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.”

Maybe there’s a beginning of Good News there, a hint of how to get from apocalypse to steady hope. A friend wrote a brief haunting, tune on a simpler line from Eliot that points to the same paradox - “In our end is our beginning, in our beginning is our end.”

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

Learning from our mistakes

by Maria L. Evans

“The question "Who am I?" really asks, "Where do I belong or fit?" We get the sense of that "direction" -- the sense of moving toward the place where we fit, or of shaping the place toward which we are moving so that it will fit us -- from hearing how others have handled or are attempting to handle similar (but never exactly the same) situations. We learn by listening to their stories, by hearing how they came (or failed) to belong or fit.”
Ernest Kurtz, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning

It's a reasonably safe bet I'll never mix up Ignatius of Antioch and Ignatius of Loyola again.

There I was, dutifully attending the 7:30 a.m. Morning Prayer service at my home parish on a beautiful October Wednesday morning, thinking the world was grand, and my priest matter-of-factly announces that today is the feast day of Ignatius of Antioch. Suddenly my prayerful brain ground to a metal-shearing and squealing halt, sparks flying, teeth peeling off the gears and smoke pouring out of my ears.

"ANTIOCH? Oh, CRAP! I did the Speaking to the Soul piece on Ignatius of LOYOLA!" (Well, I didn't actually think "crap." I thought of another word.)

Needless to say, Morning Prayer immediately turned into Morning Busted Play as I squirmed red-faced in my secret shame all through the rest of the service. Even my post-Morning Prayer silent time turned into texting-Ann-Fontaine-expounding-on-what-a-dweeb-I-was time. Her response: "Well, it was a good essay."

One of the blessings of Morning Prayer at my church is that the post-service chit-chat time in the sacristy among the small cadre of Wednesday Morning Worshipers lasts longer than the service. That day, we were minus one of the regulars as her husband was in St. Louis awaiting a replacement of his artificial heart valve. We missed her so much we called her on my cell phone and put her on speaker so she could at least be with us long distance. It melted the self-imposed shame of my national-level liturgical calendar gaffe into nothing. On the way to work I thought to myself, "Wow. I was worked up about that at the level that I would be worked up about something big, like a "never event." "Never events," in the language of hospital committee-speak, are those horrible indefensible patient safety errors that the deed speaks for itself--things like getting an incompatible unit of blood, or the patient falling and breaking a limb, or operating on the wrong limb. They are the things that the world places a 100% compliance rate on, and one realizes that no matter how well one checks and double checks and triple checks to reduce that rate, the rate will never be 100%. The best human beings can do is 99.999something percent, and woe betide the person responsible in a "never event." It will certainly result in the loss of one or more jobs. It will most likely result in a malpractice settlement check. It may result in the loss of licensure or institutional accreditation. Medical career leper-dom is a very real possibility.

Now, getting my Ignatiuses mixed up is not even remotely close to a "never event." But those of us schooled in the shame of "never events" don't have a very good thermostat about those delineations. Suffice it to say my anxiety shot straight to the "never event" level and only backed down AFTER we went to that awful emotional place and I could more rationally assess the situation. Sometimes it takes the non-realization of our worst fears to play out before we even believe it wasn't THAT awful. Yet many of us beat ourselves over the head with a concrete block over gaffes like going to the North Pizza Hut instead of the South Pizza Hut and wondering "Why hasn't anyone shown up yet?"

Medicine is not the only place we are schooled in "never events" and lose that thermostat of shame and anxiety. Anyone who grew up with substance abuse or violence in the household learns it. People who marry abusers learn it. LGBT people learn it. The bullied and oppressed learn it. Visionaries who are slapped down learn it. Anyone who has ever been shamed for being "different" learn it. There's no shortage of teaching ground for that, which is why it makes it very difficult for many of us to recognize that God has no list of "never events." God will always accept our approach for relationship.

Unfortunately, our human response to someone else's mistake is to jump on them with both feet or shun them for fear their cooties might rub off on us. I think back about pathologists I've known who have made horrible mistakes that are unforgivable in the scheme of the world--things like getting two names or surgical path numbers mixed up and giving two people the wrong diagnosis, or over-calling a breast cancer and setting the chain of events in play for an unnecessary mastectomy. I had prayers of gratitude it didn't happen to me. I became more compulsive about my own mistakes. But I did not approach those people in love. I simply thought, "Well, it sucks to be you," and kept my distance. I rationalized it by saying, "Oh, I don't want to make it worse for them by calling attention to it." I knew there were people out there that thought they were horrible and incompetent people, and in my heart I knew they were not. But I didn't get any closer than was absolutely necessary, either, when people were out there calling for their head.

The truth is, our fastest learning occurs when we make embarrassing mistakes, if we are willing to show up on God's doorstep in our vulnerable, mistaken state, as well as healing from the stories of other people. I have to admit that in the mistakes I've made in this life, the thing that has always gotten me over the hurdle has been the people who were unafraid to admit to me when they made the exact same mistake, and can tell it with that wonderful mixture of wisdom, pathos, and humor. It is a key component of why Twelve Step programs are successful. People come to Whatevers Anonymous, thinking they are the only person in the world who could possibly have borne this level of shame, and if they sit long enough in those rooms, discover that someone else is telling "their" story with different names attached to it.

For me, it's the beauty of the stories of the Bible, particularly the Hebrew Bible. It doesn't matter one iota to me whether those characters are factually historical, because I know those people. I see them in the street. I have worked with some of them. I am related to some of them. At times, I am them. They remind me, "God has no list of 'never events'."

What are the stories of the mistakes in your life that became elements of healing for the mistakes of others?

Dispatches from the dark

by Deirdre Good

Along with thousands of people in New Jersey and the tri-state area, we lost power at the seminary in Chelsea the night Sandy came ashore in New Jersey. Coastal regions were flooded and washed away and the water came inland further than it has ever come. Today the President visits New Jersey, declared a disaster area. In the meantime, our lives have taken on a diurnal rhythm: we get up after daylight, we do as much as we can in daylight hours including the rhythms of worship, work and meals, and we cook and eat dinner using flashlights and candles and go to bed shortly after darkness descends. For news, we listen to the radio, and wait for the morning paper to be delivered.

Going out at night or early dawn before daylight means being in total darkness, where there are no traffic or street lights and people are only visible by their flashlights, if they have them. It is not a safe experience, mostly because it is unfamiliar to New Yorkers. In Maine, we have reflective strips and headlamps and reflective collars for the dogs. But we're not in Maine now, and we're not prepared for this.

Our friends in Zone A who did not evacuate had the alarming experience of watching waters from the Hudson river fill up their stairwell, rising towards the second floor. The waters flooded over Chelsea piers from the Hudson River and rushed across the West Side highway just up to the Seabury Gate, about a short city block east of 10th Avenue. Cars parked on side streets between 10th Avenue and the West Side Highway were half-submerged. South of us, the same thing happened in the West Village and Battery Park. In New York City Harbor, waves were recorded as high as 32.5 feet. Sometime during the night, the waters stopped. When our friends came out of their apartment the following morning, the waters had receded back down the street towards the Hudson River leaving flooding, debris and water marks on cars and windows in their wake. Our friends were happy to survive and show us photographs.

Schools have been closed for three days. Parents are feeling the stress of looking after house bound children. “I have a new world record for playing the greatest number of consecutive chutes and ladders games in a 24-hour period,” one mother told us.

This morning we ran into a Fireman working days who had come into Manhattan from Queens. He told us that the emergency fire station in Battery Park was flooded and is under water, so that station has been evacuated to the one on 23rd street and 10th Avenue. The fireman himself spent all day yesterday carrying elderly people marooned in high rise buildings down many flights of stairs. He spoke of tragedies from the storm that wouldn't make the news. Someone had a heart attack in Times Square and as he lay on the ground, tourists took photographs of him thinking they were seeing a homeless person. But he was dead. A policeman was at home with his family in Staten Island. He went to check on the basement of his house when the ocean waves rushed in so quickly that he couldn't escape. He drowned whilst his family was upstairs. In Brooklyn, Coney Island has all but disappeared: the Aquarium, he said, is gone.

But the city is slowly recovering. Mayor Bloomberg continues to hold press conferences. Con Ed has indicated that power may be restored by Saturday. Buses have resumed services on a Sunday schedule. Tomorrow subways open north of 34th street. Where there is power, leaf blowers are clearing away leaves and debris. Flooded basements are being pumped out. People are beginning to wonder out loud and ask how best to protect a city built only a few feet above the water and thus vulnerable to rising sea levels whose transportation services are in tunnels below sea levels.

Back at the seminary, classes have been postponed until Monday. Faculty, administration and students continue life together. The library is open 9-5. Notices posted in public places are updated twice daily. The Daily Office and Eucharist is said and celebrated. People share meals and there was an evening of board games last night. We have a gas powered generator brought to the seminary by our head of maintenance Anthony Khani that not only provides light but also recharges phones and laptops. It has been refueled with what is probably the last gas in Manhattan at a gas station in Harlem. To our north, the residential complex of Penn South (south of Penn Station) has its own power station so those who know family and friends there can enjoy light and heat. Others can find coffee and some amenities north of 29th Street.

proxy.jpgWhen we resume our common life together next Monday, we will be brought together with those who lived out the storm in New Jersey and elsewhere in the tri-state area. Together we'll reflect on recent experiences one of which is worship and study of the One to whom “day and night are both alike” in the words of Psalm 139,

“If I say, 'Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,'
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.”

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

How shall we talk together?

by Ben Varnum

Recently, I’ve been seeing a number of comments on Episcopal Café posts that express frustration with how people are writing or commenting. On the one hand, this was no surprise; I’ve been a part of enough online communities to be fully familiar with terms like “trolling” (reading posts looking for a place to pick a fight), “flame-baiting” (writing something designed to provoke a strong reaction), and “sock-puppeting” (creating a one-use profile to comment on something without putting your name to it). (My personal favorite is “Rick-rolling” – putting up a link ostensibly supporting a pertinent topic, but actually linking to Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Here’s an important example of its social impact)

On the other hand, internet communities form around an idea, and as internet futurist Clay Shirky explains fantastically in Here Comes Everybody, the strength of an internet community depends on what that idea is. So when I heard about “Episcopal Café,” I was awfully excited – here, surely, was a natural part of the evolution of our life as a church! An explicit spot to gather (online) and talk (electronically) about the life of a church so many people are passionate about!

But not even our online life is lived in Eden, and passion can come in many shapes and many voices. The way a high-church Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian who’s attended worship in the same rural parish with the same rector for 40 years will talk about the church she loves is going to be different from a 38-year-old who attends the praise band’s service and serves as the diocesan treasurer. Or the college student who joined because the [insert other denomination] church of his parents didn’t offer him the chance they longed for to live the gospel. Afro-American Episcopalians, First People Episcopalians, Latino Episcopalians, Korean Episcopalians, African Episcopalians, Euro-American Episcopalians – we’re all going to have different experiences of the church.

And yet . . . a café abides. And rather than cacophony, we really do sometimes find our way near harmony, near new ideas, near sharing our lives with one another . . . near being Christ’s Body the Church.

I think it’s worth using all are voices to claim ourselves and our conversation. I think it’s worth asking the question, “How shall we talk to one another?” I think it’s worth praying that God enter and enliven our conversations online as in person; that God meet us when we gather our thoughts and experiences electronically as in the flesh; that God forgive us our trespasses against those online.

My own voice happens to be, as a critique labeled a conversation I was part of recently, “long-winded and methodological.” I spent 8 years pursuing education at the University of Chicago, where the model for conversation is that everyone argues for their perspective as well as they can, in the hope that you find your way to the best answers and solutions. This serves very well in an academic setting, and it taught me to really think through why I believe what I believe, and be willing to say it. It certainly had its stumbling blocks, and it certainly had the consequence that some students seemed to confuse “find the best answers together” with “be respected for having the best answer” or “contributing the most to the best answer.” And when arguing about something important to me with someone who doesn’t talk that way, I know that there are other steps that are important: demonstrating to them that I care about their opinion. Paying attention when someone vents frustration, as a sign that something has become anxious for them. Re-stating what they’ve said to make sure they know that I heard it, even if I still don’t feel like it’s the whole story, and I’m pushing on some part of it or other.

Contemporary Catholic theologian David Tracy has some fantastic rules for conversation in a book that takes on (among other things) modern pluralistic conversation, Plurality and Ambiguity. It’s one of the only page numbers I still have memorized from my divinity school days (page 19), because I cited these rules so often.

- Say only what you mean
- Say it as accurately as you can
- listen to and respect what the other says, however different or other
- be willing to correct or defend your opinions if challenged by the conversation partner
- be willing to argue if necessary, to confront if demanded, to endure necessary conflict, to change your mind if the evidence suggests it

(Tracy notes that "In a sense they are merely variations of the transcendental imperatives elegantly articulated by Bernard Lonergan: 'Be attentive, be intelligent, be responsible, be loving, and, if necessary, change.'")

To me, we might also say, “In a sense they are merely variations on the baptismal promise to respect the dignity of every human being.

I have about two close friends that I keep in touch with from high school. One of them is a pretty convicted atheist. The other holds a spirituality that you might describe as Gaiaism. And I’ve recently become an Episcopal priest who loves the historical Christian theological tradition. Some of our best conversations have happened in cafés (all three of us bring up a certain conversation several years ago under a brown line stop on Chicago’s north side when one of us visited the city). But we got mad, we disagreed, we misunderstood one another profoundly. But we also laughed, and loved, and learned about each other. We stayed in the conversation and did one another the service of caring enough to try to listen even when we felt surprised or hurt by what had been said. And that conversation (and others like it) have deepened that friendship.

I hope this essay can push for us to claim our desire to be in conversation with one another, and remind us that to be the Church anywhere – even on the internet – is to seek to be guided by the life and example of Christ. If the cross to take up and carry here is to listen to the pains or the wonderings of others who care about the church, and to bring into the conversation both my strongest voice and my greatest compassion, then truly that will be an easy yoke and a light burden.

The Reverend Ben Varnum serves as Assistant Rector for a parish in the Diocese of Kansas. His training includes a Master's of Divinity from The Divinity School at the University of Chicago and a Clinical Pastoral Education residency at Rush University Medical Center. He keeps a very-occasional blog at Root Weaving

Rusting away

by Maria L. Evans

O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom
nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon
us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so
pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

--Collect for Proper 12, p. 231, BCP

Sometimes it's fun to read the collects "out of season."

I was reminded of this one as a friend of mine prepares to enter one of her drawings in a juried contest. It's a rendition of the light dancing on her father's old red Ford truck as it slowly rots away in the auto/machinery graveyard that many family farms have somewhere on their "back forty."

What I'm about to say is not ecologically friendly, but I'll say it anyway. I really enjoy those old junk piles tucked away on folks' back forty. If the owners of the junk pile still live on the farm, every item out there has a story. Even if the original owners no longer live there, if a person is observant, one can figure a lot out with a little detective work.

The junk pile that always sticks out the most in my mind was the one that belonged to a friend of mine, where the item of intrigue was his dad's old Henry J that he bought after he had gotten out of the service. For those of you who have never heard of a Henry J, it was probably one of the first four-cylinder cars in the modern automotive era, produced by Kaiser-Frazier. It was marketed as a vehicle designed to put automobiles in the hands of people who previously were too poor to afford a car, but in reality it was a way to get rid of a lot of surplus Willys-Overland Jeep engines and engine parts from the war.

The problem was that in an era where The American Dream included getting bigger, flashier, and more complicated cars, the Henry J was going the wrong way. For starters, it was missing some things that folks had come to expect in a car--for instance, a trunk lid (you had to put the back seat down to get into the trunk,) a glove compartment, and armrests. The fact it got 35 miles per gallon was worthless in an era when gas was 17 cents a gallon. Truth is, the story was that everyone made fun of that Henry J, and it never really got the respect it deserved. The reality is, the Henry J was probably a decent car, but introduced at the wrong time. My friend's dad was so fed up by all the taunting and derision to get a "real car" that one day he just stopped driving it. Never mind he didn't have another car. He walked, bummed rides, and hitched until he could afford a 1954 Chevy Bel-Air.

This particular Henry J was eventually consigned to the junk pile, right next to the rusting International Harvester tractor that had put in decades of faithful service. Enough years had gone by that both that tractor and the Henry J had become homes for little critters--rabbits, mice, raccoons, and the occasional opossum. The weeds were tall enough that in the summer, the old Henry J almost disappeared from sight. Yet, both the beloved, reliable old tractor and the comparatively worthless Henry J shared the same fate, and became equally worthy citizens of the junk pile. It was just as good a home for a litter of wild baby rabbits as any other decaying vehicle out there.

When I think back about that junk pile, it reminds me of how the things we label, the things we judge, many times, in the end, become of no consequence. The things we once coveted are no longer of even passing interest. The things that humiliated and embarrassed us become so covered in weeds that we'll never see them again unless we look for them and unearth them.

There are times I ponder the possibility of returning to my friend's farm, but he no longer lives there, and I don't have a clue who inhabits the place now. Yet sometimes, when I pass an old junk pile off in the distance from a roadside, I go back to that junk pile with the Henry J in my mind's eye, and imagine what it must look like now. Probably enough weeds and silt over the three decades since I was last there have set it further in the ground. It's probably a lot less blue than it used to be--maybe even rusted all the way now, roof collapsed in, upholstery in tatters or down to just oxidized springs. But I suspect it's still a dandy home for wild baby rabbits.

What are the things in your life that were once objects of embarrassment and humiliation, that now are places of nurturing for something you never imagined?

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

#3 Surprise gift from our Anglican divorce story for life beyond it

by Donald Schell

Part 3 of 3

I’ll begin this concluding essay by saying where I meant the meandering path of the two previous essays to lead. I’m thinking of our church’s divorce story, our independence from Rome, as family story. And I’m seeing something in it that I’d never noticed, in a small event in 1532, that leads me to wonder whether Episcopal Church’s 2012 reorganization should include eliminating any separate “House of Bishops” (BOTH the legislative house at General Convention and the year-in and year- out twice annual non-legislative gatherings).

What if our bishops found their primary identity, voice and purpose from listening to the people of their diocese rather than from speaking to each other?

What happened at my parents’ Thanksgiving Table in 1963 and at the Captain’s Table with Ted Cozzens on that steamer that’s harder when the whole diverse family isn’t gathered?

To be clear at the onset, let me insist, I’m making the suggestion that we restore rather than reject the ancient office of bishop. And, when we get there I’ll offer a choice anecdote from our Anglican family’s founding divorce that hints at an unfamiliar primary identity for a bishop.

So, first the divorce story and some observations of how we shape our stories –
Henry VIII needed a divorce from Katherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn. When the Pope and Vatican were slow to respond, Henry decided to file for a different divorce severing the Church of England from the Catholic Church. Rome didn’t acknowledge the divorce and insisted that Henry and his church were simply living in sin. Rome’s response didn’t stop a property settlement, or at least didn’t stop us taking what we’d like. We kept our bishops and liturgy (taking the opportunity of the divorce to clean house and remodel it significantly) and we happily let them keep their Pope, clerical celibacy, purgatory, transubstantiation, and scores of problematic saints.

I hope this telling made most Episcopal readers squirm a bit. The story is more or less familiar, but that’s not the way we want it told in public. Over our last four hundred and fifty or so years of up and down communication with our Italian ex- and some custody battles over various children, and property battles over various family treasures and traditions, our critics have told the story more or less like I just did. You know those critics - theologians, cultural critics, fundamentalist neighbors, and a handful of grumpy atheists who want to tell us that our divorce wasn’t legitimate, that we’re a fake church, a believe-anything or believe-nothing outfit that practices aesthetics and manners rather than real faith. Today’s atheists tell us we’re not actually religious so not worth disputing. And our fundamentalist sisters and brothers insist that since the divorce we’ve been living in sin.

So, I think we’re actually as particular about how we tell our ecclesial divorce as any family member would be about any decisive family story.

No, we insist, it’s not like that.

We want to tell our divorce story and hear integrity and continuity. Yes, there was a divorce, but we’re a real church, and we were the same church before and after Henry VIII. In fact we needed to file for the divorce to continue Catholic Christianity in Britain. Our ancestors are honorable and we, their descendants, aren’t bastards. We’re the legitimate inheritors of rich Celtic and Benedictine traditions in the British Isles, the church of Patrick and Columba and the Venerable Bede, Dame Julian of Norwich, St. Margaret of Scotland, several important medieval theologians and philosopher-scientists, the church of Cranmer, Coverdale, Shakespeare, Dorothy Sayers, and T.S. Eliot, and so on.

Our church’s separate existence, as we usually tell the story, wasn’t born of Henry VIII’s lust and royal whim but of the principle or conscience of Catholic and Reforming Church bishops like Thomas Cranmer and Hugh Latimer, and Nicholas Ridley, and the heroic Biblical translator William Tyndale (these last all martyrs).

Recently I had a rich and satisfying conversation with a clergy colleague who, like me, knew divorce personally. My divorce was almost forty years ago, his more like six. Both of us recognized how carefully we told our stories. Partly we’re fussy about how we tell the story to protect our sense of who we were and are. But partly we want to keep learning from the divorce. We want to know we’re continuing to become more who we hoped to be and were called to be even with the divorce. Like other family stories, divorce stories shape us.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading Hilary Martel’s Wolf Hall with pleasure in the novel and fresh interest in our family divorce story. So, I’m reading again about Henry VIII and Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More and Anne Boleyn. Mantel packed historical facts tightly into her novel, some familiar, some less so. I’m doing a lot of fact-checking and ancillary reading. Reading Martel’s novel is a painful pleasure because there our 16th century divorce story is as messy and contradictory as any family divorce story, and because I’m grateful for it’s unexpected grace. I love the church that emerged from our watershed transformation in the 16th century. And I come back to this story as I return sometimes to my long past divorce. Telling and retelling bring new discoveries. Martel has worked with recognizable and known facts and re-imagined some key characters in our story including especially Thomas Cromwell, the layman who may have contributed more than any other single person to the beginnings of the English Reformation.

Cromwell got the King’s consent to the first legal publication of England’s first English Bible. Cromwell drafted the laws that made Cranmer’s work possible. Cromwell gently guided his traditionalist Catholic except “without the Pope” monarch toward reform and change. Cromwell, with strong Lutheran sympathies managed to maintain a friendship with the King until a decade before the first English Prayer Book, Cromwell lost the King’s trust and his head.

Three hundred thirty-seven pages into her novel of Cromwell’s accomplishment, Martel offers this startling little paragraph:

“On May 15, the bishops sign a document of submission to the king. They will not make new church legislation without the king’s license, and will submit all existing law to a review by a commission which will include laymen – members of Parliament and the king’s appointees. They will not meet in Convocation without the king’s permission.”

The year was 1532, a full year before Pope Clement excommunicated Henry VIII and Archbishop Cranmer. The act of Parliament that the bishops were compelled to sign was drafted by Thomas Cromwell.

This unfamiliar bit of our family’s divorce story caught my imagination. Cromwell came up with something here that may be important to us in 2012 as our Episcopal Church thinks about re-ordering and re-organizing itself. Apart from the royalist assumptions and prerogatives that Cromwell assumed or created here, he reversed a precedent-setting initiative that the Emperor Constantine set 1200 years before when he called the Council of Nicaea. Constantine needed a unified church to bind together his quasi-Christianized Roman Empire – he proposed that a consensus of bishops could define the faith and practice of the church. The bishops had no difficulty accepting Constantine’s flattering gesture though they had a harder time agreeing about homoousios or homoiousios in the creed that they drafted.

Thomas Cromwell’s legislation and document made bishops dependent on lay people convening them and gave lay people final review over bishops’ decisions. Does Cromwell’s bold redefinition of the authority of bishops remind us that Constantine giving unprecedented ultimate authority to what bishops gathered together would say, invented a Council of Bishops? When bishops gather to deliberate and speak – not just the Roman Catholic College of Cardinals but even our own Church of England and American Episcopal House of Bishops – are they carrying on Constantine’s imperial consolidation of power?

Cromwell’s legislation surrounded bishops’ authority with lay convening and lay review. For four hundred fifty years bishops have been reclaiming their self-generated authority and autonomy. Many of them tell us that their most important conversations are in gatherings with their bishop sisters and brothers. So Cromwell has me wondering – would our bishops act more like the church bishops of the ancient church if we did away with the House of Bishops?

When Ignatius gave us his vision of the wholeness and universality of a church in the early Second Century, he summed it up with a word no Christian teacher before him had used, “Catholic,” a thing that’s seen and known in its wholeness, entire, complete.
"Wheresoever," Ignatius wrote, "the bishop appears, there let the people [laos] be, even as wheresoever Christ is, there is the Catholic Church." People gathered around their bishop are whole and the Body of Christ. Two hundred years later Constantine shifted the understanding of Catholic to an Imperial one. In seminary we had a kind of riddle about bishops in council - “If IRA terrorists blew up all the Anglican bishops gathered at Lambeth, would there still be an Anglican Communion?”

Constantine looked to consolidate and organize power. His council that got all the local bishop administrator/leaders together was meant to ADD UP TO a Catholicity that Ignatius said already existed with ONE bishop surrounded by the people. The gathered Eucharistic Assembly was Ignatius whole (KATHOLIKOS) vision of Christ.

Since Constantine, gathered bishops have spoken Episcopal authority with their common voice. From Constantine onward, the bishop and bishops have seemed to believe they’re most Episcopal when they’re speaking – pastoral letters, writing admonitions, preaching.

Here’s how our 1979 Book of Common Prayer puts it in the ordination liturgy for a bishop:

“A bishop in God's holy Church is called to be one with the apostles in proclaiming Christ's resurrection and interpreting the Gospel, and to testify to Christ's sovereignty as Lord of lords and King of kings. You are called to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church; to celebrate and to provide for the administration of the sacraments of the New Covenant; to ordain priests and deacons and to join in ordaining bishops; and to be in all things a faithful pastor and wholesome example for the entire flock of Christ. With your fellow bishops you will share in the leadership of the Church throughout the world. Your heritage is the faith of patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, and those of every generation who have looked to God in hope. Your joy will be to follow him who came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 517.

We call bishops to ministry and they gather to find their voice for Proclaiming, Interpreting, Testifying, and Guarding. They express their ministry in what they say and in their guardianship overseeing faith, unity, and discipline.
More often than he used the word “Catholic” Ignatius said something that has baffled commentators and been ignored by most bishops ever since - that the bishop is most a bishop when he is silent.

As Henry Chadwick wrote, “Among the many remarkable features of Ignatius’ letters there is perhaps nothing more curious than his peculiar ideas about the value attaching to silence. There is something almost comic in his insistence that when a bishop is saying nothing he is then to be regarded with special awe. It is apparently his firm conviction that the best thing a bishop can do is to refrain from speech altogether.”
Silence? Listening? Waiting? Presence in listening silence reminds me of Jesus in John 8 writing silently in the sand when the religious leaders demanded that he condemn the woman taken in adultery. Or as Ignatius says,

“He who really possess Jesus’ word is able to hear his silence in order that he may be perfect, so that he may act through his words and may be known through his silences.”

Part 2

Part 1

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

Stories #2: Who calls us to the table?

by Donald Schell

Part 2 of 3

My Uncle Ted was a Presbyterian lay missionary in Cameroon. He wasn’t actually my uncle. He’d been married to my great aunt and she died in Cameroon. He was one of those “uncles” who redefine family, an old, old friend of my living grandmother and the grandfather I never knew, an avuncular teacher and inspiration to all of us. I was proud to claim him for a relative.

Ted was not one of the scary independent missionaries our church preferred sponsoring. He was an actual, no-apologies-Presbyterian. In the years we didn’t see Ted in California, I felt his presence in my grandmother’s living room from all the treasures of carved ivory and ebony that Ted had brought back on his visits home. I think my love of African art and music began afternoons at my grandmother’s, handling the treasures and wondering at the hands and eyes that had carved them. Remembering Ted so long after his death, I recall feeling his living absence in that room in those objects and in the slow, steady tick tock of my grandmother’s big clock. Being there always made me eager to see Ted again and hear new stories from him.
Like my parents and another great aunt, Ted was a Stanford University graduate. His degree was in Engineering. As a Presbyterian missionary/fraternal worker he founded and ran a technical school in Cameroon. It’s there today as the Université Protestante Edwin Cozzens d’Elat. Ted spoke the Bulu language of the area of Cameroon where he worked and was fond of quoting Bulu proverbs and sayings to us. And because of shifts in colonial powers through both World Wars, Ted was also fluent in French, Spanish, and German. His field recordings of traditional Cameroon song are still available in the Smithsonian/Ethnic Folkways recording “Bulu Songs from the Cameroons.”

One of Ted’s stories taught me how sophisticated an aural music culture could be. On one of his return trips “home” as he called the station in Elat, he’d brought back a wind-up phonograph and his big stack of 78 rpm recordings of the whole of Handel’s Messiah. One of his students played the recordings over and over and then gathered a chorus of students and taught them the Messiah’s many choruses, all parts, by ear. When I first heard how fourteen-year-old Mozart had heard the Allegri Miserere sung in the Sistine Chapel and transcribed the whole piece note for note that afternoon, I thought, “Mozart was hearing Allegri like Ted’s student heard Handel.”

As an engineer Ted adapted the Bulu grass and pole building method to build a vaulted grass church big enough for a revival meeting for 5000 people. Ted was a lay preacher and teacher. My generally soft-spoken, wry uncle harbored a voice big enough to preach to those 5000 people without amplification. I hadn’t heard the grass church voice, but Ted’s voice and the power of his passionate preaching resonate in my memory. There were other preachers in the family, but none whose voices my body still carries.

Thinking of that huge grass church, I remember wishing I could have heard the singing. Why didn’t I ask him more about that? Did he record church song too? Did they sing Bulu melodies? Was there drumming? Was there dancing?

I can hear him and feel the resonance of Ted’s voice in my chest as I write. Though I heard him only every couple of years when he was back in California, it was Ted’s voice and presence and words that sowed and watered my own vocation as preacher (and yes, that fueled my impatience with any preaching I heard that lacked his intelligence and Spirit).

When our heroic builder-preacher uncle retired to California after fifty years in Cameroon, my brother apprenticed himself to Ted for building projects on his cabin in the mountains near us. Ted guided his hands and mind to build in wood. My brother became a master carpenter and a contractor. Ted gave Peter skills and tools that began his professional toolbox, a kind of ordination or anointing. And when Ted was in a nursing home, restless with pain and dying, he gave me his Bible concordance. “You’re a preacher,” he said. “Use this.” And I have used it.

I felt Ted’s two blessings come together when my brother built St. Gregory’s Church, San Francisco and our building won an American Institute of Architects Best Religious Building of the Year Award.

Ted was a teacher-storyteller. Though he was often a character in his stories, they felt a little like parables. Sometimes he judged wrongly and hurt someone and had to seek forgiveness, to make amends and reconcile. Sometimes he’d tell how he faced a dilemma and learned something. Sometimes he told of making a dreadful mistake that couldn’t be corrected. Sometimes he offered a decisive action.

I hold two of his stories among my treasures and though in both of these stories Ted appears as the hero, he’d likelier say he was an instrument of the Spirit. These were stories Ted told with an unspoken message like, “If you have a moment like this, see what the moment offers, and do what’s there for you to do.”

The quieter story is about a Bulu widow who had been sold to forced labor on the tea plantations in the North. Ted bought her freedom before she was taken away (which startled everyone) and then bought and gave her a small piece of cleared land. She knew the traditions and ways of pre-colonial Cameroon where the women were the farmers and the builders, so she readily built herself a house, planted and tended her crops, and settled securely into a solid place in her village. The year Ted retired back to California, he got a letter from her, a brief note written in the hand he’d first helped shape long before –

“My crops are good. I am doing well. Thank you for the land and for my life where my heart sits down.”

Ted said, “It makes me wish I was back home to see it.” Cameroon was where his heart had sat down too.

My other treasured Ted story was about a dining table. Ted was returning to the U.S. for one his furlough visits, a U.S. mission tour to Presbyterian churches and a visit to us in California. Over the fifty years Ted served in Cameroon, ships were the usual means of global travel, but from Cameroon your ship would be a freighter not a passenger liner. So for Ted’s voyage to New York, he and half a dozen others were guests at the captain’s mess, the dinner table for ship’s officers and passengers. On this trip back Ted was bringing a graduate of the technical school with him to enroll in Princeton Seminary. The student was going to study for ordination. He’d be one of the first seminary-trained Cameroonian pastors. Their first night at sea Ted and his student were finding their sea legs as they talked with the captain walking to the table. Some of the passengers were already seated.

When the student pulled his chair out to sit down, a Baptist missionary whom Ted knew shouted in horror, “I have NEVER sat at the table with a black man and I do not intend to now.” I picture the rock of the boat and the sway of the Baptist as he pushed himself back from the table. Ted said, “I used my preaching voice, and told him, ‘YOU SIT DOWN.’ And he sat.”

Telling these stories matters to me. I treasure them. Seeing one and hearing the other taught me possibilities that shaped me as they were meant to. I’ve heard others in my family tell them and I’ve told and retold them myself.

I notice common threads in these two Presbyterian family stories that connect them to an old 1532 Anglican family story that I want to remind us of.

-- both my stories are still carry the charge of my adolescent and young adult discovery in hearing them, and both have a lay person unexpectedly transforming something traditional, official, and structured –

Thanksgiving dinner and dinner at the captain’s table –

into a moment of Gospel reconciliation, because in both a lay voice speaks decisively from the inherent authority of conscience. Neither my grandmother nor Ted prefaced or justified their decisive words “by what authority” they spoke.

-- neither story does more than convene a reluctant, conflicted gathering. Strong words that brought divided minds to a single table (reconciling in a literal, physical way) didn’t make a consensus. The grace I felt in each story was simply in a voice gathering and holding conflicted people into one conversation at one table.

Part 2/3 watch for Part 3

Part 1

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

Stories #1: Who gets to say who we sit with?

by Donald Schell

Part 1 of 3

Through the run-up to the1960 election our evangelical church pastor warned us repeatedly that if America elected a Roman Catholic president he would be taking orders from the Vatican. Catholics, he said, had to obey the Pope, so they weren’t like us Christians who acknowledged no authority but the Bible. He explained all this repeatedly to adult groups, to our youth group, and to the whole congregation gathered for Wednesday evening potluck (after we’d sung The Doxology but before he said grace over the meal). Whenever he’d say this, he’d also point out that he wasn’t saying it from the pulpit, which, he said, would have been bringing religion into politics the way Martin Luther King did; and no, we didn’t do that.

The pastor’s warnings about a Catholic president were the first and only time I remember a pastor in that church making any kind of political statement. Here’s how we didn’t talk politics in church: everyone voted Republican with the exception of my occasionally outspoken Boys’ Sunday School teacher. People’s intended vote was expressed in their Nixon lapel buttons. Our Sunday School teacher’s intention to vote for Kennedy came out when we asked him why he wasn’t wearing a Nixon button.
Before the election we hadn’t prayed in church for President Eisenhower and after Kennedy’s election nothing changed. Protestant or Catholic, we didn’t pray for the President. But after Kennedy was elected, our pastor’s new worried look reminded us of his warning – we knew he was waiting for Kennedy to announce he was appointing an American Ambassador to the Vatican. That, our pastor had explained, would be the first thing the Pope would require of a Catholic president.

Meanwhile the pastor’s words had heightened my questions about who Christians listen to and talk to and share table with. His questions about Kennedy started me thinking about who we’ll sit with, eat with, and listen and talk to, questions that define who we are.

I was elated at the inaugural to hear Robert Frost, a poet I read and admired, recite “The Gift Outright.” And when Pablo Casals accepted Kennedy’s insistent invitation to play at the White House, I went out and purchased his recording of Bach’s Cello Suites and listened to them again and again.

Meanwhile the pastor’s concern about Martin Luther King’s mixing faith and politics got me watching this new and unusual pastor for hints of a bigger vision of Christian faith. I began seeing Jesus the reconciler in Gandhi and King and I began praying for God’s justice to roll down like waters. Soon I was reading Thomas Merton on war and peace and thinking about “deterrence,” “mutually assured destruction,” and the threat of thermonuclear war.

Back at church Sunday morning sermons were expository tours of the Epistles of St. Paul and Sunday evening sermons continued to expound the end of the world from the Book of Revelation. Sunday evenings we heard how the re-establishment of a nation of Israel was a sure sign that Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ would happen in our lifetimes, and the subtler question of whether Gog and Magog was the Soviet Union or Europe’s NATO alliance. In social studies class at school we talked about the U-2 spy plane that had photographed new Soviet missile installations in Cuba just ninety miles from U.S. soil. I couldn’t sit through the Sunday evening expositions of Revelation any more. Yes, I thought, the end of the world could be near, but it won’t begin with a land battle in Palestine. My fellow peacenik friends and government voices confident of deterrence by mutually assured destruction thought missiles in Cuba moved the nuclear clock much closer to high noon.

Wednesday, October 24, 1962, the principal’s voice over the public address system interrupted our social studies class and every class in school. Soviet ships were steaming toward the U.S. Naval blockade of Cuba. We were to remain in our seats and listen to live radio broadcast of unfolding events. Our social studies teacher said that if the U.S. Navy was compelled to use force to stop the Soviet ships, the principal would be deciding whether to send us home immediately or to do a duck and cover drill to prepare the school for the air-raid sirens. This time the sirens would be real.
So we sat and listened to the full speed advance of Soviet ships. I watched the slow minute by minute click of the classroom clock over our teacher’s head. We all believed we were hearing the beginning of World War III. Soviet ships steaming on. No change in course. And then for a moment the radio was quiet and cautiously, incredulously the reporter said it looked like the Soviet ships could be slowing. No, they were definitely slowing. Another lull, a real silence, and he said, “The Soviet ships have stopped.”
We sat in stunned silence until our single roar of cheers and laughter and clapping joined every other classroom in the school. The world had not ended. I let go of my shallow breathing with long sighs, and in the next moments thought of my learner’s permit and drivers’ ed classes I was about to begin. Perhaps we had a future ahead. Maybe I would get a driver’s license, graduate from high school, and go to the ‘college of my choice.’

That spring on my 16th birthday I did pass my driver’s test. And then senior year! I was driving stick shift, I’d quit the swimming team, dropped my boring AP English class for drama and become stage manager for the school play. I was working on my college applications and re-reading Dr. Zhivago. Life seemed full of promise.

On Friday, November 22, 1963, as we were in the open outdoor corridors passing between classes, the principal’s voice over the P.A. announced that the President had been shot. He was in surgery. I’d never been outside to hear the principal’s voice and didn’t know the P.A. system had speakers in the corridors. When the next announcement came we were in class. The President was dead and we were being sent home.

It was a sunny November day in California. The afternoon unfolded in slow motion. Trying to write it now, I realize that I’ve combined memories of the light and shadow from that afternoon with wholly different afternoon watching the light and shadows of a solar eclipse.
I have no memories of the next day, Saturday. But I do remember going to church that Sunday, hoping we’d hear a prayer for the nation, for the Kennedy family, for our new President, for peace. Nothing. A sermon on Ephesians and long pastoral prayer that avoided what I knew was on everyone’s heart and mind. Nothing.

The next week in school was mercifully short but also confusing. President Johnson declared Monday a national day of mourning, a school holiday for Kennedy’s funeral. Tuesday and Wednesday were ordinary school days. But normal life? We had two days of aimless wondering how we’d carry on and then it was Thanksgiving. And how would Thanksgiving work? What were we supposed to be thankful for? With a devastating loss and not knowing how the world holds together, how do you give thanks?
Mother was cooking all morning. Another crisp beautiful California autumn day. My grandmother was coming, mother’s mother, and Great Uncle Purdy and his wife. My grandfather, Purdy’s brother, had died before I was born. Purdy, I was assured, was NOT like his brother. My dad, the physician, wasn’t on call. I liked that. I knew Dad would say the table prayer, and I was pretty sure he’d find a way, somehow to pray for the nation. There’d be nine of us at table – the three elders, my parents, my younger sisters and brother, and me. Mother had me setting the table with the good silver and she asked us to dress for Thanksgiving dinner – no tie but a nice white shirt.

We stood around the table as mother brought the turkey in and put it in front of dad. It waited there for his surgery-trained precision carving, because he asked us pause for a moment before grace. Purdy couldn’t kept still - “That son of a you-know-what got what was coming to him.” The muscles in my neck and shoulders pinch tight as I remember hearing him. I can see his old man’s hard certainty on his face of just to my left. Across the table stood my grandmother, no lover of Democrats. I turned to see her face because a half breath after Purdy, she said, “Purdy, that’s the last we’ll hear of that kind of talk. A woman’s been made a widow and there’s young children with no father and our country just lost its President.” When she needed it my grandmother’s height and voice made her a commanding presence. She held Purdy’s gaze in the silence after her words until dad said, “Let’s pray,” and he offered the prayer I’d wished I’d heard on Sunday.

And then we, the rest of us, sat while he stood carving the turkey and asked who wanted dark meat. Dad’s prayer had been all the words the assassination would get before in our stumbling way we tried to have Thanksgiving dinner. Purdy sat at table with us and talked about the ordinary dull things I’d expect him to talk about.

Part 1/3 - watch for Part 2

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

Freedom in tradition

by Tricia Gates Brown

Garlicky minestrone reaches down the hall and out the front door of the church, drawing me in on a wave of scent mingling with undertones of home-baked bread. I find myself thinking, church people know how to do food. If nothing else, you can count on the food. Then I immediately recant the sentiment, remembering nothing spoils the appetite like a bad church experience. Actually, encouragement of theological questioning and curiosity are what draw me to St. Catherine Episcopal. Thanks be to God.

Over ten years ago I completed a PhD in biblical studies because I was intensely curious about Judeo-Christian scriptures and wanted to teach bible. Then I proceeded to teach at an Evangelical-Quaker university with a strong fundamentalist student demographic, and let me testify, the experience cured my career ambitions with all the potency of chemo. I found that academically instructing young fundamentalists on the subject of biblical studies was like strolling through a minefield on the fringes of Afghanistan. The teaching experience had such a disillusioning effect, I didn’t even wander over to liberal colleges or write persuasive articles about uninformed scripture reading. I up and quit. Before I could teach biblical studies to anyone, I needed to figure out what was so fraught about the bible.

Though it’s taken a while, I have, over the last few years, developed one idea of why fundamentalist Christians need to defend the bible, and specifically, their own denominational interpretations of the bible, so zealously. Essentially, their institutions demand it.

Human development and the coherence of institutions necessitate structure and guidelines. But once humans reach a certain level, they are able to leave behind the structures and rules that helped them grow up. In fact, people at higher levels of faith development always let go of the need for defining structures. Yet scholars who study stages of faith and spiritual development, from James Fowler to Bill Plotkin, tell us that while this is true for individuals, institutions perpetually operate at an adolescent level of spiritual development. They cannot move onto the deeper concerns, or struggle through the formative losses, that steer us beyond the superficial boundaries imposed by others. Institutions, including faith communities, need sets of established guidelines and definitions to bind them together and power them forward. But unlike young people who learn the rules so they can effectively transcend them, adapt them, or outright break them as mature adults, institutions need guidelines, period. So dominant religious traditions throughout history directed their adherents with established rituals, creeds, and codified rules of conduct. This worked, even if the institutions thereby created were often immature and petty.

Over the last hundred-plus years, many modern Christians have eschewed such traditions in favor of free-form communities and “non-denominational” churches. Culturally, we have moved away from tradition and toward individual consciousness that is wary of institutionalism. As a result, many modern Christians demoted creed, ritual, and rules as structures for communal life, leaving a vacuum that had to be filled. In this vacuum, arose the Bible. The Bible-with-a-capital-B Bible, along with the rapid ascent of American fundamentalism. The Bible became the supreme authority for a large segment of American Christian communities. The bible is, for these churches, a bulwark against the formlessness that would threaten the institutions themselves.

But as it turns out, the Bible doesn’t simply substitute for the rule of tradition. In fundamentalist churches the bible is actually viewed as the word of God, not as a human-formed tradition that can, to some degree, be taken with a grain of salt and/or reformed. For many nondenominational fundamentalist churches and Christians, the bible not only replaced tradition, it eviscerated it. Who wants tradition when you can have God on the page, God you can hold in your very own hands? For non-historic, non-ritualized and uncodified faith institutions, the bible became the kind of authority every institution, like every adolescent, needs to define reality, but those who question or disagree with this authority are viewed as usurping the authority of God. The irony is that the bible is interpreted individualistically by people culturally predisposed to interpret so, yet it is held up as universal, divine, authority.

This elevation of the status of the bible has led to a fundamentalist American Christian demographic that increasing justifies violence and bigotry by misusing scripture. Past generations certainly saw violence and bigotry sanctioned by tradition. But different today is the tendency of fundamentalist Christians to cut off all discussion of the issues by appealing to literalistic biblical justifications of violence and bigotry. According to this hermeneutic, these things are justified because, simply put, God says so.

I am a Generation-Xer who has a strong aversion to institution for institution’s sake. In my early twenties I gravitated toward Quakers because the denomination seemed least institutionalized among Christian denominations. Tradition tends to rub against my grain. Yet when I tried to jettison church participation, I couldn’t stay away.

So I have made my peace with institutions, at least in theory. This is in part due to acceptance of how institutions, though often disappointing and adolescent and deserving of scrutiny, play a necessary role in communal life. I have also learned to value the traditions that hold many faith institutions together because, in healthy circumstances, the coherence around human-formed tradition and ritual allows intellectual and moral integrity to flourish. In a time of increasing income disparity, environmental crisis, and militarization, it is more important than ever for churches to allow discussion and dissent around issues of justice and violence and how Christianity can speak to them. This includes calling into relentless question portions of tradition and scripture that have been used to justify domination, exclusion and violence. Christians need stabilizing structures that hold communities together while allowing free and open-minded debate.

I now worship with Spanish-speaking Episcopalians. Among this group of liturgy-enacting, ritual adhering, scripture-reading Christians, I am free, with others, to both question and relish the intricacies of scripture. We are free to roll our eyes at the tradition at times, or to discuss it critically as the human construct that it is. In a faith community ordered around tradition, rather than around the supposedly inscrutable Bible, we are free to communally worship the Lord God with all of our heart, soul and mind. Thanks be to God.

Tricia Gates Brown is a writer and garden designer working on the north Oregon coast, author of Jesus Loves Women: A Memoir of Body and Spirit. More of her work can be found at: www. triciagatesbrown.com.

Storms of life

O most glorious and gracious Lord God, who dwellest in heaven, but beholdest all things below; Look down, we beseech thee, and hear us, calling out of the depth of misery, and out of the jaws of this death, which is now ready to swallow us up: Save, Lord, or else we perish. The living, the living shall praise thee. O send thy word of command to rebuke the raging winds and the roaring sea; that we, being delivered from this distress, may live to serve thee, and to glorify thy Name all the days of our life. Hear, Lord, and save us, for the infinite merits of our blessed Saviour, thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
--Prayer for those at sea, from the 1789 Book of Common Prayer (U.S.)

What is it about tropical storms (or, for those of us in landlocked places, tornadoes) that causes human nature to exhibit a secret wish for these forces of nature to clobber those we deem as "wicked?" Seems that it doesn't matter which side of the political fence or theological fence one is on for that image to rear its ugly head. Of course, many of us immediately think of Pat Robertson's frequent statements of tropical storms being a punishment for gays and HIV disease, but recently the Daily Kos turned it the other direction, asking tongue-in-cheek if Hurricane Isaac was punishment for the GOP convention being held in Tampa. We've certainly all had our personal moments with those kind of thoughts. I still remember the day one of my friends who was in the middle of a very contentious divorce. As a tropical storm began to bear down on the town where her estranged husband lived, she blurted out, "God, I know this is not nice, and I don't want you to kill him, but could you at least go after the guy in the white Ford Taurus and shake him up a bit?" I've been known to say after tornado damage was reported, "Have you ever noticed that God really dislikes churches and trailer courts?"

All kidding aside, there's something about storms that reflect both our powerlessness and the power of a force beyond our control. Storm imagery is a classic one in movies, particularly as it relates to the interplay between good and evil and our hopes that the storm will some how both cleanse us of evil and redeem us. Cape Fear would not be Cape Fear without the storm scene--and, of course, you can't have The Perfect Storm without a storm. When the makers of the movie The Bad Seed realized that the end of the original version of that work would not be palatable to a moviegoing public and the censors, they changed the ending so that wicked little Rhoda got zapped by lightning. What better way to show that good prevailed and evil was destroyed?

In a way, storms at sea also seem incredibly Anglican. Our hymnal is full of storms, waves and high seas danger, with the gold standard being "Eternal father, strong to save." (I remember in the early days of my becoming an Episcopalian, thinking, "What's with all the hymns about storms and the sea? I'm trying to find peace with God, not a bunch of storms!") It's a reminder that our denominational roots are in a country where "Britannia rules the waves" was an important part of its culture. It was important in the early days of Anglicanism that this brand of faith be borne to distant lands in the hearts of seafarers and explorers. Storms were something every sailor could understand in terms of a God with awesome power over creation.

Perhaps, though, the purpose of storms in our theology is not about punishing the wicked at all, (as tantalizing as it is,) in terms of sweeping evil from our landscape and annihilating all those nasty "others" we rather avoid. Perhaps it's more about the universal nature of the human experience and grace. For starters, there's that looming nature of storms. We see them on the horizon and know they are coming, and there's simply not much we can do about it. All of us have times in life where we know a storm is coming, but we don't know how severe it is, or what its toll will be. We don't know if we will have to take shelter or not. We don't know what will survive and what will perish.

Storms bring tempests of wind, deluges, and blizzards--and a special kind of grace despite the wreckage. Just as it rains on the just and the unjust, the wind blows on the just and the unjust, too. Storms bring both darkness and light simultaneously--flashes of brilliant light against a background of darkness. When they are over, the light shines on everyone equally--but it also exposes the damage that has been done in a very stark light. Yet, almost anyone who has lived through hurricane or tornado damage can tell stories of the things that were miraculously left standing. I had a friend whose house was totaled in the Kirksville tornado of 2009--but, amazingly, his wine collection was spared. (God may not be fond of churches or trailer courts, but wine appears to be another thing entirely.) Even in great loss, there are times when what was spared become sources of mystery and wonder. Sometimes we discover the power of storms to strip us bare reveals a piece of our essential selves we never knew existed.

What has God revealed to you in life's storms?

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

Don't trust anyone over/under 30

By Linda Ryan

There was a saying going around when I was in my late teens and early twenties, "Don't trust anyone over 30." Maybe that was the reason I was so miserable on my 30th birthday, or perhaps it was just a combination of events that, like conjunctions of planets and stars in the night sky, seemed either portents or markers of the way my life was going at the time. At any rate, on my 30th birthday, I felt like I was on the downhill side of life, especially when I got to the next saying, "Over 40 - over the hill." Sigh. It seemed at the time to go from bad to worse, age-wise.

The older I get these days, the more I look for things that address where my life is at the moment. I'm more likely to bookmark an AARP site than Jillian Michael's hardbody kind of athleticism, a medical site that has info on diabetes, arthritis, memory loss and catastrophic disease than pre-natal care, athletic injuries (not that I ever had any of those!) or exercises that feature turning one's body into a pretzel in the search for harmony and health. Sure, I search for harmony and health, but increasingly I see the focus moving toward younger folks, a different demographic, the "future" of our country, our world, or our church. Don't get me wrong, I'm not anti- youth. Far from it. I was supremely touched by an essay on Episcopal Café the other day by Jacob Nez called "Why ARE Youth In Church?" It spoke of their search for welcoming places in churches, churches that not only accepted them as youth but as Native American youth and full members of the Body of Christ who honored both their Christian faith and the respect of God's creation through practices from their traditional faith. They really made me think about how valuable such young people are, and how much we need them in our churches, our neighborhoods, and our lives.

On the other hand, I found an article on another site entitled "Aging Well: Practical theological reasons to value older people" by Missy Buchanan that also made me stop and think about people and the church, this time on the other end of the age spectrum. The article referenced work by Dr. Stephen Sapp who, among other qualifications, was a former chair of the governing council for the Forum on Religion, Spirituality and Aging. One point was a reminder that all of us are getting older, and that getting older does not mean valueless, even though the emphasis of culture and, at times, even the church tend to somewhat marginalize the elders in favor of attracting and attempting to retain families with children who presumably will grow up to be good members of the church themselves. In the time when seniors are encouraged to continue being active, keep fit, find new hobbies and interests and ways to interact with people, it is sort of the message that "You've had your turn, now please just sit down and leave things up to the young people." The article states that in less than 30 years "...there will be more 85-year-olds than five-year-olds," and Dr Sapp wonders how churches that don't really offer a lot for seniors and seem to have little interest in them will attract those very people into their congregations. It's a good question.

In many cultures and societies, elders are respected as keepers and sharers of wisdom acquired through living their lives. To be fair, there are homes and churches of all cultures and ethnicities where senior members are not shuttled off willy-nilly into "retirement communities" or hospitals, and who live at home, often with assistant from all the members of the family, participating in and sharing their wisdom through their presence. Senior members have that wisdom to share, stories to tell and lessons to teach. It's not about having them make all the decisions or have everything go their way; it's about allowing them the dignity and the respect to listen to their opinions and viewpoints, consider them as offerings of wisdom and experience, and allowing them to participate in any way they can. Prayer groups are wonderful experiences, but if it could be coupled with some sort of activity that produces something tangible, like knitting or crocheting a prayer shawl, then it is a contribution that a senior can make, even if they no longer have use of their legs. Listening to the children and youth, even young adults can be a pastoral activity that can be a lifeline to both. Quite often it is those in the second half of life who have the time, the patience and the experience to really listen and hear what is being said. Much of the time a person doesn't want a solution, just a shoulder and a sympathetic ear. Churches can probably come up with more activities that can utilize and maximize the benefit to not just the seniors but to the whole congregation as well.

Rather than shuffling seniors off to the side once their health starts to fail, their earning power is greatly reduced and they require more assistance rather than being able to render assistance, perhaps the church should realize that the Body of Christ consists of all ages and conditions: young, old, healthy, infirm, wondering, experienced, foolish, wise and the whole spectrum. When someone, anyone, youth or senior, looks beyond themselves and looks for guidance and spiritual growth, the church should be there with open arms and open minds to welcome them and bring them in. The ideal church should not be a museum for saints but rather a hospital for sinners, and all of us are sinners.

I really respect those Native youth who wrote so eloquently about their search and their desire to belong to the Body of Christ in a full, fruitful and accepted way. I'm glad there are places where they are not just welcome but embraced because they are so deserving of both. I also feel for the seniors who have been displaced in the life of their church simply because they are not seen as growth-potential. I dream of a church, a congregation, a place where value is not seen as the monetary or even the energy level a person can bring but rather the gifts they have inside them. Wisdom is not limited to the old, and searching is not limited to the young. The church that claims to follow Christ is one which honors and nourishes both in harmony and balance.

That, I believe, is a part of the kingdom work Jesus set for us to do - for all sorts and conditions of humanity.

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

Centipedes and souls

by Molly Wolf

I just called the resident offspring upstairs to deal with a very large centipede in the bathtub. I’m actually okay with centipedes, although my first reaction was the standard squeamishness — all those feathery legs. Then I saw one at rest on the downstairs bathroom wall, simply sitting there with its antennae quivering but otherwise motionless, and I studied it for a while. They have quite lovely striped bodies, once you get past the gazillion wee limbs. Actually, I think much of the repulsion has to do with the way they scuttle, that and the Quammen Six and Two Rule (David Quammen: anything with more than six legs and two eyes is repulsive.)

Nonetheless, the resident offspring loathes and detests centipedes and wants to seek and destroy them, so whenever I sight one, I call him, and he does dastardly things to the insect with a piece of toilet paper and drops the remains in the loo. And I get a tiny case of the spiritual squeams.

It has been part of the human condition for some time now to believe that only Homo sapiens (and often only select Homo saps) have souls. It’s not so long ago that the existence of women’s souls was a matter for debate. I can remember, with discomfort, a sort of underlying quiet dismissiveness about the emotional/ psychological/ spiritual reality of other races and peoples — that they were perhaps not really on the right side of a dividing rope between the fully ensouled (white human beings, of course) and the proto-souled or even de-souled (other primates). It did not, for example, register with us that enslaved people grieved hard when family members were sold away from each other. In some ways, that understanding has still not entirely sunk in.

I have no idea whether centipedes have souls; I have too little data, and I doubt if the question has ever arisen. But I’m pretty sure that we drew that spiritually narcissistic boundary without reference to the possibility that the soul does not necessarily reside in the human forebrain. And yet we have everyday evidence that other critters have intelligence, feeling, and meta-awareness. Our furpersons comfort us in distress. Elephants grieve their dead; whales sing songs to each other; crows play jokes; chimp mothers carry their dead babies. There may be a whole spiritual world undersea of which we have no direct knowledge, ‘cos we don’t swim that well. The airborne critters may sing songs we cannot properly interpret, and who knows what beats at the heart of a beehive?

Considering the possible soul of a centipede would probably horrify some of my co-religionists, who would see it as being a mockery of all teaching and understanding of Christianity. And it might horrify a good many other spiritual mindsets (the Jains excepted). But I doubt if it would horrify most of the people in my resident offspring’s post-modern age group. Why shouldn’t centipedes have souls? Who made that rule in the first place, and why?

They have a point. Physical anthropology suggests that the boundary between Homo saps and other hominids cannot really be determined; Lucy the ancient australopithecine had a chimp-like posterior skull, but her teeth and legs were more human than not. What of neanderthals or Homo habilis? We don’t have cellular or mitochondrial DNA from Lucy, but the fact is that that our genes have far more in common with (say) an Angora goat’s than we’d care to think about. We are not, in biological terms, so very distinct — except in our unusual adaptability and aggressive spread. On an ecological level, we are akin to kudzu.

Perhaps one of the appeals of the Genesis creation account is that it’s so much tidier than the fossil record. Humans are simply put out there complete, fully human, language, moral capacity, and reasoning power all ready to rip, but free of sin, death, and perverted desires (perhaps including sex). And yet Lucy certainly died — we have her bones to prove it. I don’t know if we could talk of her in terms of sin at all. I think it’s likely that she had a specific Lucy-ness, simply because even domestic shorthairs have quite distinct and lively personalities. Does a distinct personality constitute a soul or not? Who’s writing the definition, and by what authority?

In short, it’s not just that the answers are changing: so are the questions. And if we’re ready to snap out prepared answers without seriously wrestling with the questions, we will lose any credibility we might have. If Genesis is literally true, as it must be for the doctrine of original sin to hold water, then no Lucy. But those dry bones are real bones; they belonged to a real, living, chimpish woman or womanly chimp-cousin who lived and died at least two million years ago, long, long before _Homo saps_ came up with the questions to which Genesis was the right understanding for so long.

We’ve been upended; we have been tumbled arse over teakettle, and part of us wants to put everything back where it was before this new tohubohu and part of us wants to dance on what only looks like a formless void, looking to discern the Creator’s patterns. The one truth that is surfacing with increasing certainty and strength as post-modernism takes off is that we’re all emergent. That is, we’re coming out of something; we can’t go back, and we don’t know what will happen next, but it may be a whole lot of fun. Perhaps it’s not so much that we’ve fallen from grace as that we have yet to discover what grace really is.

We know now that we’re more interconnected than we ever dreamed possible. We can listen to whales and begin to grasp how much it frightened and grieved them to be hunted. We can look back at the horror and trauma that our European diseases inflicted throughout this continent and understand a little better what that meant for Aboriginal peoples. When an earthquake happens in China or Turkey, it’s no longer remote; we can see the destruction and empathize with the survivors’ fear and grief. Cell phones record the abuses visited on civilians in Syria. We no longer see torture as permissible because we recognize the humanity of the tortured — or if we don’t, we begin to know bad that looks. In that sense, our understanding of sin is also emergent.

I am sculpting these words, descended from ancestral linguistic fusions and compromises, in electrons on a screen that did not exist — could not have existed — a mere half-century ago, when the Leakeys began snuffling around the Great Rift Valley, finding the first proto-human fragments. Did those individuals whose bits and pieces emerged from the strata have souls? Maybe the question is totally irrelevant. But then, maybe it matters greatly that I can, at least, ask it.

What does matter is that God created and is instinct in every bit of life as we know it, don’t know it, refuse to see it, reject it, embrace it. God’s love reaches past and over us to be the water in which the dolphins swim. God sees the little centipede get squished in a piece of toilet paper and sent swirling down the drain. God calls us all, whether or not we know it, towards God.

Perhaps to be ensouled as human, what we have that defines us as separate and special is the will to resist God’s call to love. And maybe that’s what I’d say if someone asked that question.

Molly Wolf plays hackysack with theology in Gananoque, Ontario, among the Thousand Islands. She lives with her resident offspring Ross and with Magnificat (aka Maggie), a sizable calico with tortitude, whose personality fits her name. She (Molly, not the cat) is the author of four collections of applied meditation and Scrambling towards Zion: A weekly essay on finding Godstuff in real life.
- this essay is reposted by permission ~ed.

Fathers, fathers and Father

by Linda Ryan

Over the course of my life, I've had the benefit of a lot of fathers. I had the father who gave me life, the father who gave me shelter and family, the surrogate fathers who fostered and nurtured me in various ways, and the Father who was both boss, friend and mentor. Now if that isn't a bounty of fathers, I don't know what is.

The father who gave me life also had one of the hardest decisions in the world to make concerning me. Being a single father and in the military, should he keep me with him and raise me as best he was able, or should he send me to people he knew would care for me better than he could and yet still allow him to be part of my life. He chose what was best for me under the circumstances, and I'm grateful for that. He was part of my life and also the life of my son until the day of his death in 1998. I thank him for being a gentle presence and for the sacrifice he made for me.

The father who gave me shelter and family also had to raise me as a single parent for years. It was hard for him; he was older than most fathers and to have a rebellious teenaged daughter surely was a trial for him. Still, he did his best, even though he had to sacrifice to feed, clothe and educate me, and I was hedonistic enough to feel it was probably my due. Still, he was "Daddy", and remained loving and patient with me until his death nearly 25 years ago. I thank him for watching over me, teaching me, and supporting me in decisions he might not have agreed with but which he still allowed me to make on my own.

I had surrogate fathers -- folks like Frank, Tom and the man I called "Papa." For a time and at various times, each of them welcomed me into their families, treated me as another child of theirs, fed me, entertained me and taught me about life in families that were what seemed more "normal" than mine was much of the time. I should include my brother as well, my "big" brother, who teased me, roughhoused with me and became a rock for me when various things in my life fell apart. I thank them all for loving me and caring for me in their various ways.

And then there was the Father -- although I never called him that. I only worked for him for a year, but it was the richest year I ever spent as an employee. He consistently drove me to a dictionary at least once a week, and I already had a fairly decent vocabulary. He preached in such a way and with such a turn of phrase that not only did I remember the sermon when I hit the front door on the way out, but I often had things to think about throughout the whole of the next week. He was the kind of priest and person who could make me think without making me think I was stupid because I had to look up a word he'd used or had to ask what something meant. That was a rare and wonderful gift, but so was his friendship, along with that of his wife and his much-adored cat, Emerson. I was honored when he trusted me to try new things and to stretch my wings on projects outside my job description. I thank him for so many things, most of all for encouraging me to try unfamiliar things, for giving me validation and approval, and for being a good friend -- all of which he still is and does.

All of my fathers had one thing in common and that was whether or not they were church-going folk or not, their walk and their talk were the same. There was no artifice, no "say one thing and do something else" with any of them. What you saw was what you got, and on the whole, I got the benefit of all of them. And even though there is only one candle still lit among all those which have gone out over the years, I remember and I am thankful for each life that the candles represent. The memory of their bright flames sustains me and comforts me.

Every girl should be as lucky as I have been with my fathers. Really and truly.

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

Parable of the equine mis-adventure

O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and light riseth up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what thou wouldest have us to do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices, and that in thy light we may see light, and in thy straight path may not stumble; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. ~Prayer for Guidance, Book of Common Prayer, p. 832

Mule.jpgMules are nosy by nature, but I believe I have the nosiest mule in four states.

Since the day my mule Mel was born, there isn't a thing in creation that he doesn't think he shouldn't pick up and put in his mouth, nor any door or window-like shape that he shouldn't insert his head. He was born curious, and on any given day he can be on that spectrum from "a little curious" to "downright nosy." He loves items in boxes. I've seen him remove items from cardboard boxes in the pasture, and take all the files out of my farrier's tool box. He stole a screwdriver out of my own toolbox once and engaged me in a game of keep-away that lasted 45 minutes, and ended with him dropping it in the grass, kicking up his heels, and running off, flinging his head in victory.

So I was not surprised when I awoke one morning to the concerned whinnying of his horse compatriot Windy. For all of Mel's curiousity and bravado, Windy is the equine equivalent of the prissy old lady clutching her pearls, about to succumb to an attack of the vapors. It was clear why she was upset. Mel had somehow ripped the plastic trough from his upright aluminum free-standing feed bunker and was standing in the feedlot with the frame of it on his back and his back legs entangled in the frame. For some reason unbeknownst to me, he had stuck his head through the opening made by the missing trough, then lifted up and was wearing it more or less like a harness...but with his legs straddling one of the legs of the frame. It had him entangled in such a way that he could only move his back legs a few inches at a time.

He was in over his head--literally--and he knew it. So much so, that he knew all he could do is stand still and wait silently.

Mules are clever. Unlike horses, when they find themselves entangled, they won't thrash and make it worse. They go into standstill mode, or sit down mode. The problem is, they often also go silent. Something in the donkey half of their DNA says "Don't make noise, or you will attract predators." Truthfully, he could have been that way all day--I could have left for work and never seen him there. Horses, however, for all their skittishness, have no problem making noise when concerned--hence his equine girlfriend's frantic pleas.

I approached calmly and cautiously, speaking in steadying tones of voice to both Mel and Windy. I considered the possibility that Windy might hinder my approaching Mel. Even though we are on very good terms, she might be protective of her friend. Mel simply nuzzled my hair and continued to stand still as I gently slid the metal frame over his rump and he calmly stepped out, acting like he knew how to extricate himself all along. Once free, he followed me back to the gate like a lost puppy. ("Mama! You SAVED ME! I love you!") When Windy excitedly came up to him, he whirled and bit her on the rump.

Well, that's gratitude for you.

As I finished my coffee and got ready for work, I wondered how many times God discovers us hopelessly entangled in the things we stuck our own noses in and found ourselves over our head. Like Mel, how often do we go in standstill or sit down mode, never uttering a peep, unable to bring ourselves to ask for help? I'm sure that like Windy's nickers, grunts, and whinnies, it's the prayers of others that catch God's attention when we are too fearful, too prideful, or too whipped to pray. We may well be thinking, "Don't be praying for me--it's not THAT bad--others need it worse," but we have no control over the prayers of others.

For that matter, when we find ourselves finally extricated from our predicaments, it's a natural reaction for us to praise God and/or Jesus from the rooftops. We tag along just as closely as Mel tagged behind me. "Thank you Jesus! I'll follow you anywhere!"--but sadly, we also sometimes turn around and bite the people who had been loyal to us in the name of God, rather than embrace them, because we didn't like the way they did it. We didn't like being powerless. We nipped at them for being "the other" and that they couldn't possibly understand our situation. We become embarrassed by their show of love and push them away.

The Parable of the Equine Misadventure in the Feed Lot, perhaps, is just another reminder that we all need each other in this quirky family of humankind, despite our differences. Where do we feel called to reach out to "the other" today?

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

Being There: At the Diamond Jubilee

by Deirdre Good

The remarkable thing about the recent Diamond Jubilee is the number of people that joined in the celebrations. After all, Britain is secular and racially diverse—unlike the monarchy. Jubilee memorabilia described that institution as “steadfast and true” -- words that couldn't be applied to the banking sector, or the media, or the NHS for that matter. Maybe the Jubilee celebrations reflected enthusiastic support of someone, some institution, that can be trusted to be steadfast and true. Maybe Brits are simply in the mood to celebrate and enjoy national dressing-up and processions. I saw republican sympathisers in demonstrations with placards but they were drowned out by the millions who joined street parties, went to London for the Jubilee weekend of June 2-5, as we did, or celebrated in their home communities. Celebrate they did: in Kent and the Brecon Beacons of Wales where my mother and I were before the Jubilee weekend, where bunting was already up across streets and in pubs (of course). While the big Jubilee Lunch was on Sunday June 3rd, local notices announced celebrations and StreetParty estimates that 2 million people had a street party of some sort over the weekend. As of May 26th, 9,500 road closure applications had been received, according to the Local Government Association. It was a good time to leave the car at home.

Even the weather didn't stop the celebrations: someone tweeted that anyone can enjoy a carnival in the sun but only the British can enjoy a carnival in the rain.

Sunday was also the day of the 1,000 boat flotilla down the Thames to Tower Bridge. The day before, I went with my mother, my niece and a friend to Hammersmith Bridge in hopes of seeing a few boats in waiting. We had our own picnic near the river bank and were thrilled to see boats go by, including the Jolly Brit, one of six open launches used on the Royal Yacht Britannia. It was used as a jolly boat (a boat that takes people from ship to shore) for the Royal family’s trip ashore for picnics or walks while cruising round the Highlands and Islands. Perhaps the name comes from the old Dutch word jolle, meaning a small boat. Quite a few people were doing the same thing as we were, and in good spirits. A jogger stopped by and offered to take a photo of us.

Sunday's Diamond Jubilee Pageant on the river Thames was extraordinary. An island people, Brits have always had boats and flotillas: whether to warn of the Spanish invasion during the reign of Elizabeth 1, or to rescue trapped armies in WWII. But on Sunday, a million people stood on the river banks between Chiswick and Putney bridges all the way to Tower Bridge to watch the boat procession past the Queen and members of the royal family on their barge. Here's a time lapse video which conveys the scope of it. As the video progresses you can see the weather worsening. The procession included historic boats (some used in the evacuation of British forces at Dunkirk, and others that saw action in the Battle of Britain), passenger boats, leisure boats and working boats. There were kayaks and schooners, tugs and barges. There were boats and barges with musicians playing traditional music and world premieres. Here's a list of flotilla participants. We saw some of them going under Hammersmith Bridge on Sunday afternoon before we retreated from a cold and increasingly wet viewpoint to join millions watching the spectacle on TV.Thames.jpg

The BBC's flotilla coverage, which the Daily Telegraph characterised as “inane and insulting” and which covered everything but the flotilla, was unfortunate for those who couldn't be there. But if you were standing in the rain on the banks of the Thames, you might well see printed lists of boats many brought to share with their neighbors to identify what went by. At least before the rain came down and lists became soggy. Where we stood, people called out which boat passed under the bridge and who was on it. I could identify several from the lists including The Dove from the Worshipful Company of Tallow Chandlers in the category of the Thames Watermen Cutters. At least the images of the flotilla on TV were better than the BBC commentary.

2,012 or more beacons were lit across the land on Monday June 4th from Hadrian's wall and Britain's highest mountain peaks to churches and buildings of all faiths and denominations. Beacons were also lit as far away as Australia and Tristan Da Cunha. But these weren't distant images from far away places: where we stayed in Wales, several communities were planning an evening gathering on the highest nearby hill in order to see lit beacons on surrounding peaks.

DiamondJubilee.jpgOn Tuesday, we went to stand with hundreds of people at Ludgate Hill near the west entrance of St Paul's to see the royal family arrive by car for the service of thanksgiving that drew the Jubilee celebrations to a close. Neither my niece nor I had seen the Queen in person and we were keen to do so. We arrived by Tube along with people whose attire indicated that they were going to the service. None of the chosen looked at each other or the rest of us as they joined the queue to enter St Paul's. Moving away from them, I found two policewomen. “Where can we see the royals arriving?” I asked. “Do you want to see the service or watch the royal family?” they asked. I smiled and pointed to my niece. “She wants to see the Queen,” I said.StPauls.jpg They told us they'd just come from the top of Ludgate Hill where there was no one. “You'll see it all from there,” they assured us. “Turn left through the arch and around the corner.”

We stood right behind the police barriers and gradually we got into conversation with others around us, particularly when well-known people went by. “Wasn't that the Archbishop?” I said to one neighbor after the first large black car went by. She agreed. Someone from a nearby café walked up and down the line offering us tiny snacks. Behind us, a group of women with plummy accents analyzed the events of the weekend, speaking in a way that encouraged us to contribute our own opinions. Thanks to cell phone updates from a friend watching TV, my neighbour on the other side provided a live order of appearance commentary about the cars we were about to see. When the Queen's car was imminent, my neighbour's young daughter said that she hoped the Queen would be accompanied by her corgis as she was lonely (Prince Phillip had been admitted to hospital after standing for hours in Sunday's rain watching the boat procession). “Did you know she has named one of her dogs Griffindor?” someone asked. “Better than Slytherin,” another commented. Gradually the cheers increased and when the Queen's car went by, we caught an image of her wave on my iPhone. Queen.jpg She was accompanied by one of her ladies in waiting. Afterwards, our gathering drifted apart. “Thanks for your help,” I said to my neighbour. “Not at all,” she replied, “enjoy yourself!” As we left the area where not so long ago Occupy London camped outside St Paul's, we could hear the words of the Archbishop's sermon broadcast for those outside the cathedral: “We live less than human lives if we think just of our own individual good.” They seemed a fitting paraenetic observation on the communities formed by encounters with strangers that made up our Jubilee weekend.

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

Who is doing the work of God?

by Murdoch Matthew

On the Episcopal Café recently there have been several mentions of the work of the people as basic to the church. And not just church – a posting on how young atheists are organizing to improve their communities had me thinking, They’re doing the work of God. My husband, Gary, has commented on the Baptism/Communion controversy by putting his emphasis on “building communities in which people would truly care for each other as God cares for them.”

And now Diana Butler Bass lectures from her new book, promoting the idea that Christian belief comes after membership in the community and taking part in its work. (In a previous book, Christianity for the Rest of Us, she talked about revitalizing the local parish as the basic unit of faith.) "It's our awakening. It is up to us to move with the Spirit instead of against it, to participate in making our world more humane, just and loving," she writes.

Ms Bass's work sounds like we're re-entering a world similar to that of the early church -- pluralistic, many faiths, many stories. Earthquakes aren't the only forces shaking beautiful old cathedral churches.

Gary and I attended an exhibition at the Onassis Center in New York City, The Transition to Christianity, 3d to 7th Centuries. It gives a much richer picture of the development of Christianity than the standard Early-Church/Church Fathers/Medieval/Modern storyline. The church grew up in a very rich stew of spiritual movements, with much cross-fertilization. The current faith seems too tradition bound, too set in its ways, to easily benefit from contemporary intellectual ferment.

In the first three centuries of its existence, Christianity was only one of many religions in Rome, a small but rapidly growing cult in an empire whose religious practices were as diverse as its populace. The Persian savior Mithras was the focus of a mystery cult whose initiates were primarily military men, and fertility cults, such as those of Isis and Magna Mater, had spread throughout the empire. Many other gods,
especially local and household deities, fulfilled a variety of supernatural roles, overseeing the welfare of the living, from marriage and childbirth to illness and death. These gods rest firmly outside the Greco-Roman pantheon that we associate with classical antiquity.

Into this cultural milieu arose Christianity, which incorporated and adapted a number of artistic forms and subjects. Portrait statues, sometimes reworked from antique sculptures, and the re-use of building materials served practical concerns, but they also demonstrate an openness to diverse styles.

Over the course of the 3rd and 4th centuries, the apostles of Christ acquired a status similar to that accorded to pagan philosophers as venerable teachers and spiritual leaders. The portrayal of the apostles in art adopted the characteristics that best suited their function as Christianity’s first teachers. Philosophers were usually depicted bearded, sometimes balding, wearing undecorated togas and holding scrolls. These attributes signified to the viewer that the subject was a contemplative man.

As late as the 6th century, groups of philosophers could be found decorating civic monuments. Portraits of prominent figures were not merely set up for commemoration, but they were sometimes actually venerated. Pliny (1st century AD) writes that disciples of the philosopher Epicurus carried his portraits in procession at collective celebrations and privately kept his image in their households. The emperor Alexander Severus (d. 235) is said to have honored portraits of gods, deified emperors, philosophers, and even Christ. Saint Augustine of Hippo tells us that his friend Marcellina, a Carpocratian
Gnostic, burned incense and kneeled in front of the images of Christ and the apostle Paul, along with those of Homer and Pythagoras.

Unitarians are trying to honor Jesus along with contemporary exemplars, without much popular success. Can it be done? Culture is changing. Will Church follow, or join Mithraism in the attic of history?

Recently, Amazon tried to sell me an anthology of non-theist essays, which actually looks interesting. The sample chapter they included, The Cultures of Christianities by David Eller Ph.D., makes a point crucial to our current discussions – we argue over “faith” and doctrines, but we actually belong to a culture:

Charles Kraft describes culture as “the label anthropologists give to the structured customs and underlying worldview assumptions [by] which people govern their lives.” . . .

Culture “provides a total design for living, dealing with every aspect of life and providing people with a way to regulate their lives. [Culture] is a legacy from the past, learned as if it were absolute and perfect. [It] makes sense to those within it. [It] is an adaptive system, a mechanism for coping. It provides patterns and strategies to enable people to adapt to the physical and social conditions around them.” . . . It grounds and explains “our perception of reality and responses to it.” Its basic assumptions “are learned from our elders, not reasoned out but assumed to be true without prior proof. We organize our lives and experiences according to our worldview and seldom question it unless our experience challenges some of its assumptions.

We’re working to adapt our culture to contemporary experience. The problem is that experience differs. Some are struggling to reconcile medieval worldviews with the scientific culture that has followed Galileo, Newton, and Darwin, but this is an intellectual exercise. Gays, lesbians, and feminists find that their experience challenges basic assumptions of the tradition. Indeed, their experience has been left out of the tradition, and treated not as aspects of the human experience, but as individual aberrations or flaws.

Eller makes the point that Christian missionaries quite consciously work to supplant native cultures with Christian variations, adapting as necessary, but wiping out what went before if they can. Western culture seems to be returning the favor, at the moment, supplanting Christian culture with an empirical approach. Ms. Bass seems to
advocate leaving behind the old theological structures and plunging in to the work of community that needs doing. She thinks good behavior and belief will follow. I’m more sanguine – I think that the work of community is worth doing, and I rather distrust “belief,” which often seems a self- or group-serving made-up story. Stick with the need and the evidence. Common ground with community-minded atheists is probably safe territory.

Murdoch Matthew wrote for The Anglican Digest and the Episcopal Book Club in the 1960s and edited many scholarly books for university presses in the 1970s and 1980s . He retired as a copy editor for Random House Children's Books and now lives in Jackson Heights, New York City.

Freeing butterflies

Into your hands O Father
I give my spirit to you
Into your hands O Father
I give my spirit to you
~English Translation of the Taizé song, "In manus tuas"

It has finally been warm enough in northeast Missouri to put the weekend laundry out on the line on a regular basis, and one of my favorite things to hang on the clothesline are my bed linens. There's just something wonderful about sleeping under a sheet that smells like a real breeze as opposed to a fabric softener that claims to smell like a breeze. So you can imagine my surprise when two Red Admiral butterflies suddenly flitted out of the sheets I had just brought into the house.

Feeling sorry for their plight, I tried to free them...and spent the next thirty minutes chasing them all over the house, cursing and yelling at them for their apparent stupidity. More than once I considered just smashing them with a fly swatter and putting them out of their misery...but I have a soft spot for butterflies. I'll be honest, I generally have no sentimentality when it comes to flying insects. But butterflies are different. Butterflies, to me, represent the wonderful intersection of vivid and delicate--their colors are often loud, almost neon, yet they battle heavy breezes with onion-skin-thin wings. Their flight seems erratic yet purposeful. They are so constantly at risk of destruction, yet they boldly perch on humans if they happen to be wearing the right color of clothing that mimics food. Red Admirals are especially one of my favorites, because of the striking color difference between their dorsal and ventral surfaces.

My first goal was to try to herd them into my bedroom with a broom and shut the door. (If you think herding cats is hard, try butterflies.) Once I got them in the bedroom, I opened the windows and took a pillowcase, shaking it at them in an attempt to shoo them out. "Surely they feel the outside air and will take the hint," I thought. But no dice. They kept flapping around my four-light fixture on my ceiling fan. The fan wasn't running, so to rest they'd hide on the top side of the blades. After catching their breath, they'd then flutter around the lights. All my best efforts at snagging them in mid-air were failing miserably.

All of a sudden I got a goofy idea. What if I stopped chasing after them and grabbing at them, and simply held up my cupped hands under the light fixture?

I stood there with my hands stretched aloft for a good minute or two, thinking what an idiot I must look like. The butterflies continued to bang themselves against the fixture, obsessively trying to get inside it, but always coming back out because the light was too hot. Then, without warning, one suddenly stopped--right in the middle of my cupped hands. I quickly scurried to the open window and gently tossed it out. It hastily few out of sight, to parts unknown.

"It CAN'T be THAT easy," I thought to myself. "That has to be a fluke."

I returned to the light fixture, repeated the process, and within another minute or two the other butterfly did the exact same thing. If I would have been smart enough to do that in the beginning, it would have taken far less time, and with far less drama.

As I looked out my open bedroom window and smelled the breeze, I thought about how those butterflies illustrated some patterns in our relationship with God. How many times do we find ourselves entangled in the fabric of the world? When we are released from those entanglements, how many times do we discover we are in unfamiliar territory? How many times is our response to that unfamiliar territory to fly around aimlessly? When we finally catch a glimpse of the light of God, how often do we proceed to bang our heads against the light fixture and get so close to the light it singes us? Most importantly, how many times have we discovered, heart pounding and breathless, as we fall wearily from over-exerting our stubborn, prideful selves, we land smack dab into God's outstretched, cupped hands, whisking us to safety?

Then I thought about it in reverse fashion and pondered those times we angrily chase after God, reaching, straining, and pawing at the tiniest recognition of the holy, and cursing when our hands come up empty. Had we only stood still and reached for God, the delicate healing beauty we sought, would have flown right into our hungry hands.

Who are you today--the butterfly, or the butterfly chaser?

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

The wrinkled soul

by Linda Ryan

One of the most important parts of our Education for Ministry (EfM) group is the TR, the Theological Reflection. We consider a word, a text, a picture, video, movie, experience or issue, form a metaphor encompassing what stands out for us from the topic or artifact (objects), and then consider the world of the metaphor through the lenses of tradition, culture, position and action. It's a way of teaching us to look for God, faith, meaning and opportunity for learning and ministry in everyday things. The discussion varies from week to week, sometimes very focused and sometimes, as we call it, like herding cats, but the beauty is that something comes out of it no matter how scattered or tightly focused the discussion. That something often goes with us through the week and makes us see things -- people and situations-- in new ways.

On this occasion the metaphor we were using involved considering a washing machine, how it worked, what it did, what could go wrong with it, what could put it right. We spoke of feeling the "thunkety-thunkety" of the unbalanced load, the noise of the spin cycle and other metaphors for life as a washing machine or the clothes in it. Then someone brought up that packing the washer too tightly resulted in wrinkled clothes. I hadn't really considered it in that light but it gave me something to think about, something that said any time something is crowded it often gets crumpled and not able to stretch and breathe. It gets unhealthy and, in the end, produces something wrinkled that doesn't look good or seem clean enough. Someone asked if those clothes got ironed and that's when the fun (and the "AHA!" moments) began. Some owned irons and used them, whether sparingly or frequently. One knew someone with an iron they could borrow if necessary but hadn't felt that need as of yet. I have an iron but am not precisely sure where it is.

I can see myself as a washing machine as well as the clothes in one, but when it comes to an iron and what happens when it is used, that's something else entirely. I'm one who ignores the wrinkles for the most part and just wants to get on with whatever has to get done. I snickered to a classmate that for me, ironing was like the doctrine of substitutionary atonement: I just didn't believe in it. Maybe that's a bit whimsical, but that's how I feel about it. That's just talking about the physical act of ironing --- like clothes, church linens and the like. The metaphorical ironing is a bit different.

I have a wrinkled soul. I know it, God knows it and quite a few people know it as well. Some can deal with it, some can't see how I can deal with it, and occasionally I wonder the same thing myself. In terms of a ministry, the wrinkles show up as wanting to do things but not being able to or not being willing to step out in faith and try. In terms of my personal life, it's in the relationship with different people. With God, however, I sort of look at it as God accepting that I'm wrinkled and ever so gently touching me up with an iron to smooth out the rough spots, but only when I notice and am uncomfortable enough with the wrinkle to really want it gone. God will do that for me, but only if I really want it to happen. I have to invest in it myself for it to have value, just as I have to invest in the right detergent and softener to get my clothes and things both clean and soft. Some wrinkles are unavoidable but most can be, if I care enough to do the things that will help prevent them.

I don't know what others came up with as insights, but for me, it was a change of perspective that I probably need to consider. That's one thing about this part of EfM that we call a TR: it makes me look at how I see things and begin to discern what works and what doesn't, what I need to learn and also to unlearn, what I think, what I believe, and what all those mean to me in my life. The trick now is to take that insight and actually do something with it, along with being glad God is there to help me get rid of the wrinkles.

Now to just remember not to overcrowd the washing machine or overcrowd my life with inconsequentialities. Oh, and I must learn to sort more carefully so the socks won't fade on something important. Come to think of it, black socks are like sin -- they kind of leave a stain, no matter how carefully I think I've sorted it out. I don't want my clothes coming out looking dirtier than when they went in, or more wrinkled than they need to be. Small wrinkles may be easily overlooked like small imperfections, but dingy or spotted clothes are a lot more obvious, like the sins I accumulate during a day or a lifetime.

Gotta love a device that allows me to put my feet (and my mind) in a different place with a different perspective. That's what TRs do for me.

Now if I could just use a TR to help me figure out how to always have socks that come out of the washer in pairs.

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

Morels and resurrection

by Maria Evans

Almighty God, Author of the Universe, you imbued your creation with myriad seasonal joys. Through their brief temporal windows, open our hearts to a like-mindedness towards the fleeting moments when we can see Your heavenly realm on earth. Grant us the same eagerness to embrace these moments in humble service to You, as eagerly as we embrace the beauty of nature. All this we ask in the name of Jesus Christ, whose own short temporal window to this world gave us our salvation through the New Covenant. Amen.
--A Prayer for the Seasonal Beauty of Nature, ©Maria L. Evans, 2012

As a longtime resident of northeast Missouri, I have to admit one of my favorite things about my rural lifestyle is the roughly four-week window that the morel mushrooms are in season. (Yeah, I know, for any of you mycology purists out there, they are not a true "mushroom" but another kind of fungus...but "mushroom" is burned in the vernacular, so "mushrooms" they shall be.) In these parts, morel season has at least a rough correlation to Easter season, so the two kind of go hand in hand for me.

I've been hunting morels since I was five years old--first with my dad, then for many years as an adult, and just this year I had the pleasure of going full circle by hunting them with my cousin's youngest child, who is not yet six years old. There's something alluring about tromping about in gum boots around the woods near the river bottoms to find one of the last things on the planet that more or less defies cultivation and, in a world of near-year-round commercial produce, truly remains seasonal. (Oh, I know one can buy those "morel kits" on the Internet, but they are not the same kind of morel we have here, and for whatever reason, they just don't taste the same.)

Morel hunting has an egalitarian aspect to it--a ten year old can be just as successful a morel hunter as an adult--maybe even better as the ten year old is a little closer to the ground. There's definitely an intimacy with sharing a mushroom spot--we don't give our spots away to just anyone--and an intimacy with whom we share our bounty. The people who are not into mushroom hunting think we're stark raving mad, because for those few weeks it's all we think of, and riding in the car with us often results in several stops by the side of the road to peer into ditches and briefly wander around.

I can't think of a better metaphor for the Resurrection than the humble morel.

For starters, one never knows when one will see them. The emergence of morels starts when the overnight ground temperature consistently is over 50 degrees. They are as whimsical as the April weather patterns. The places one expects to see them, don't always yield results, and it changes from year to year, decade to decade. I think back to what used to be one of my best spots in my younger days. After the Great Flood of 1993, I haven't found squat in the way of mushrooms since--and I still try to go back to that spot every year.

Sometimes it involves days and days of faithfully going back to the same spot and looking around and coming up empty, day after day. Sometimes it results in an abundance, filling up several plastic grocery bags full, and sometimes the best we can do is a few handfuls after a couple of hours' worth of tromping around. They emerge out of nowhere, like magic--in the space of an hour, a barren spot can be walked by a second time and sport four or five morels. Even the act of consuming them is a bit of an exercise in acceptance--despite soaking them in salt water to get the hundreds of gnats out of their pores who made the morel their temporary home, a person has to accept that he or she will eat a few gnats along with this delicacy.

The parallels to living a faithful life as a practicing Christian astound me. How many times, once we've been exposed to the initial awe of the resurrected Christ, on a bright and joyful Easter Day, do we find ourselves weeks later in the humdrum of the Long Green Liturgical Season? How many times do we yearningly look for the Resurrection and not even catch a glimpse of it, but the next day when we are totally unaware, see it in all its grand glory? How many times have we insisted in tromping in the muck out of season, "because this is the time of year we've always done it," when in reality we were the ones out of season? How many times have we attempted to "cultivate" the awe-inspired Resurrection Moment, and discover it's just not the same as finding it by accident? How many times has a ten year old gotten the message of the Good News in Christ more fully than an adult?

The seasonal wonder of the lowly morel is a reminder that Resurrection simply is not of our making. We don't control it, we don't manage it, and it defies cultivation. All we can do is be faithful in our search for it, steward the places where we've seen it happen before, and enjoy it when it appears.

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

Walking out of the abyss

by Maria L. Evans

"Christian contemplation is precipitated by crisis within crisis and anguish within anguish. It is born of spiritual conflict. It is a victory that suddenly appears in the hour of defeat. It is the providential solution of problems that seem to have no solution. It is the reconciliation of enemies that seem to be irreconcilable."
~Thomas Merton, "Ascent to Truth"

"Oh, you have several choices," the cashier at Carlsbad Caverns told me. "You can take the elevator down and up, you can take the natural entrance in and out, or you could do one going in and the other going out."

It had been thirty years since I had visited the caverns, and I had all morning. So I chose to take the elevator down and walk out the natural entrance. I figured it was a nice mix of quiet time and exercise.

But when I started out the pathway to the natural exit, I had discovered that literally everyone--EVERYONE--I met was going INTO the caverns via this route, not OUT. I did not see another single person on this journey going out the natural exit. I had to maneuver past people going downhill while I was going uphill. Some people were considerate of that; some were oblivious that going up out of it is a little trickier than going down into it. One woman looked right at me and very sternly announced, "You are going the WRONG WAY." It was truly disconcerting to her!

After a while, I started taking note of the places to rest on the way out, and making use of them here and there. I particularly remember one at a time I was breaking out in a good sweat and had ignored the previous resting place. It was a place to sit and observe a rather open room in the cavern. So, with my chest heaving, and the sound of my heartbeat in my ears, I just sat and observed for a while.

It wasn't long before my eyes caught a glimpse of a particular rock formation on the wall of that room--it looked like Christ hanging on a cross. I found myself sitting there in quiet meditation for half an hour, and as the noise of my own heartbeat began to subside, I discovered thoughts in my head that hadn't surfaced in ages. I thought about the time I was there thirty years ago. I was 22 years old, and I had felt that I had failed miserably at my first teaching job. The guy I was planning on marrying was now planning to marry someone else. I was discovering that "going home" wasn't a great option because some heavy-duty dysfunction was brewing. I was dealing with that feeling of having started out in the penthouse of elation as a recent college graduate, ready to take on the world, and now being sent to the outhouse. I had gone to the desert to clear my head and get my bearings on a great solo adventure.

My mind turned to other stories like that in my life, and I began to see the pattern. My subconscious choice that day, perhaps wasn't so subconscious. I had chosen to take an elevator ride to the abyss, wander around in it a while, and then choose to walk out uphill. I've been told before on those journeys that I was going the wrong way, but in retrospect, it was always the best way. I sat there and looked at that cavern wall and it suddenly hit me: "This is the way of the Cross--to be plunged into the depths and emerge. This is the way of baptism. This is the path to resurrection."

As I got up to leave, I looked back the other direction. Had I gone into the cavern via the natural entrance, the rock formation that had so captivated me was not really visible from that angle. Had I chosen to go in the cavern that way, I would have missed it. I would not have seen the Corpus that nature had molded. I would have missed the most profound part of my trip. When I reached the opening, I was surprised to discover from the ranger that going out the natural exit was the equivalent of climbing 75 stories. Had I known that, I would not have chosen this path. I would never have known the things I now knew were on that path. I would have been in the dark about it rather than have been shown a wonderful light.

As much as we yearn for those inner joys of a life in Christ, the truth of Holy Week is that its uniqueness is framed by the road to the Cross. The joys are there, but so are the sorrows--and it is in the 75 story journeys we didn't know we had in us, where we most see the presence of Christ.

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


by Maria L. Evans

Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

~Collect for Proper 11, Book of Common Prayer, p.231

In the spring of 2010, I took a train trip to central and upstate New York to visit some blogging friends. I had an opportunity to upgrade to the sleeper car from the Utica to Chicago leg of the trip, and jumped at the chance. Although I find sleeping in coach fairly easy, these days my neck doesn't always agree with that decision.

Now, if you've never ridden in a sleeper car...well...there's not a whole lot of room, especially when it's the kind that has the toilet right in your compartment. I did a very foolish thing. I put my glasses on top of the toilet lid when I went to sleep for the night. (I bet you are already guessing what happened next.)

Yep...in the middle of the night, I got up to use the facilities, and without thinking, flipped up the toilet seat in the dark, and pulverized my glasses.

Now, I can't see doodly-squat in front of my face without my glasses. I am farsighted and astigmatic, and these days, presbyopic, with progressive bifocals. I can see the landscape, but my arms stopped being long enough to read without them long ago.

In short, I was totally plunged into a blindness right in front of my face.

I couldn't read the screen of my cell phone. I couldn't read a book. I couldn't see my watch, and when I returned home, I realized I wasn't safe to drive because I can't see my own dashboard without my glasses (and I have a "glasses only" restriction on my driver's license anyway.)

To be able to see the big or distant picture but not what's right in front of one's nose is a frustrating thing. It requires being dependent on a lot of people just to move off the spot in which one is standing. It requires thinking about things one normally doesn't think about, and in advance. The hardest part for me was not being able to entertain myself by reading. I was stuck only with my own thoughts when there was no one carrying on a conversation with me (and I wasn't really hot to sit in the club car and have a conversation explaining I broke my glasses, and "would you please help me read this?")

I had to have other people help me read menus, dial the phone, and get a friend to meet me at the train station in Ottumwa, IA with a spare pair of glasses. The most unsettling part was trying to get someone in Union Station in Chicago to help me figure out which gate I needed to make my connection. Were they really giving me the right directions? Did they even know? Were they messing with me? Was I going to end up on the wrong train? Were they stealing stuff from my suitcase as we spoke? I was also sure for all my best efforts, there were things I was missing or forgetting because I knew I was not seeing them, and all my efforts were trained on the most basic means of getting by until I got home.

Our collect reminds us that, despite our best efforts in making our way through the world, there are times of blindness--both blindnesses we suddenly find ourselves in, by accident, and blindnesses where we're so blind we don't even know our vision is impaired. We only know "our way of seeing things." It's hard to trust another way of seeing things. One of the highlights of real spiritual growth is that there is a place in our growing process where we begin to get a glimpse of how blind we've been and not even know it. It can create periods of guilt and shame, and if we're careful, we can remain there too long, and can become paralyzed--both afraid to move off the spot where we're standing (after all, we know where we are, even if it's a very tiny corner of the world)--and too prideful to ask for help. After all, our culture prizes independence over all things.

We have a terrible tendency to dwell on what we perceive as our unworthiness. But what if we trust the notion that Jesus' worthiness covers the playing field? What if God is not bothered in the least by our asking for things where we clearly don't see either the big picture, or what's right in front of our noses?

I remember decades ago as a high school student preparing to take the SAT and the ACT. I spent a lot of time learning how "failing to answer questions" or "wrong answers" affected one's score. Now, I can't remember which was which anymore, but I remember that in one test, your score was only based on your correct answers, and on one, wrong answers and omitted answers counted against your right ones. That knowledge changed how I approached each test.

Our relationship with God, I believe, is one where the things we ask in our blindness don't count against us--I suspect God considers the source and loves us in our blindness--even humors us in that way we laughed at those old Mr. Magoo cartoons. Mr. Magoo's blindness got him in some pretty laughable places, frankly.

Asking God for direction when we are blind to outcomes can be a rather scary proposition--but no scarier than asking strangers to help us change trains when we've crushed our glasses. Can we step forward in the next leg of our spiritual journeys with that kind of faith?

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

My grandchildren ask big questions: compassion

by Margaret Treadwell

“Church is what you do” was the family mantra in my small hometown where the Episcopal Church became my spiritual, intellectual, emotional and social stronghold from an early age. My teenage involvement and service with the Diocese of Alabama jump-started my adventuresome life. Grace Church was a lifesaver for my mother when she suffered from depression following a car accident, which left her with significant injuries and almost took my father’s life.

So I fret when I read the statistics about young adults, and consequently their children moving away from spiritual communities. True, there are plausible distractions - busy family down time on Sunday, homework, sports - that erase “ church is what you do.”’ Where will these folks find a caring, generous, spiritual community in our materialistic world? How will their children make informed faithful decisions when they have only Christmas and Easter experiences?

All four of our grandchildren are un-Sunday-schooled despite – or perhaps because of -our two children’s church involvement until they flew the nest. Respecting their parents’ message for the grandparents to “zip it” on this matter, I broke my resolve on Palm Sunday to timidly ask our New York City son if we could take John, 7, and Katja, 3 ½ to the children’s passion play at an Episcopal church we’d never attended down the street from their apartment. His quick acquiescence surprised me.

We were the first to arrive, so John and Katja had free run of the Sunday school classroom. Tables were set up with crayons for coloring paper palm leaves which kept them busy until other children began drifting in all spit polished and dressed in Upper East Side finery featuring big bows in little girls’ hair and bow ties on small boys.

A vivacious young woman soon arrived, introduced herself as Claire and immediately took charge of the Passover story by coaching the kids to act out scenes from that time and place. John’s jeans and Katja’s tights proved ideal attire for reclining on the oriental rug provided for their Passover bread and water “meal” and for falling asleep on the brown rug representing the dirt in the Garden of Gethsemane where the children turned disciples had promised to stay awake.

But then the tenor shifted to the Holy Week story complete with vivid pictures of the 12 Stations of the Cross. Parents looked anxious as Claire moved toward the crucifixion.
No worries. Their Sunday schooled kids began fidgeting, punching each other or simply glazing over. Perhaps sensing their parents’ discomfort, the teacher quickly passed over the 6th picture of Jesus nailed to the cross represented by his nail punctured hand with blood streaming from the wound and moved to the 7th station showing Mary kneeling at the foot of the cross.

“ Wait! “ Katja called out. “What about that one?” She pointed to the bloody hand. “ Did it hurt?”

“Yes, it hurt, “ Claire responded turning back to Mary with Jesus already dead upon the cross.

“No! Wait! That one!” Katja persisted. “ Did it really hurt?” The youngest child present was truly present, leaning forward, straining to see and understand.

Once again, Claire patiently said, “Yes it did hurt.”

But having found her voice, Katja asked a third time, “Did it really REALLY hurt?”
Most every child and adult in the room stopped their drifting away from the story to listen to this tiny girl persist and Claire’s affirmation.” Yes, and that’s a very important question,” she said.

Then she managed to end the painful part by suggesting that all of us move to the columbarium, which she explained was like the empty tomb where Jesus was buried and rose from the dead. Before we could follow her directive, John asked in his outdoor voice, “How come there’re 12 stations and 14 pictures?” Claire did her best but, face it, seven year olds can’t inspire the patience three year olds require. Time was running out as she ushered us like a good shepherd down the stairs to the basement.

The tomb was indeed dark and empty. While kids wandered around searching for Jesus or perhaps just something interesting to do in the bare tomb, John stood riveted in solemn thought listening to Claire explain resurrection in sixty seconds. When it was clear the teacher had nothing else to say, he raised his hand and asked, “If God did that for Jesus, why couldn’t he do that for us?”

The other children ignored him but the teacher and parents shook their heads in amazement that this unknown child had so completely gotten the crux of the story. I wondered if it was easier to see and hear with an open heart because John was experiencing the story with no preconceptions from former Sunday school lessons.

Palm Sunday morning filled me with awe and wonder such that all anxiety over no grandchildren in church dissipated to be left in the tomb. It felt like rolling my own stone away for a journey through Holy Week to an Easter Resurrection where my focus shifted from changing my family to changing myself.

Margaret M. “Peggy” Treadwell, LICSW, is a family, individual and couples therapist and teacher in private practice. She can be contacted at Peggy McDT@gmail.com

Fearfully and wonderfully made

by Maria Evans

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed. ~Psalm 139:14-16 (NRSV)

Sometimes, I think, "Fearfully and wonderfully made," means "I can't believe it held up this well, all things considered."

Such was the case when my kitchen was gutted for Phase II of The Never Ending Story of My House Remodeling.

"Come here, you gotta see this," my contractor called out to me.

Now remember, as best I know, the original parts of my house were built during the Depression. Most folks could not afford new lumber--so in those pre-building code days, they just sort of framed a house with what they had. In the case of the original occupants of my house, it was "extremely used boards." The original west side of my house was framed with wood scrounged from old pallets. The original east side (which ends at the kitchen--my living room was added in 1995) was framed with boards that looked considerably older than Depression-era, with big notches cut out of them, and nail-holes galore, along with a few old handmade square headed nails sticking out in odd places. They had reinforced the notched out parts by flanking them with smaller boards. Some of the boards looked like they had been exterior boards. Some were splotched with tar.

My first thought was, "How in the world has this house stayed in one piece? It should have blown over in a thunderstorm decades ago." I had been entrusting my life and my safety, night after night, in a house literally framed with scrap wood. But as I examined it, I realized that they had been rather ingenious, all things considered, in how they did the best they could with what they had, at a time in our history when no one could afford anything. It held up well enough until the day came my contractors would re-frame it.

The very physical and experiential process of remodeling my house continues to take on metaphorical aspects. As I stared at that old lumber, I realized I was staring at a process that many of us can speak to at the beginnings of the second half of our lives. Many of us, like my old house, were not framed in ways that would "pass code" now. Too many of us spent our growing up years in some form of dysfunction or family turmoil, and like my kitchen wall, we used wood that shouldn't have been used, or used wood full of holes and notches, and we patched and spliced things together so that, from a distance, it looks like as sturdy a frame as any. Then we covered it up with siding and drywall, and perhaps layer after layer of wallpaper and paint over the years. We begin our relationships with God and with other people using this frame.

Then, at some point, we know in our hearts that this frame cannot go the distance, and to be at that next place in our lives, we turn to the process of mending our insides. The problem is we have to live inside of it while this is going on--we can't just level it and start over. We see things in this process that make us shake our heads in amazement that it should have ended in catastrophe. Almost everyone who takes on remodeling a house makes choices that make it more functional--things like easier to clean floor coverings and more counter top space. Likewise, when we mature as spiritual beings, we tend to choose actions and behaviors that simplify our lives.

As I studied one of the boards, I got to thinking about how the God of Genesis was into leveling things--the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Noah and the Flood immediately came to mind--but then Jesus came along and changed that, by introducing us to a God who will work with us, even when our faults are exposed bare.

Interesting he chose a carpenter for the job, isn't it?

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

Lent along the Chattahoochee River

By Sam Candler

We had a heap of storms last Friday night, and I pray for those who suffered from the tornadoes and from the stiff winds – and just from the plain old fear that this season annually brings upon us. I know some families who were hunkering down in their basements last Friday night. Even for those who escaped misfortune, the experience of tornadoes in their neighborhood is just scary.

However, after the cold front and fierce winds had come through, I knew on Saturday morning what I had to do. I had to get out and walk along the Chattahoochee River. We hadn’t had that much rain in the Atlanta area for a while, and I knew the river would be filled and flowing mightily.

And it was beautiful. The river was a deep clay-red, and foamy, like some kind of chocolate froth that they serve in our local coffee shops. I saw none of the bare rocks out in the river, rocks where the Canadian geese usually laze about. Those rocks were completely covered, creating dips and lifts, eddies and waves, which would have been great fun if I were in a canoe. Huge limbs, and even a tree trunk or two, were careening down river at the same speed as the water; they would not have been fun if I were in a canoe.

I walked my usual routes, watching hawks of all shapes circling over the water. A great blue heron loped its wings upwind. I saw, but didn’t hear, the distinctive pileated woodpecker dashing through the woods. And cardinals. I couldn’t believe how many pairs of cardinals were flirting in the bushes. Despite the cooler morning, it really was close to a Spring day; the birds are coupling up!

The word “Chattahoochee” means “painted river” in the native Muskogean language of this area. The “paint” or “marks” may refer to all the granite outcroppings. But I suggest that there are various ways in which our major river is painted. On Saturday of the First Week of Lent, I saw some furious painting. Obviously, the storms and rain began the fury. But the river itself then seemed to consist of paint, that lovely Georgia clay type of paint that sticks to your shoes and jeans. The high river was painting the banks again, leaving traces of trash, of course, but also leaving traces of nourishment and reinvigoration. The birds were enjoying that reinvigoration.

Sometimes our Lenten journeys are furious; they are forced upon us by winds beyond our control: loss or betrayal or pain. Sometimes we take on disciplines, like fasting or abstaining from alcohol or certain foods, and they produce furious conflict in us. But they also take out the trash.

Every one of our Lenten journeys begins with paint; we paint our foreheads with the ashes that remind us we are dust. And to dust we shall return. Maybe Lent along the Chattahoochee River doesn’t use ashes, but uses Georgia red clay instead. “Remember that you are clay and to clay you shall return.” And if you do anything interesting at all in Georgia, anything that is truly down-to-earth, you are going to have clay all over you.

If my Lenten journey is as faithful as my walk along the Chattahoochee River after a major storm, then I will see some trash, but I will also see some new life. I will see some furious waves, but I will also see birds pairing up for Spring. I will get dirty, painted with red clay, but I will also be nourished by that same dirt. My soul will grow.

Storms always hit the Southeast during Lent. They are scary and wild, sort of like a forty-day wilderness experience. But they also cause new water to flow. That water paints us with old clay and new soul.

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

A Sense of Ending

by Thomas Dukes

I need to testify. When my spouse and I got married twelve years ago, we wanted to do so in our Episcopal church. The rector at the time offered to bless our union in a private home but not in our church; I suspect he was afraid of losing his job, perhaps not without reason. The church I attend is indeed open, inclusive, and diverse, and far more entertaining than that would suggest, but at the time, some families—most have since left anyway—would not have been happy.

Henry and I went to Vermont first, where we were joined in civil union by a justice of the peace, then to Canada two years later, where we were married by a Unitarian Universalist pastor. Our own church got a rector who did her first same-sex blessing five days after she arrived—of course, all the proper preliminary work for and by the couple had been done long before—and the place was filled with people and love. By then, however, Henry and I, still feeling a bit stung, just shrugged off her kind and gracious invitation to do the same for us. After all, we were happy, we had two sets of paperwork: what more could we need?

A lot, it turned out. Our first five years were terrific, then for reasons too personal to go into here, we drifted apart. It took two years for me to work up the strength/courage/understanding/nerve to leave, but early this January, I did. The church was there this time, in the presence of the rector. She was of immense practical help, but that was almost beside the point. We lifted boxes together and discussed why I was doing what I was doing; I came to understand, later, that this was holy work: necessary, hard, and heart-breaking, but holy. My ex-spouse and I still carry the cross from this and will for a long time to come, perhaps for the rest of our lives, even as remain very close friends.

Thus, I offer one more reason that the Episcopal Church should perform same-sex marriages. Not blessings of same-sex civil unions or civil marriages, but the sacrament of marriage for same-sex couples, regardless of the laws of the state, for if the church is there at the start, the church can and will be there at the end, and the end always comes, either through the death of one spouse or separation and divorce. That the church may at times have failed heterosexual widows and widowers or divorced people is beside the point; the church always fails us at times because it is human just as it is divine. But if the structure is there, the possibility for the kind of necessary holy work and community that we all need at various points in our lives is also there.

So let us join in prayer and community and offer up a sense of the ending as well as a sense of the beginning to same-sex and heterosexual couples. Let us recognize again that God’s presence is everywhere, and our work for Him is everywhere, even or perhaps especially at a marriage’s end.

Thomas Dukes is a Professor of English at The University of Akron, Ohio.

For Anonymous, with love and pathos

by Heidi Shott

After the bomb went off, we pulled our chairs in a circle and looked at one another in stunned silence. It was a few weeks before the end of the fall semester at Tufts University and our class of about 15 graduate students in “The History of Educational Thought” had coalesced nicely - or so we thought.

That evening some trigger in the discussion caused a middle-aged student in the counseling masters program to flip out. I mean flip out. She stood, she ranted, she raved, and to our horror - she suddenly channeled her vitriol almost entirely at my friend, Beth, who was sitting beside me. Beth was very shy and kind and unassuming in a New England kind of way. The ranting woman began by berating her Beth for her Pappagallo shoes. Then she started in on what she perceived as Beth’s upper middle class status. Before long she folded each of us into her rant against the inequities of life in America and our personal culpability for it.

Beth protested, “You don’t know anything about me.”

I knew something about Beth. That fall we started together in the same small graduate program and became particular friends. We had things in common. Both of our father’s had suffered serious financial meltdowns when we were in our teens. She had worked hard to put herself through Boston College. Everything she had, she had because she had worked for it....including nice shoes.

The ranting woman scared us deeply. One moment she was sitting among us as we discussed some idea in the readings and the next she was on her feet, screaming, accusing, finger-pointing and gesturing dangerously. Everyone was afraid to approach her for fear she might lash out and hurt someone. Our professor, a tall, wise woman on loan from Harvard for a night class, stood at the front waiting for the right moment to intervene.

Then, just as suddenly as she flipped, the woman rushed from the room. A classmate, a keen counseling student, slipped out to assist her. Everyone remaining took a deep breath and instinctively pulled our chairs in a circle.

“I was born in October 1929, the day before Black Friday,” began Dr. Smith, after a moment. “As a child, during the worst part of the depression, I could have butter or jam on my toast. Not both.” She continued for awhile, telling us about herself and her childhood without the professorial reserve, before she turned to Beth. “No one really knows anything about our story. That wasn’t about you, and I’m sorry you bore the brunt of it.”

Our hearts heavy and bruised, our nerves jangled, we began talking but I don’t remember anything else we said.

Two years ago, 25 years after that evening at Tufts, an email arrived from my blogging software informing me that there was a comment from Anonymous waiting for approval. My blog, www.heidoville.com, is a less a blog than a online closet to hang personal essays that I write, according to myself, “about trying to live a life of faith in a complicated world from a small town in Maine with three guys and a rabbit.”

The truth is that since 2008 when I took on the job of Canon for Communications and Social Justice in the Diocese of Maine, I haven’t had much time to write reflective pieces. Most of the essays at heidoville were written in the mid-2000s during a particularly fecund period in my writing life. One of those is called, “Rich People,” and it is the one that Anonymous had felt compelled to comment on.

It began, “You sad and pathetic person,” and went on from there, quoting scripture and challenging my courage to post it. I didn’t think much more about it. In years as a diocesan newspaper editor and as a reporter before that, I’ve received many anonymous letters. I save the quirky ones, but I don’t hold truck with anonymity.

Without approving it, I posted my own comment below the essay. It read something like, “Dear Anonymous, When you show the courage to publish your name, I’ll show the courage to publish your comment.” I figured that would be the end of it.

Soon after, however, another comment showed up for moderation. This time Anonymous indicated that he or she had been a “friend” in college. Now that’s creepy. I don’t remember what else it said - I’ve long since deleted it - but it wasn’t friendly.

Two more years zoomed by. Yesterday morning, I received an email saying Anonymous had posted another comment about the same essay. The comment began, “You are a sad and pathetic person.” Oh bother, I thought, here we go again, and I instantly clicked, “Reject.”

However, last evening at home, I checked email on my phone and there was another comment waiting for moderation: “Heido, Cat caught your tongue?”

“Don’t read it,” called my husband from the kitchen. “The person wants to upset you.” His family owned a daily newspaper for almost 100 years, and he has a zero tolerance rule for unsigned letters. For him, it’s a simple matter. “Delete it. Disable the comments,” he said. “That person, even if it is someone you once knew, doesn’t know a thing about you.”

So I disabled the comment feature on the blog, which is sad, because I’ve received many lovely comments on various essays over the years.

But here’s the thing: I AM a sad and pathetic person. There are many, many things I’m sad about and there are too many things to count about my personal failings that could be deemed pathetic. Most of them aren’t too important, but some of them are and I’m not proud of them.

But here’s the other thing: Aren’t we all? Aren’t we all sad and pathetic and lonely and wounded in our own peculiar way?

What my past friend Anonymous and the woman who lost it in an upstairs classroom at Tufts 27 years ago, need to know is that we are not alone. They need to know that sadness and pathetic-ness (not a word, I know, but hang with me here) share our life stage with joy and wonder and hope. Not all at once, not in any sensical or balanced way, but ultimately if we open our hearts to God, to love, to mercy, to generosity for our fellow travelers, the balance shifts toward grace.

I think it’s interesting that Merriam-Webster’s first definition of pathetic is “having the capacity to move one to compassionate or contemptuous pity.”

In our recent discussions in the Episcopal Church about the correct definition of the word mission, and how we often use it interchangeably with the word outreach, perhaps the Church could define itself simply by serving those who move us to compassion, those whom the world regards with contempt. That is to say, everybody. Maybe the capacity to serve with compassionate, Christ-inspired intention is what separates us from other groups that do good works. Maybe that’s what the world needs to notice about us.

A few days ago on The Lead, Jim Naughton embedded a brief video of George Carlin talking about the oddness of the phrase, “in your own words.” Who else’s words do we have? No one’s, only our own. Telling our true stories allows others to take heart, to recognize similarities and common bonds of connection, to cast off the sadness and world-weariness and step into wonder and hope.

This fall, during my hour commute to the diocesan office in Portland, I’ve been listening to Philip Pullman’s, His Dark Materials trilogy. Pullman’s one of England most articulate atheists, of course, but he has a lot to say that is wise and true. He’s telling a “make-like” story about a universe of his own creation and we would do well to learn from his vision of what makes a just and loving world.

At the end of the last volume, The Amber Spyglass, a physicist called Mary Malone encounters ghosts pouring from a rent in the world of the dead. Before one of the ghosts allow the remaining particles of her being to float away, she tells Mary, “Tell them stories. They need the truth. You must tell them true stories, and everything will be well, just tell them stories.”

In the good, if strange, company of Carlin and Pullman, I guess I have no choice but to keep telling my story, even when it makes me feel vulnerable. It’s the only one I know.

Rummage Sale Spirituality

By Kathy Staudt

I’ve never been a big fan of church fundraisers, but for various reasons I’ve spent the past few months helping organize a rummage sale at church. To my surprise, the process has been something of a spiritual practice for me and I think for others involved: A spiritual practice, i.e. something we do that helps us to be more open to the Holy Spirit at work in our common life, and to become more and more available to God.

Like many congregations, we had some history to challenge us in this area: for years, the women’s group of the founding congregation had run a monthly “opportunity shop” -- it dwindled in the late 1990’s when it became clear that there was not a sufficient critical mass of women in the new generation who could devote the huge amounts of during-the-day time required for the monthly sorting and pricing. If that was the only way to do a rummage sale, then the times for such events has simply passed. But after many years’ hiatus, some newer members had become established members, and wondered why we couldn’t have a rummage sale? Their experience of rummage sales came out of church experience in West Africa. A few of the “op shop” women were still willing to pass on some of their wisdom and to give generously of time-- a lot of daytime hours -- for this one event. So the challenge was to pass on the wisdom and still share ownership of new ways of doing this. It could not “belong” to just one small group, or it would be too much work. So we made it about participation: open to anyone: People could participate by coming to sort and price for an hour or two or by working on a Monday holiday, or by coming in the evening the night before the sale. There were still people who worked longer hours than others, but it was like the parable of the laborers in the vineyard: everyone who participated contributed something, and the rewards were the same for all. Meanwhile, energy grew around the emerging “rummage sale committee” and many of the women of the church -- now representing the many cultural backgrounds in our congregation -- began to offer time, cooking, ideas. Planning meetings started to happen - boisterous and disorganized by my own standards, but ultimately kind of fun.

Now, none of what we were doing looked particularly spiritual: the process involved organizational meetings, dickering over who was supposed to do publicity and how it should be done; navigating potential “turf wars,” and in our multicultural congregation, making sure we were really “hearing” each other, addressing perceived slights before they escalated, giving everyone a voice. We did pretty well -- not perfectly-- at this. There was tension sometimes, and there was also some hilarity: (I never knew how much the phrase “white elephant” belonged to my northern “yankee” tradition -- my Southern US and west African sisters were mystified by the term until I was able to show them how it applied to some of the more outrageous pieces of household junk we received!) Everyone will have feedback about what didn’t work, and I’ll chalk those up to “lessons learned” for another time. But my sense is that at the end of the event we all felt we had done something good together, and for the church. To quote some wise words of our friend the Rev. Rondesia Jarrett, “Everybody got fed. No one got hurt.” Not a bad mantra for any family event.

The other thing a rummage sale offers is what I’d call the “ministry of stuff.” Knowing it was happening allowed me to finally bite the bullet and clean out my closets and it has been great to lighten the load of stuff in my household. (the books, alas, will have to await another year). Some of what we sold included the possessions of people who had died-- a chance for widows and widowers to let go of those things and give them to the church. We spent hours and hours sorting through people’s stuff, a ministry in itself -- and deciding how to price and organize and present and publicize. There was potential controversy in all of these steps- - and it took a lot of good will for newcomers and old timers to work it out together. But we did. The process of pricing and sorting creates its own little women’s culture, where the things create stories: “Oh, that’s a dress I made of silk I bought in Japan in the 1970’s.” “Now there’s a clever gadget: I never thought of that before. . . “ etc. “Oh, I’m so glad you’re buying these plates: I really used to enjoy them when I did more entertaining!”

The day of the sale, people from the neighborhood came by, as well as people from all over the county who had seen our ad. A young adult woman from the neighborhood recalled Girl Scout meetings and community events from her childhood that happened in our building and shared a sense of “coming home.” Others remembered the “op shop” at our church building years before, and wondered if we were bringing it back. Meanwhile, Spanish-speaking members of the congregation came to shop and help interpret if necessary -- and reminded us that another year we should do a lot more advertising in Spanish because that’s who lives around here. All of this reminded us of where we are located in this community. I was glad of what some people saw when they came: - a multi-racial, cross-cultural community, working together and getting along. I hope there was a gospel word in just the way we were together.

When it was all over, the clothes went to a local clothes closet for the homeless, and the leftovers from the bake sale will go into lunch bags for the community shelter week: further reminders of how we are connected to our local community.

We made some money, too - a little over $1500 after expenses. I was glad of that and already reflecting on how to do better next time. But for me the experience was about working together in community. The fact that it was “for the church” was the bond: And in much of what we were doing here, we were learning how to be together, trying to be, truly the “church of Our Saviour” -- which is also the name of our parish. We may do better next time. But this time through, we worked together to make something good happen in our neighborhood, and we did it well. And I for one learned something about the nitty-gritty of loving one another, navigating interpersonal, intercultural challenges because deep down what draws us all here is the desire to be a part of a common life. Perhaps this will shape us. Perhaps our neighbors saw it, too. That is my hope and my prayer.

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.

Learning from silence

By Maria Evans

"I believe in the sun even if it isn't shining. I believe in love even when I am alone. I believe in God even when He is silent."

~~Author unknown, allegedly found on a cellar wall in Cologne, Germany which was a hiding place during the Holocaust.

Just north of my driveway, in a little rectangular tongue of my pasture, is an incredibly large and stately cottonwood tree--about 70-80 feet tall. Once upon a time there must have been other trees near it--it is not entirely straight but cants about 20 degrees to the east--but it presently stands alone in its magnificently imperfect beauty. One of the greatest joys in my remote country "home in the hayfield" is hearing the distinct flapping of my granddaddy cottonwood tree. I have a couple of smaller ones in other parts of my pasture, but they are not particularly close to the house. In the years I have lived here, it's served occasionally as both a home to Baltimore orioles, and a singles bar for un-mated male mockingbirds who carried on well past midnight. But its primary function in life has been simply to make the wonderful heavenly applause that only a cottonwood tree can make.

The waning days of fall always bring an auditory sadness to my day-to-day life. Each spring begins a cycle of sound to my world. The first cottony dusting of the seeds on my truck reminds me the leaves will be sprouting soon, and I start to train my ears to hear them. The first day the leaves have developed enough to be heard is always a joyful day in my life, no matter what tasks I have before me. Summer brings the constant companionship of its leafy song--so constant (the wind ALWAYS blows in Northeast Missouri) that I almost forget it's there. But it's fall--as the leaves begin to thin out and drop--that reminds me the most of the sound it makes.

Cottonwoods don't drop their leaves all at once. My tree undergoes a roughly five week process of leafy alopecia, getting thinner and thinner, green first mixed with yellow and then brown, my driveway turning browner and browner from the leaves. As it wanes, it seems the remaining leaves get louder and louder as they vigorously flap more openly without their neighbors--or is it my hearing that has become more and more keen?--until the day comes I step outside and hear nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Every year, that silence grips my heart. What if for some reason it dies over the winter? What if we have one of those late season tornadoes we are known for and it crashes to the ground, or into my garage, or even my house? I simply cannot do without the noise of my cottonwood tree.

I have come to changing the conversation of this silence in the last couple of years to take away my fear. When that fearful moment begins to tighten around my rib cage, I have started to loosen that grip with a single thought: Advent is coming.

One of the things I appreciate about the wisdom of our liturgical calendar is that it contains two seasons of planned silence--Advent and Lent. Both seasons remind me of a very important piece of the Biblical cycle of
Creation-->Sin-->Repentance-->Restoration/Resurrection --that for things to be reborn, they must often die to themselves. That we don't get to choose the nature of the restoration. That we will be given enough to make it through this time of silence. That what springs forth in the new season will most likely be better than we could have imagined or chosen for ourselves. That it is precisely when things seem the deadest is when the most diligent work of restoration is taking place. My cottonwood tree is not uncomfortable with its silence. I am.

The waning of Time after Pentecost is the perfect time for us to, like the slow five week thinning process of my cottonwood tree, ease into the silence of Advent with anticipation despite the dread. If we only focus on the dread, we deafen ourselves to the tiny stirrings of life inside the womb of Advent. I remind myself that when my cottonwood tree is silent, much is taking place in its outermost limbs, beneath the scaly plates of the little brown buds at their tips, and before long, those buds will swell to bursting and re-open. Even when I imagine my worst case scenario--what if my tree meets its demise?--I hear a voice asking me, "When you can no longer hear the rustle of the cottonwood leaves, what tree will you hear, that you've never heard before?"

What might God tell each of us in the silence, that we've never heard before, because the noise of the familiar was too comforting?

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

The Cathedral on 9/11: Living "safely," then and now

By Kathy Staudt

I was sorry that the triple insult of earthquake, storm, and the toppling of a crane forced Washington National Cathedral to move the events commemorating the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to other venues. On the one hand, this was a witness to the world of the way that the Cathedral’s ministry and mission goes beyond its beautiful building and grounds. But it is hard for me to let go of the place, even though I understand the spiritual point, especially after this weekend of remembrance.

I didn’t have tickets to any of the events (signed up too late) but I had planned to go over sometime during the weekend simply to be in this place, in the Cathedral and on the close, because 10 years ago the Cathedral, as a place, was very much a part of my life and my family’s, a kind of second home. Both of my children were at Cathedral schools, and my daughter, who had just joined the girl choristers in January of 2001, was among the children who sang at the service of remembrance on the Friday of that week, January 14.

What we learned at that time was something we’re learning again: that ‘safety” is not something we can guarantee ourselves. We hadn’t really seen that as clearly before September 11, 2011 as we have seen it since. I have written a longer reflection on what “safety” meant to us in Washington, as a spiritual value, after 9/11. It was published at in the 5 year 9/11 anniversary issue of Weavings and you can read it here.

I am remembering now, as I did then, the anthem the choristers sang at the cathedral service, which I suspect will be heard in some version in the commemorations this weekend. (You can see a video of this anthem here.

It was a simple, unison setting by Virgil Thompson of setting of the Isaac Watts' 23rd psalm paraphrase My Shepherd will Supply my Need. (Hymnal #664) The last verse, which moved me deeply then, now has an even more poignant ring in light of the recent damage to cathedral, church house and other buildings close. They sang:

O may thy house be my abode, and all my work be praise There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come No more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home

The Cathedral on that day did project an assurance of spiritual home-place for a newly traumatized nation, and it has been that kind of spiritual home for many of us in Washington and far afield. It was sad that the actual place was not be fully available this weekend. It is also an invitation, again, to reflect on those themes of safety and spiritual home in times of un-safety.

To that end I am remembering the other phrase from the liturgy that resonated for me in those days following 9/11, around the Cathedral close. It is from 1979 prayer book service of Evening Prayer, sometimes sung by the choristers in those days, though they’ve since tended to use earlier texts for evening prayer. It comes from the suffrages, when the officiant says “Give peace, O Lord, in all the world, and the people respond: for only in thee can we live in safety.”

Only in thee can we live in safety. It requires a great deal of faith and “letting go” truly to assent to that. Over this weekend that recalls so much loss and that brings back that strong sense of in-security and un-safety, I will be recalling these words s a kind of mantra. Perhaps the cathedral’s current woundedness, sad as it makes me feel, will help me to remember more deeply where our truest safety lies, during this weekend that calls us to both compassion and remembrance.

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.

You are love

By Donald Schell

I was folding laundry. My wife, international programs director of an NGO doing AIDS work in Africa, Ph.D. trained gerontologist, amateur actor, mother of three splendid grown children and stepmother to another splendid grown child, does her best to avoid using the dryer. We hang out our clothes year-round, which actually means that in San Francisco’s soggy November, December, and January and foggy July and August, we hang our clothes “in”; on a drying rack in the bedroom, one in her study and one in mine.

So, she was off at her work, and I was folding laundry before heading down to my office, and as I shook and hand-smoothed a pair of her black jeans, I found myself singing, “Love, your are love, better far than a metaphor can ever, every be.” It was a corny, enjoyable moment as I thought of her and remembered first hearing the musical “The Fantasticks” on the radio when I was 16 or 17. A lot of reading of philosophy and thinking about language lay ahead for me, and seminary too. I didn’t know Ellen then. Marrying her was a dozen years ahead of me. I also wouldn’t have imagined that I’d have some difficult experience and a failed marriage before between singing “You are love” and knowing she was the ‘who?’ I couldn’t yet answer. But the song stuck in my 16 year old brain because I wanted to know that face and because ‘better far than a metaphor’ spoke compellingly to me.

Better than a metaphor. I’m frustrated when my fellow theological liberals engage the literalist/fundamentalist dilemma with a blithe proclamation, “It’s all metaphor.” The things that matter most to me in life are themselves, real, immediate, compelling, and yet they point beyond themselves. Ellen isn’t a metaphor for love. She’s her own flesh and blood real self, the woman who decided we’d spare the environment a bit by hanging the wash on folding racks. That kid singing along with the radio knew that something called ‘love’ would have that kind of different meaning for knowing someone he didn’t yet know.

I imagine part of what prompted my recent singing moment with the laundry was the run of parables we heard this summer – the Sower (or the Miraculous Harvest), the enemy sowing darnel (or the wise farmer), and the mixed catch in the dragnet. Listening and talking with lay listeners before I preached on those readings and talking and listening with them after my sermons, I was intrigued at how hard we all found it to dislodge the allegorical tags the Gospel writers supplied for each of the parables.

Is the parable of the sower warning us about the cares of the world and exhorting us to be a particular kind of soil?

Is the parable of the darnel direction on how to deal with a diabolical spiritual enemy?

Are the undesirable fish caught in the net an allegorical warning of the perils of hell?

Several of the people I talked to around these three sermons were relieved to hear that many scholars tell us the allegories (red letters in such a Bible, officially “Jesus’ words”) were editorial insertions, probably the voice of early Christian preachers. They sensed that the hellfire threat skewed the parables. The logic of the allegory and the logic of the parable felt different. People felt relieved to hear how each of these parables begins with the storyteller’s trick of offering the soul-numbing familiars of hard work and bad luck in farming and fishing and then each takes the familiar to an unexpected place of abundance, grace, and ease. God is at work. As my youngest son says of so many things, “It’s all good.”

But whenever we talked about the parables, we kept falling into our own allegorizing. We did delight in these parables more-than-metaphorical (and vastly more than allegorical) vibrancy, and we wondered at what parts of our everyday lives and experience a storyteller like Jesus would seize hold of (“…a homeowner was building a new house and before the painters could come a gang member came with spray paint by night and tagged the garage door”).

But we found ourselves hooked again. We slipped back to thinking it was God sowing the seed or wondering that if the inedible fish didn’t go to hell, what happened to them?

What’s so compelling about this allegorical point-by-point Gnostic offering of the inexorable workings of the world?

First off, I think it’s that it’s amazingly difficult for us to even imagine ourselves into hearing these stories freshly. Two millennia and our many Sunday School and sermon iterations makes us know these parables cold, but that cools them. They were told hot, structured to surprise us and structured so the ending made us jump or nod a warm smile of unexpected recognition.

But additionally allegory lets us off the hook. That Ellen “is love better far than a metaphor” actually poses me some day-to-day choices that beginning with a more cosmic, abstracted or interpreted way of speaking of love would not. Because she IS love, I was folding laundry.

Jesus is challenging his hearers to feel their way into the pain and risk of seed-time, the anger and frustration of an anonymous hostile neighbor deliberately spoiling our best efforts to make something happen well, the back-breaking labor of hauling in a net full of fish knowing that there’s a bunch of fish in there that we’ll just be throwing back. Choices, the circumstances that make us resigned, bitter or cynical about life…and God at work in the mystery of seed growth, in our sowing, in our patience, and in a plentiful harvest of the sea.

What I find most life-giving in our church practice, things like singing, like the presence of Christ among us and in bread and wine, like offering one another God’s Peace, like sitting together in God’s silence, those things that are closest to my heart, what we’re doing in moments when we find God at work just won’t sit still to be reduced to metaphor. Neither heartless literalness and nor heady metaphor lives as they do. They’re better far than a metaphor could ever, ever be.

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

The art of waiting

By Deirdre Good

In the series on the BBC's Radio 3, Something Understood, Tom Robinson this week considers the idea of waiting. This idea needs defending in today's world of instant gratification. One can indeed work towards something. Some things just take awhile. I might wait for the roses to bloom each summer. Or for the sun to rise. Or for a birthday. Or for a bird to appear at the feeder. This is expectant waiting. But it depends on an awareness of durative time. As a child, I remember saying to my Mother in frustration, "When will I be six?" and, with only a vague notion of time, finding the answer "next July" incomprehensible.

Of course one might wait in vain for something to happen. The roses might be infested with Japanese beetles. It might rain all day long. No bird finds the birdseed appealing. But waiting is part of life. Think of the waiting room in a railway station. This is a transitory place in which people wait expectantly. Perhaps the walls are covered with timetables. Perhaps there's a monitor showing times of trains arriving and departing. I've conversed with complete strangers in train waiting rooms on the basis of shared expectations. I expect delivery rooms offer similar experiences. I've been in gynecologists' offices abuzz with anticipation. But airports can be places of interminable waiting, only partially offset by retail opportunities.

There are professions involving waiting: waiters in restaurants and shop assistants in shops, for example. It can't be easy to wait on people, conveying the ability to serve at a moment's notice.

Servants must spend hours waiting even if they are paid for it. This can be a kind of passive waiting. Anyone in a relationship or a family knows that waiting for someone to get ready to do something is a frequent experience. We wait for our children to finish getting dressed; we wait for family members to join us in a trip to the shops. Or we wait for results of an examination or a test. This kind of waiting is about patience. There's less of it about. People used to wait far more than they do now--for letters, for phone calls, for visits. Remember the songs about waiting for the phone to ring or the letter to be delivered through the door?

The kind of waiting in relationships is negotiated waiting. I want to be patient but whilst I wait I am tempted to do something else. Julian and I once agreed not to begin something else whilst waiting for the other to be ready. It was only partially successful. We still negotiate with each other: "Be ready in five minutes!" "Can you wait while I finish this email?"

We want to eradicate waiting. Today we Skype our friends and families across the world instantly. We expect immediate results. We are impatient: New Yorkers want it yesterday, we say wryly. But waiting is about valuing someone or something else enough to put my life on hold even for a short while. Not everything is about me. Not everything comes at once. Waiting acknowledges the claim of the other and that there are worthwhile things that only come through waiting. I'm thinking of insight as well as cups of tea.

There is a kind of waiting that longs for something other than material objects: understanding or meaning or faith. Simone Weil, the French philosopher, wrote that the purpose of education was to develop the faculty of attention, of waiting. Such an attitude, she said, consists of suspending our thoughts and bringing our minds to a state of receptive expectation. We need not seize upon an idea too hastily, she advised, but rather train ourselves in eager waiting to receive truth. "Prayer consists of attention," she wrote. She thought of prayer as the highest focus of a soul toward God.

So next time someone we love asks if we'll wait while they get ready, or we are stuck with a delayed flight, let's not growl and open up the ipod. It could be a wonderful chance to improve our prayer lives and wait on God.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. An American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and keeps the blog On Not Being a Sausage.

Rim to Rim: II

This is the second of a two-part article.

By Donald Schell

From coffee at North Rim Lodge at 5 we took the shuttle to the trailhead. We were up ahead of the sun, but the soft light seemed to shine from the tall pines and pop from the snow beneath them. Our first two miles down were so steep my thigh muscles seemed to burn just above my knees. If my legs were already getting shaky had our training been adequate?

Then we passed through a tunnel, a passage for us or for a mule train cut through the red rock and the incline gentled. We hit a steady rhythm and walking felt good again as we descended in switchbacks and across cliff faces through pine and aspen forests down to the beginnings of shrub-like pinyon pine and desert scrub. Sometimes our trail followed natural stone shelves, where a layer of sedimentary rock withstood erosion better than other layers above it.

One of those sections, maybe a quarter mile, had me huddling closer to the edge. My companions were unfazed. “I’m okay, I’ll just be a little slow,” I called out as I switched my walking stick to my left hand, looked ahead and toward the cliff rising above us and walked deliberate steps, trailing my right hand against the smooth vertical wall of stone to my right. Even in those moments, the rich reds and oranges and gold of the rock seemed to sing.

The North Rim’s profusion of alpine wildflowers was behind us, and we moved into another band of flowers, spindly cliff-hugging flowering shrubs were also brilliantly in bloom, purples and whites. And the Century Plants were in bloom, their exuberant single stalks towering above the perennial that would remain for hikers later in the season. We chose to hike in May because it’s when the North Rim Lodge opens, and May and October (just before the North Rim Lodge closes for the winter) offer the most hope of temperate weather at the bottom of the canyon. But May gave us a constantly changing palette of wildflowers for our whole descent from 8000 feet down to the flowering cactuses at 2500 feet.

Truthfully the combination of physical challenge with a quiet reflection on mortality was part of what drew me to this hike. Park Service warnings sharpened the poignancy of that and pushed toward fear, but it wasn’t cheating death that intrigued me, it was simply feeling mortal and small as we descended into the overwhelming presence of something much older and more enduring than me or us or even mankind.

Hiking guides we’d read warned that the last four miles before Phantom Ranch could be brutal. The stone in The Box, as those four miles are called, is half the age of the earth, far, far older than any fossil. But the stone itself, twisted and sculpted of sediment and lava and formed and reformed under millennia of relentless pressure, looks as alive and organic as Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Church.

Bright Angel Creek continued to roar with the authority of a real river, but only from sheer volume of water. We were almost down to the level of the Colorado, following a gently descending path cared in the cliffside of The Box. And the grace of it? This narrow, dark-stoned canyon within the Grand Canyon could be stiflingly hot. Often, we read, people found the last four miles an eternity. On May 22nd it was only pleasantly warm, with a steady encouraging breeze masking and then accentuating the roar of the creek.

The Phantom Ranch staff greeted us with smiles, pointed us to a cabin with comfortable beds for the night, gave us the very welcome key to the shower house, and confirmed out reservation for sittings at their hearty dinner table.

We had made our descent in ten hours. Several people had passed us on the way. The four of us had talked and had taken some photos, greeted a mountain goat, reminded each other to drink plenty of water, took plenty of rests in the shade and had eaten our electrolyte-balancing snacks. We had also walked sometimes for an hour in awed silence. We were elated.

Days and weeks since confirmed what we felt that evening – that we’d done something that would continue to unfold in memory.

But we weren’t done. Next morning Phantom Ranch we took our places for the 5 a.m. breakfast service, thanked the kitchen for our sack lunches, and set out again before sunrise to cross the Colorado River on the Silver Bridge. From the river and the beginning of our climb, we watched the sun touch the cliffs far above us and hiked in cool shade for a couple of hours. We pushed to get to higher altitude before it began to warm up. We had nine or so miles to climb up 5000 feet up to the North Rim.

Many more hikers descend and re-ascend the South Rim, so there were more people on the trail our second day. And the higher up the Canyon we climbed, the more day-hikers and obvious excursionists we saw, people dipping into the canyon without water or hiking gear. My feet, by the way, felt great. And occasionally I caught sight of another almost barefoot Five Toe footprint ahead of us.

Sometimes people passing would say, ‘Ah, you’re the Yeti we’ve been following.’ ‘There’s another who’s a real big foot,’ I’d say, pointing to the larger foot prints when I could find them in the dust.

As we neared the top, the hikers and runners who were doing the whole distance, rim to river to rim in one day were passing us. They were doing in ten hours (or less) what had taken us twenty. I was glad for them and glad for our slower pace and conversation and the support and encouragement we’d given each other.

We emerged from the Canyon with plenty of time for a shower, a very welcome nap, and leisurely dinner at El Tovar.

At sixty-four, the oldest in our group, our passage felt like a timely descent into and beyond our mortality. Though we enjoyed greetings and brief chatting exchanges with others along the way, sharing encouragement and even shyly acknowledging our awe at what we were seeing and sensing around us, we knew we were passing through a place where death had come and would come again, and into a womb, passing through strata where life had evolved to a place that touched the beginnings of our death, a place of birth where our life and love felt renewed.

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

Rim to Rim: I

This is the first of a two-part article. Part two will appear on Tuesday.

By Donald Schell

On May 22nd and 23rd my wife and I and our friends Anna and Charley hiked the Grand Canyon from the North Rim, down to the Colorado River, and back up to the South Rim. We’d conceived the hike three years before, walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain with Anna. It took us three years to get the reservations we wanted at Phantom Ranch, the rustic guest lodge at the bottom of the Canyon. Then we cleared our work and travel schedules and began to train, to read up and talk to people who’d made the hike, and to equip ourselves.

Why had this journey mattered so much? I knew from walking the Santiago pilgrimage across Spain what a wonder it would be to stare back across the Grand Canyon and remember beginning at the far edge thirty-six hours before. And I knew that walking a long distance and watching the horizon change one step touches archetypal human memories and makes us feel as free on the earth and beyond encumbrance as our hunter-gatherers ancestors or some later nomadic people.

For me the steady walking rhythm that would cover a long distance gave flow and shape to stories of great-great grandparents who’d walked across the American continent in the 1840’s.

But I knew there was more too. What would our journey be? How would it stay with us?

Because Ellen and I and our two friends who would walk the Canyon were Episcopalians and Sunday liturgy regulars, we’d remember Jesus and his disciples, an itinerant preacher and his friends, literally “followers,” walking and teaching around Galilee. And maybe that touched or leaned toward, “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Grand Canyon is land that belongs to all and to no one. Park Service land. Though we were grateful we’d have a place to lay our heads, we were going there to make ourselves strangers, pilgrims, and guests.

After three years, after several failed efforts to get our Phantom Ranch reservations, after excited, anxious training, after a couple of shorter training hikes at altitude, we watched the sunset over the Canyon and sat down to dinner at the North Rim Lodge Saturday night May 21st. After dinner we didn’t linger to watch moonlight on the Canyon. We needed our sleep, so we turned in early.

We walked back to our cabins. Snow shone in the evening light. We double-checked our packs. Rain gear and a very light thermal layer for the morning, and a minimal change of clothes for the next day. Each of us would carry a gallon and a half of water, a minimal change of clothes. A first-aid kit. Lunch, and snacks for the trail. Lights out.

I said good night to Ellen and found myself mentally replaying scenes from the Park Service video we’d watched together, the DVD they sent as a warning to those with inner Canyon reservations. The Park Service wanted us to know that people had died attempting to cross the Canyon. Some had not carried enough water. (We were carrying five quarts each - check). Some hadn’t trained or been in good enough shape for a vigorous hike. (We’d trained well - check) Some had wandered off the trail and fallen. (Acrophobic me? Not a chance.)

When we checked in at the Back Country Office we’d also learned that the Park Service had flown 250 helicopter rescue flights in the previous year, averaging one rescue every other day. And I’d studied Back Country’s map with little marks next to brief stories of people, some younger than me who had died in the Canyon of heart attack or severe heat stroke. Men die in the Canyon about five times as often as women.

Younger men die more often than older men. Guys can be foolhardy. So, was I foolhardy? My grandfather, my mother’s father, was ten years younger than me when he’d died of a heart attack. But my grandfather wasn’t in daily aerobic training, and he’d talked with his doctor (not family) about chest pains and been warned by his doctor to take it easy. (I’d had a physical a couple of months before and told the doctor of my plans. He expressed no cautions or evident concern. Check?)

So, (check, check, check, and check?) we’d trained well, would be carrying plenty of water, and would stay on the trail. It wasn’t a walk in the park, but we knew we’ be walking a good trail and expected we’d have a manageable, enjoyable hike. And though we’re all mortal, strong odds were on our side.

I wanted to sleep, but my mental checklist kept rolling. We’d trained in California’s coast range, never getting above 2000 altitude - but we’d already done a couple of hikes in the previous days, and we’d been fine. I didn’t do well in heat – which is why we were hiking in May and why we were grateful for the weather forecast – breezy and partly cloudy.

And then there were my shoes. I had trained in “five finger,” my new near-barefoot hiking shoes, and knew I’d done all right with them on rough terrain. But our training hikes had all been close to civilization. I could explain to anyone why I preferred the Five Fingers to my good old hiking boots, and I knew a number of people had already gone rim to rim in Five Fingers, but…what? What if I injured my foot or my ankle?

The new shoes had a good safety record IF people trained in them ahead of a major hike. I had trained. But what if a rock cut through the very thin vibram sole? No, wait, was I staying awake to remind myself that emergencies were possible? Whatever we’re doing something can go wrong – of course, but everything I was thinking of was unlikely.

Finally with a rueful smile I found the perfect worry to put other worries to sleep. I remembered Harold Camping had predicted that the world would end at 3p.m. We were already six hours past the End of the World. I wondered how Camping was facing his different version of things going badly wrong. I’d heard plenty of Camping-style preaching growing up and cringed at a couple of haunting childhood moments of finding myself alone at home and thinking the Rapture had come and I’d been ‘left behind.’ Better that our end or ‘The End’ comes when it will - unexpected.

Finally ready to let go and sleep, I told myself we’d prepared well, and thought we were probably doing this hike because we were mortal, at least wanting to do it before we got too old or died, so not in spite of being mortal. Mostly likely the next day would bring joy, good conversation, a splendid weariness, a phenomenally good meal at Phantom Ranch and a great sleep at day’s end, and I closed my eyes and woke, eagerly in fact, a few minutes before the alarm went off at 4:45 a.m.

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

Moving II: Home is where ...

"And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." Luke 9:58

By Ann Fontaine

The other day Jim, my husband, said, “I don’t know where home is anymore.” We are continuing the process of selling our home of over 30 years where we raised our three children. We have a home to move to but are in transition, still spending time in one place, keeping it up and tidy for prospective buyers – “staged” as they say in the realty business. Often when we wake up in the night we can’t remember where we are. Luckily the layout of our bedroom is almost the same in both places!

The process makes me wonder about the spiritual benefits of moving. Of course, I know we are lucky to have a home at all, much less 2 homes when many in the world live in refugee camps or have no place to call home. So the first thing I have learned is gratitude, gratitude for the privileges of place, education and support that make it possible to be in this situation.

Another pondering is about the nature of friendship. Friends of 40+ years are irreplaceable, people who have known me since I was young and seen me through thick and thin. Those who know I can be a bozo and still love me are not easily found in a short time of coming to a new place. It brings up the question of how much can I trust my new friends to really know me? Can I take the risk? Can I afford not to take the risk if I want to have real friends? And how much do I need to know about them? How much sharing is necessary and how much do we need to know about each other? I tend to be a pretty transparent person. As one man told me when he and I were interviewing candidates for a job, “Don’t try to make your living playing poker.” So maybe this concern is not one about which I need to fret.

I grew up on the Oregon coast, which is where we plan to make our new home. The ocean and the Pacific NW have always been the home of my heart. We moved to Wyoming and the high desert on the east slope of the Rockies in our 30s and have come to love the wide open spaces and blue skies (over 300 days of sunshine per year) but I continue to have the sense both physically and culturally that Wyoming is a temporary place. Though I have lived more than half my life under these blue skies, the ocean still pulls me back. Will I miss the freedom of the prairies and desert? I notice when we are in Oregon I chafe against all the rules in that more populated place.

And so I wonder, where is home? I wonder if Jesus had not had friends with which to stay, women to pay the bills, and had had to go really far away from his birthplace – would he have been so flip about not having a place to lay his head? Would he have thought it a good thing to be “on the road?” As his home was in God – perhaps he would still have said the same thing.

For me, home is place and knowing the cultural cues, not having to always translate. When I went to Tanzania and was in the midst of a Swahili speaking people all the time, hearing English spoken in a marketplace or café, made me want to rush across the room and embrace me new “best friend.” My grandparents all immigrated to the US as young adults – I wonder if they always felt that sense of dislocation. I have lived in Wyoming long enough that I rarely feel like I don’t know the “lingo” but still there are times. I try to have the attitude of Jesus – being at home in the world, but I need place and people to make it happen.

As to the answer I gave my husband, I said, “It’s easy, wherever we are together – that is our home.”

Moving I is here.

"But they urged him strongly, saying, 'Stay with us, because it is almost
evening and the day is now nearly over.' So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; ..." Luke 24:13-35 (NRSV)

In the darkness of evening
we sat down to eat with the stranger.
As he broke the bread
our hearts saw the sun
rise between his fingers.

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Interim Vicar,St. Catherine's Episcopal Church, Manzanita OR, keeps what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

Reasoning with the mind in the heart

By Donald Schell

Bicycling past a parked car, the bumper sticker caught my eye, ‘Don’t believe everything you think.’ I stopped to write it down.

Someone got it right - The bumper sticker’s ‘believe’ resonated with faith, not because faith is irrational, but because faith (trust) is inherently relational. Not irrational, relational – our thinking alone will never get us to what our believing (especially believing formed in community) somehow senses and ultimately knows.

All of us have all kinds of thoughts about all kinds of things (including religious and theological things), random thoughts, thoughts all over the map, opinions, tightly held certainties, ‘common sense’ and things “we all know.” But that bundle of thoughts and opinions is just that – our own bundle of opinions and thoughts.

Faith’s path of knowing (can I say “trust’s path of knowing”?) engages the world we see and know and feel and taste with our relationship to other people and our interactions with them. Trust’s path of knowing values sense, intuition, and hope.

A good dinner party, a holy liturgy, falling in love, a funeral, or any passionate, concrete commitment to work with and alongside other people in need offer us vibrant un-rationalized glimpses (touches, whiffs…) of an elusive something that looks and feels compellingly real. Our collage of those many glimpses guides our trust. But is relational knowing really knowing? I hope so, because it’s actually the knowing we’ll stake our lives on.

A simple example: what has changed straight people’s minds about the rightful, graced place of LGBT people in the church? What is moving our whole country toward support of gay marriage? I’ll speak for myself as an old straight, white guy. It’s personal knowing and relationship, knowing gay friends – it’s working and being in friendship and community with couples whose lives make sense, and welcoming love and support and understanding from what gay friends find in their relationship.

What changes our mind is our heart, not argument. The experience of knowing people changes our mind.

Have you noticed how our most compelling arguments on this or almost any other subject seem to fall on deaf ears when we’re arguing (no matter how well we argue) with people who disagree with us? Why do our eminently reasonable arguments provoke half-truths and irrationality from those who disagree with us? Why does their disagreement exasperate and provoke us so? And why does it seem to them that we’re doing the same?

We learn to care and respect other people by listening to their lives. We feel our way toward their experiences, and find something unfamiliar that nonetheless lives that looks and feels like the best self we know in ourselves. Sometimes it’s not best self but the most ordinary self we know in ourselves, so compassion for others comes from exercising the measure of forgiveness that we’d hope for ourselves.

How do we trust? How do we communicate? We have all heard the arguments for the ‘selfish’ character of the gene, arguments that our human character was simply shaped by competition. It’s a reductionist version of Darwin that claims that what survives most fiercely is what survives in the world.

The more we learn about the neural structure of the brain and as we continue to observe our near primate ancestors the hypothesis of ‘selfish genes,’ the inevitably selfish character of genes in a competitive evolutionary system faces overwhelming challenge from new observations, new contradictory evidence. Like us our primate cousins have innate tendencies to empathy and sympathetic. Researchers frame experiments to witness people and primates acting to help, care for, or serve others including strangers not in their own gene pool. This openness to others and care for the unrelated stranger gives us the receptivity that makes listening and collaboration possible.

But what about our violence? What about selfishness? What about the fall? Isn’t that really what defines us?

Well yes and no, we and our nearest primate relatives do have a strong tendency to competition, and any of us are capable of violence and surprising, deliberate cruelty to our own.

And yes, war and conflict with our own kind was among the evolutionary forces that shaped our consciousness, but it’s not our sole, defining character.

We’re also deeply predisposed and neurologically wired to feel one another’s pain, to help, to collaborate, to comfort, to grieve. Love isn’t a cultural invention and it’s not confined to near kin. Reflecting on our own experience of love, any of us could refine and nuance this list of how we and other mammals are connected with each other.
The New York Times recently offered us another piece in the puzzle. It supports the wisdom of not believing everything you think.

In Patricia Cohen’s article “Reason seen more as weapon than as path to truth,” we learn that French cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber are developing observed argument and data to crack the old puzzle of why logic so rarely leads to change of heart.

In fact arguments that are clear and satisfying to us will provoke resistance and skepticism in the listeners, even in sympathetic listeners, and certainly in people we think our arguments ‘should’ most appeal to. Mercier and Sperber’s science warns us (like the bumper sticker) that “Reasoning doesn’t have this function of helping us to get better beliefs and make better decisions. It was [i.e. it emerged in evolution as] a purely social phenomenon. It evolved to help us convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us.” In the summary of their research Times reporter Patricia Cohen says, “Truth and accuracy were beside the point.”

Mercier and Sperber offer their own summary in their abstract of a recent article - “Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis.”

The truths we sing and touch, the truths that move us and in which we move (and even dance) together are not the truths of win/lose competition. They’re glimpses of the great Truth of relationship of inclusion, of blessing one another. These are the truths we believe because we pray and think them with our mind in our heart.
Parker Palmer coined that phrase, ‘thinking with the mind in the heart.’ Any reader and friend of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of Early Christianity or of the Philokalia/Jesus Prayer tradition will recognize that Palmer has adapted from those ancient teachers’ injunction that we should pray ‘with the mind in the heart,’ a prayer that’s fully embodied, that rides on our breath and in God’s Spirit.

Why does our consciousness sometimes draw us to others? What makes us discard old thoughts and believe good of strangers and those we’d previously judged ‘unlike’ ourselves?

What of the thinking that divides, the thinking the bumper sticker warns us not to believe? Why does some thought push us to make bloody competition an article of faith? Why do some people put Scriptural arguments together to convince themselves and others that God’s wrath is the source of hurricanes, that “God hates fags,” that “Muslims are the enemy.” And why can’t we convince people that the real God is the

One whose “property is always to have mercy”?

We know the loving mercy of God in our experience of giving and receiving love and mercy. The thoughts we trust most deeply are those we think with the mind in the heart.

I wish I could thank the writer of that bumper sticker. Try it on for the day. Savor it as we continue on our way, ‘Don’t believe everything you think.’

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

Chance encounters on the speaking circuit

By Deirdre Good

Anyone who is invited to give talks or public addresses or lectures or workshops knows that one will encounter complete strangers as well as a few old friends. The nature of these chance meetings varies widely but, given that I speak about biblical matters, the possibility of deeply meaningful interactions is always present. On one occasion at a church in Brooklyn, someone introduced themselves to me as a friend of my parents from the time they were in Kenya. I was able to call my parents that day and pass on greetings. People have asked me after talks if I would be their spiritual director, which I decline, having had no training. People tell me stories about their lives evoked by my talk and our conversation. Sometimes, people ask for my email to begin an exchange of information about a topic on which they have heard me speak.

On one occasion, I went to another part of the country to give a day long workshop at a church on how the Bible came to be. It was well attended, having been given good publicity by the host rector, and people came from considerable distances including neighboring states. After the morning talk, the church parishioners served lunch and I sat down at a table of complete strangers having been waved over to it by two friendly faces. We began to talk. I asked where this couple had come from. They named a town in a neighboring state which I have never visited but which holds the grave of my mother-in-law, buried far away from any family or friends. It's not a large town so I was quite surprised. And when I told them of her grave, they both immediately offered to visit it. An extraordinary connection came into being that day from a chance encounter. They subsequently sent descriptions and pictures of the grave and accounts of their visits to it on several occasions, and a beautiful gift handcrafted by the husband.

In today's post we received a letter from the wife describing the death of her husband and her year-long grieving. I myself was deeply grieved at the news but my own sorrow at his death is tempered by the knowledge that, just as our connection in a place unknown to us, which each of us reached only by traveling a considerable distance, was made through the long-ago death of a person unknown to either of us, it will be sustained beyond death. And at the same time, that one fragile connection we made became so deep not so much because of what we said to each other, but because of who they were and what they did for my spouse and me. That connection becomes a symbol of what all other future encounters with strangers at other talks might become.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. An American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and keeps the blog On Not Being a Sausage.

The pain of pilgrimage

By Tamie Harkins

It took me fifteen minutes to walk the last 30 meters, so great was the pain in my feet. This was my fourteenth day of walking the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrim path across northern Spain that culminates in Santiago. The doors to the albergue—the pilgrim hostel where I’d stay for the night—were thick as tables, great slabs of splintered wood, and they opened to a grass garth dotted with quiet, beer-drinking pilgrims, laundry flickering in the wind, and huge stone pots filled with flowers. Billy was there, and José, and the short Spaniard. There was also a clear blue pool of water. You’re here now, it all seemed to say. Welcome!

The hospitalero came out to meet me and immediately took me to a room without asking for my credencial or money. Walking that slowly is its own credencial. He chose a bunk for me and lifted off my pack. In Spanish he told me to wash and rest, and then we could think about credencial and money. I crept up the bunk and lay my feet on the railing so they would be higher than my head. I clenched my eyes shut against the pain of the blood leaving my feet, and when the pain was done I slept deeply.

It would often happen on the Camino that my sleeping bag became a cocoon around the soft and slowly transforming chrysalis of my self. Even after I woke from the always-deep sleep of my daily siesta, it often felt impossible to leave the sleeping bag, sometimes for hours. I knew I needed to be motionless. I watched shadows on the wall; I listened to other pilgrims; I lay very still. The huge, muscled animal of my mind was blindered and bridled. Something seemed to be being decided, brokered, healed.

When I was ready to leave my sleeping bag, the hospitalero of the albergue introduced himself to me as Hugo from Argentina. He and his Spanish wife bustled around me, concerned.

“Blisters?” They asked.

“Tendonitis,” I replied.

“Ah.” Hugo smiled his huge happy smile, invited me to sit down. Together they made me a sandwich for free and asked me to stay with them as I ate. His wife smoked one cigarette after another, and their daughter or niece perhaps lounged at the table, unburdening herself of gossip or woe.

The craft of these hospitaleros is hospitality and healing. Tens of thousands of pilgrims walk the Camino each year and I was clearly young and healthy; my burdens were bearable; my injuries were minor. Yet they welcomed me into their home with the same care with which they might have treated an ill or elderly pilgrim. As members of the Order of San Jacques (Saint James), they seemed to have gotten serious about Jesus’ teaching that the way you treat the poor and the hobbling and the insignificant is the way you treat Him.

On a day like that, I just wanted to eat a filling peregrino—pilgrim—dinner and sleep shoulder to shoulder with all the other pilgrims. What had been done—even what should have been done—had been done. I wanted to let it be, and rest. But the day was not finished yet. After I ate the sandwich, I checked my e-mail. I read through them one by one and just as my time at the kiosk was running out, I began reading an e-mail from Meredith, one of my best friends from college. She wrote that the doctors had just found a tumor, a rare form of cancer, the doctors did not know if she would live. Before I was done reading her words, the Internet time ran out, the screen went black, and I was suddenly alone in the dusty village of Boadilla del Camino.

I did not know what to do. Should I leave the Camino? Should I go home to the States? But what could I do there?

I sat very still; I was afraid. Inside, I thrashed around. I was the chrysalis still, but now the cocoon was a trap, not a comfort. I was stuck here in the middle of Spain, my broken feet my only vehicles. I was stuck here in a body, a mortal human among other mortal humans, some of whom I loved so much and did not want to die.

I wanted to purge myself of uncertainty and grief. I wanted to call someone else who could bear these feelings of powerlessness for me.

But grief and pain are not burdens you get to put down before they have lived out their life in you. Not-knowing was the shoes I walked in; solitude was the path itself. There may be distraction in this life, but there is ultimately not escape, and on the Camino there was not even much distraction.

I climbed back into my bunk, zipped the sleeping bag closed around me. I envisioned Spain, and that one little thread of a path through it, the Camino. I imagined myself, a tiny pilgrim on that path. Then I imagined that the whole country of Spain was the thumping muscle of the heart of Being, the Camino one vein through that heart. Every one of us are caught up in the life flow, I thought, whether we were good or indifferent, know it or not. The day’s walk came to me: I was being held in love, and the love was Being held in fire. The limitations of the pilgrimage are the same as the gift of the pilgrimage that night: to be hemmed in, encompassed, not yet done. I needed to walk the rest of the pilgrimage, and it would take time.

That evening, all the pilgrims gathered for a communal pilgrim dinner. These were rare throughout the pilgrimage. Pilgrims did usually eat all together, but rather in smaller clusters, and often in restaurants. That night we all feasted together under Hospitalero Hugo’s generous attentions. There were heaping helpings of beef stew, soft baguettes, clay cups of red wine. I sat across from Billy, José, and a new-to-us Argentine pilgrim who had begun the pilgrimage years before, riding horses through South, Central, and North America, then flying to Amsterdam and riding down Europe to the Camino. I vacillated between interest in the Argentine’s story, translated to me by José, and panic at the day’s events. I left the table early and hobbled back to my bunk.

For the last few hours my mind had been shrieking that I needed people to pray for me if I was to continue. Then a thought came to me. Perhaps I did not need my friends and family to know exactly what was happening. Perhaps the fact of their love had always been carrying me. Maybe their very lives were like prayers being lived through them, our lives held together, holding each other. Even our ordinary lives have the quality of reaching for transcendence, after all, for connection and hope. And maybe I could reach for Meredith simply by faithfully walking the Camino. Beginning the next day, I decided, I would offer my walking as a prayer for Meredith. I would follow the yellow arrows and learn to walk as one being prayed.

Tamie Harkins is working on her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction at the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine. She lives in the small Alaskan town of Kodiak and will be commercial salmon fishing this summer.

Through the valley of the shadow of death

By Donald Schell

I’d visited Joe in the hospital several times before he fell into the coma. The cancer was taking him quickly. Joe had co-chaired the parish search committee that had taken the big risk of calling me, a divorced twenty-nine year old priest from across the country, to be their rector. It hadn’t worked out as he’d hoped, I guess. After Joe died, I learned that he and his co-chair had taken the big risk of insisting that their good friend, my predecessor, retire for the good of the congregation. When I came, the congregation was mostly people in their 60’s (the age I am now). The search committee was looking for someone to lead change and attract new young families.

Joe’s co-chair on the search committee was mayor of a small town a couple of miles out from our parish. Small town politics and conflict in his police department had made him courageous even when he was a target, which was a good a thing, because change came hard to our little congregation. We introduced the brand new 1976 Proposed Book of Common Prayer to the parish, instituted every Sunday communion and shared it with young children, and sang more of the liturgy than some believed was appropriate. I was grateful that Joe’s co-chair was ready to cover my back; he and I talked over everything. Sometimes he counseled patience or steered me from crazy risks, sometimes he stubbornly made me see the good in someone in the parish who was angry, upset, and speculating that I’d come to destroy the church, and even when his friends made no sense to him or he thought I was being headstrong again, he stood beside me in conflict.

Joe’s particular goodness made him more shepherd than warrior or diplomat - Joe was faithful to his old friends. His ear was ready with sympathy for anyone who was upset, angry, or condemning of changes we were making. His heart went out to old-timers, and he made their pain and grief at every change his own. When the new younger adults began asking for a voice in running things, Joe reminisced with old-timers about building the church, brick by brick with their own hands twenty years before.

For a while he became their messenger
- They don’t know where you’re getting all this stuff.
- They just don’t feel like it’s their church anymore.
- We had our ways.
- Most of us chose the Episcopal Church.
- You keep telling us the church is change and we don’t see why.
- They don’t see why.
- They just don’t trust you.
- We built this church with our own hands.

The messages shifted back and forth that way between “they” and “we.” Eventually Joe’s being their ready ear and voice made him their leader.

Joe’s shepherding fit him well. Years before he’d literally spent a summer herding sheep. Before Joe and I quit talking, he’d told me of an early Rocky Mountain snowstorm that summer that had stranded him and the sheep in a high altitude pasture.

Sudden snow had made it impossible to get the sheep down the mountain and back to his camp. As darkness descended he drew the sheep in close in a tight circle on the ground, picked his way into the center of the circle, and wiggled in to lie on the ground surrounded by warm sheep bodies, sheep breath and wet wool. Snow continued to fall through the night. Joe recited the 23rd Psalm quietly to himself and then said his “Now I lay me down to sleep,” hoping he would not actually “die before I wake.”

Next morning he woke covered with a layer of snow, but alive and well. He stood in the radiance of morning sunshine and shook off the snow as the sheep did the same.

“The one good thing about this new Prayer Book of yours,” he’d told me, “is that we’ve got ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,’ in the words we all know.” He appreciated that the Rite I burial office included the King James Version of Psalm 23.

As Joe’s friends got angrier, and with me welcoming new strangers who volunteered for tasks and wanted to run for vestry, Joe found it harder and harder to talk to me. I called on Joe trying to talk it through. The last of those visits, when I knocked at his front door, Joe’s wife came to the door shaking her head. “He doesn’t see the point.” “You mean he won’t talk with me?” “I guess not.”

About a year later I got word of his cancer. It was probably that long since I’d seen Joe. I drove out to his place and knocked on the familiar door. This time he welcomed me himself. “I’m surprised you’d come,” he said smiling wryly. He invited me in to sit and talk and be quiet.

I watched him walk across the living room. He was hunched over with pain in his abdomen and his steps were slow and sitting down slower, but we talked, and from that day we fell into a routine of me visiting him a couple of times a week. I’d taken some risk knocking on his door. Joe took the bigger risk - he let me, the kid, the troublemaker, be his pastor. He began telling me stories again, rich stories of his life as a rancher and cattle broker, more sheep herding stories, memories of rocky desert and huge sky and mountain pastures that he loved, stories of ranching friends and homesteading farmer friends, memories of pulling over to watch a radiant red sunsets as he returned from a cattle buying expedition to a remote ranch. As he felt himself nearing death he told me stories of people he loved who had died well.

Eventually his pain got too great for him to be at home, and he was getting too weak to stand or sit. We didn’t have hospice care in our town. Getting adequate pain management meant he’d die in the hospital. I visited him there daily and continued visiting after he fell into a coma. I’d take Joe’s hand and pray aloud with him and then just sit for a little while longer holding his hand. When it was time to leave I’d pat his hand again and say “good-by” out loud. It was what I’d learned in CPE not so many years before - “Talk to people in coma. Hearing seems to be the last of our senses to go.”

The day I’m remembering was my second to the last visit with Joe. Something had changed. His breathing was labored. The nurse said death was close. When I sat with Joe and took his hand, something reminded me of Joe’s story of sheep in the snowstorm. With my free hand I opened my Prayer Book to Psalm 23 and slowly and deliberately read the version he loved -

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He began so quietly I’m not sure when I first noticed Joe’s voice speaking with me, his lips barely moving.

He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

We finished. He breathing was as labored as it had been. I turned to look at him and his eyes were still under his eyelids. Nothing in his face or presence reflected what we’d just done, what he’d just said, yet somehow those words he’d heard had bridged that unbridgeable gap between my consciousness in his hospital room and his wherever it was in his coma.

We spent that moment together somewhere far beyond our disagreements. I felt it as a moment of our seeing and knowing one another, a final remaking or restoration of care and respect for one another. And the moment was powered by memory, and by spoken words and by memorization.

The twenty-third psalm had become a part of Joe’s body and soul. He’d rooted it in his neurology where it became a means of our making peace.

I think on my startled hearing of Joe’s voice and remember finishing that evening as I left his room, walking the hospital corridor calling to mind prayers and songs I knew by heart to find what I could speak from coma.

Something from that night lives in questions I’ve worked on ever since: How do we form people in community? And what’s our liturgy for?

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

Stuck grief or mourning's flowing tears

By Donald Schell

‘And death itself shall die’

As I write it’s two days before the second anniversary of my father’s death. Dad lived a good life. He was a generous and loving father and grandfather, and, as I heard at his funeral, he was also a very good physician to many people. He and I talked well. We didn’t have “unfinished business.” He died peacefully in his sleep, almost eighty-seven years old. All that sounds like the makings of good, clean, grief. Finding my way to that would be a grace suitable to such a man and such a life. I’m finding my way.

I was in my mid-thirties when my wife’s parents died. For the thirty years since I’ve been making slow discoveries about grief. My first startling discovery was noticing that the loving home I’d grown up in was drenched in grief. I was a prized firstborn, a first wave boomer baby. My dad was in medical school and our lives felt full of hope. When I was old enough to hear it, I felt proud to be named Donald for my uncle who had died in the war. Looking back, I see that to my child’s mind, ‘before I was born’ was a forever, long ago, unreachable place I didn’t even try to imagine.

My parents told fascinating stories about my uncle. He was imaginative, talented, an actor in high school, a college honors student. His life had been full of promise. Family speculated about what he’d have done had he come home. He felt like a presence with us. The stories I loved of Donald felt to me like the stories I loved to hear of my grandfather, George, mother’s father who had also died. I treasured the stories. The stories meant I was inheriting something of their gifts and their promise.

My grandfather died January 1, 1945. My uncle died June 15, 1945. I was born April 11, 1947. That chronology before I was born meant nothing to me as a child. I didn’t notice the assumptions that came with not understanding the chronology. Cherished stories of my grandfather and my uncle gave me comfortable ways of thinking about Donald and George that nothing but adult experience could break. ‘Before I was born’ hid from me that my mother’s two griefs were quite raw. And I didn’t notice that in my world, it was a given, simple, neutral fact that death could come at any time.

Eventually I learned of the other grief that shaped my parents. When I was judged ‘old enough to understand,’ I learned that my other grandmother, dad’s mother, was actually his stepmother, and I heard the story of his mother Goldie’s death. Stories of dying were familiar and this one was a very long time before I was born. So the plain given-ness of another death hid my Dad’s grief from me, his loss at never having known his mother, an old tear in the soul that time can’t quite heal.

Next summer Jonathan Moscone’s new play Ghosts Light will premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I like Moscone’s work as a director and am looking forward to seeing his work as a playwright. His play unfolds with a young theater director named ‘Jon’ working on a production of Hamlet.

Jonathan Moscone was fourteen in 1978 when Dan White, the enraged city supervisor who also killed Supervisor Harvey Milk, gunned down Jonathan’s father, San Francisco mayor George Moscone. Jonathan Moscone calls Ghosts Light “a dream play.” As in a dream his character Jon, while directing a production of Hamlet, finds his work haunted not just by the elder Hamlet’s ghost, but also the ghosts of George Moscone and Harvey Milk.

I found odd comfort reading Jonathan Moscone in an interview say, “…there’s grieving, which is a form of stasis, and there’s mourning, which is an active form of moving through to another place.” Those simple, graceful words (and my wonder that mourning could move a fourteen year old boy beyond the static frozen grief at losing a dad to assassination) helped me think about old, stuck, grief.

I was sixty-one when my father died. I felt grateful that he died peacefully in his sleep and that we’d had so many good years together. I miss him terribly sometimes. But I’ve only shed a very few tears. Something resigned and fatalistic in me had thought for a long, long time – ‘It’s coming. They all die.’ Moscone’s distinction between “grieving” and “mourning” has me wondering about that resignation, wondering whether I really know how to mourn, to move through to another place. And as I wonder, Jesus’ beatitude, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted,” hints at the possibility of feelings fully felt and of moving from grief through mourning to comfort.

The reason I’m remembering and re-thinking is that I suspect some of my stasis with grief belongs to some old, old stories.

The oldest part of the story goes back to 1921 when Dad was delivered by C-section. His mother, Goldie, had already lost her sight to the brain tumor that would kill her. Holding her premature baby after he was delivered, she asked, ‘is he beautiful?’ and my grandfather, the father who had been present for this C-section before doctors attempted hopeless brain surgery told his dying wife, yes, their son was beautiful. Two weeks later Goldie Schell died. She was twenty-six years old.

Now in 2010 – nearly ninety years after her death, three of my children have outlived their great grandmother’s short twenty-six years. When the first of our children passed that marker, something shifted, I felt a new frustration and not really knowing who my missing grandmother had been, what she’d been like, who she might have become, and what it could have meant to me to know her. And that began the quiet ache of wondering how dad had lived his whole life knowing he’d lost her before he’d known her at all.

We only have a couple pictures of Goldie. My favorite is a 1920 photo where she seems to be play-acting ‘farm girl,’ the sun catches golden hair – a dazzling silvery white in the photo - She’s got both hands jammed in the pockets of her overalls, a straw hat knocked back on her head, and something in her radiant, crazy-playful smile makes me want to laugh. She was nurse, like my wife Ellen, so I suppose some one took a solemn photo of her at her capping ceremony. But it was this playful photo of the mother he never knew that my dad kept in his drawer, a hidden witness to his unspoken thoughts.

After I was grown, Dad told me he’d learned not talk or ask about his mother. My grandfather had remarried when Dad was still a toddler, and Dad’s new, easily angered stepmother was as unlike that sunny picture of Goldie as a person could be. Dad was relieved when he learned the sullen, sharp-tongued woman who did her best to care for him wasn’t his mother. As a teenager he’d started to build some relationship with Goldie’s brothers. His dad quietly made those occasions for him. Was grandpa stuck in his grief too?

In May of 1944, my parents left college. Dad had dropped out to join the Army Air Corps, and after basic flight school, they married, Mother took her leave from college to follow dad to Army bases around the country while he completed his flight training. When he earned his wings and shipped out to fly a B-17 in daylight bombing raids on German munitions factories, mother moved home, waiting and praying daily for Dad’s return. “It was what people were doing,” mother said. “I knew he might not come back.”

My grandfather George was a banker, and both my parents enjoyed telling stories repeating funny things he’d said or done; I loved hearing what a wry, rebellious church member he’d been, a lay leader in the church where he’d met and courted my grandmother, the church I grew up in. A few stories hinted at a workaholic whose very high standard of performance weighed heavily on himself.

They told stories of his wit, wisdom and foolishness with pride and affection. And the stories of his workaholism? Sometimes I wasn’t sure whether those were exemplary stories or cautionary tales. One story certainly was cautionary. George’s doctor told my grandmother as he lay in a coma from a heart attack that a few weeks before George had gone to the doctor with chest pains, and the doctor told him to slow down and rest. In December of 1944 his staff was closing the year-end books, George wouldn’t slow down when his staff was working hard. So he died on New Year’s Day, 1945.

My Dad never told me how he had gotten word of his father-in-law’s death. Dad was seeing a lot of death, watching for the German fighters after they crossed the channel, flying through anti-aircraft fire and shrapnel, relieved every time they got their plane back to England, wondering when the war would end, and hoping for the time he’d go home to comfort his bride. Dad was 24 when George died, and mother was 20. George himself he was only 55. Now that I’ve lived through all those ages, 24, 20, and 55 seem bitterly young.

Mother tells me that even now, sixty-five years after her father’s death, hardly a day goes by without her wishing she could tell him or ask him about something. I’m glad to hear that.

Feeling her love in that loss nudges stuck grief toward mourning.

I heard and memorized the stories of these absent people, but I didn’t know how to ask for the stories of mourning their loss. I did ask Dad about the war. “It’s why I became a physician,” was his preferred answer. If I pushed, the stories Dad was most willing to tell were of the people with whom he’d flown and of missing my mother and writing her, and sitting on an English park bench evenings after returning from a bombing run and wondering how it would all end.

The few air war stories dad would tell weren’t stories of heroism, but simply stories of seeing death.

He said precision bombing was difficult, the daylight made the bombers easier target for German anti-aircraft guns. When they arrived at a target, he had to take the plane low for bombing accuracy, into the range of the anti-aircraft guns, and fly a slow, steady course toward the target while the bombardier studied the winds. At that altitude shrapnel peppered the plane, sometimes sounding like a hailstorm, sometimes louder, metal banging against metal like the factories they were sent to destroy. Once the bombs were loosed, he’d put full power into a climb, not even pausing to close the bomb bays in the plane’s belly. He said he was continually amazed and grateful to learn how much wing or tail the B-17 could lose and still fly home.

One run he retold had targeted a ball-bearing factory adjacent to a German primary school. He said by observation their bombs had hit accurately, demolishing the factory. Even then he wondered if their bombs had blasted out the windows in the school. And were the children there? What had happened to the children?

And he told me that sometimes when he closed his eyes he’d see the moment a burning German fighter plane plummeted right through the next B-17 in formation to his, and how in that instant he’d seen the face of the German pilot and the face of his own friend. And harder, he said, than that was the next moment, when the plane had fallen out of sight, of knowing his friend was crashing with his crew to earth.

I don’t know what of the war Dad was able to write home to mother. I’ll ask her.

After VE-Day in 1945, Dad had flown his bomber back to the U.S. to be scrapped. He took the train home to California, to live in his widowed mother-in-law’s house and wait for a new assignment in the continuing war in the Pacific where Donald, my mother’s brother, was flying a B-24.

Dad had only be back home for a week or two In mid-June of 1945 when he answered the doorbell to a uniformed army officer wished to speak to Donald Campbell’s next of kin. Donald’s plane and crew were reported missing in action, just five and a half months after my grandfather’s death. It would take another eighteen more months of waiting (and hoping) before the Army would report finding the wreckage and remains of Donald and his crew.

More months passed, before the Army announced that the remains were being flown to St. Louis and buried in Jefferson Barracks, National Cemetery.

If grief is stasis, blocked, stuck, what Jonathan Moscone calls mourning is the deep feeling of loss that goes somewhere. Standing at my uncle’s gravesite a year or so ago, my first visit, I stared at the granite slab marker for that whole crew and tried to imagine my grandmother standing there almost two years after her son’s death and wondered where she found room to mourn.

Recently visiting Malawi with my wife’s AIDS work, one of Ellen’s Malawian colleague’s lost her husband, a diabetic about my grandfather George’s age. We attended the village funeral, the last eight or nine hours of the twenty-four hour funeral. When we arrived the wailing and singing had been going on from the previous day and all through the night. There were three hundred mourners. I’d been directed to sit with the clergy in the ritual place of greeting, half a dozen of us seated in chairs in the shade of a house where every newly arrived mourner would greet us one by one with a word and a handshake before proceeding to the mourning house across the stream where the body was laid out. Ellen was in that house with the widow, her colleague. When the woman’s sons arrived, home from university and from good work in South Africa, Ellen later described seeing what I heard from across the stream. When the sons appeared, the mourners began to wail with special intensity, putting a new sharp edge on their hours-long rhythm of silence, song. The high-pitched keening was sharp as a siren. Did it chill the heart, or simply touch it? The young men looked on their father’s body impassively for one moment, for two moments, and then the wailing broke their grief loose from paralysis and their mourning tears began to flow and their sobbing quickly followed. The clergy didn’t rejoin the crowd to begin the formal funeral liturgy until the sons’ tears were flowing freely.

I found some passages where St. Paul seems to acknowledge a distinction like Moscone makes between grieving and mourning:

For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. - 2 Corinthians 7.10

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters,* about those who have died,* so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.
- 1 Thessalonians 4.13

I remember preachers I heard as a kid saying Christians didn’t grieve because our hope wouldn’t let us. But I’m hearing something quite different in the Thessalonians passage they always quoted. We DO grieve, but our way of grieving (or mourning) isn’t like the grief of those who have no hope. Ah, what is it to grieve without hope? And how does it feel to let loose the feelings and grieve and move on to mourning in hope and finally mourn through to comfort?
I’m hearing William Billings’ raucous, life-affirming setting of these verses by Isaac Watts:

How long, dear Savior, O how long
Shall this bright hour delay?
Fly swift around, ye wheels of time,
And bring the promised day.
Lo, what a glorious sight appears
To our believing eyes!

His own soft hand shall wipe the tears
From every weeping eye;
And pains and groans and griefs and fears
And death itself shall die. .

I suspect many of us carry fragments of grief we don’t know how to finish. Isaac Watts’ promise of salvation, of deliverance, of freedom offers, with St. Paul and Jesus, a blessed comfort for those who mourn. The radiance and hope Watts’ scene of Jesus’ hand drying our tears (and recognizing the grace of those tears) even hints that we can hope for deliverance from the rest of it – “pains and groans . . .and fears” that, like grief, they will die with death itself.

In this living moment, before the wheels of time bring any promised day, I welcome this tender promise and hope that His hand will comfort, mysterious as that image may be, and give us freedom to engage the grief, shed the tears, feel the sorrow, and mourn, and that as we find the freedom to weep, we’ll each one let Him wipe the tears from our weeping eyes.

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

What a good boy, what a smart boy, what a strong boy

By Adam Thomas

When you listen to the Gospel, you might notice the trend that folks rarely answer questions directly. Instead, the responder either completely ignores the question or says something so profound that the question ceases to matter. Most things Jesus says in the Gospel fall into one of these two categories. Think about how often someone asks a question, and Jesus responds, “Well, let me tell you a story about that. Once there was a farmer…” Before Jesus enters the scene, however, John the Baptizer finds himself under interrogation, and he does just a good a job as Jesus in not answering questions with the expected answers. His unexpected responses to the folks interviewing him (as recorded in John 1) show John’s understanding of his identity, which helps us understand ours, as well.

The priests and Levites come to John and ask him a series of questions, the first being “Who are you?” This question seems to have an obvious answer: I’m John from over yonder, my parents are so-and-so. But that’s not what John says. Instead of saying who he is, he explicitly says who he is not. “I am not the Messiah.” And what’s more, he’s quite emphatic about it: “He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed…” By his answer, John seems to know what they are getting at, so he makes sure with his first response that any gossip about his messiah-ship is highly overrated.

So they try again: “What then? Are you Elijah?” He says, “I am not.” They try once more: “Are you the prophet?” “Nope.” John steadfastly refuses to play into any expectations these priests and Levites have about his identity.

I wonder to what degree our identities are based on the expectations of others? It’s not necessarily a bad thing for others to have expectations for us, of course. A community (family, church, team, circle of friends) plays a significant role in the development of our identities, and expectations are a natural part of that role. But if those expectations begin to suffocate us or make us begin to dislike the people we are becoming, then there is something wrong.

In the film Dead Poets Society, Neil Perry has a passion for acting. When he sees the flyer for auditions for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he says, “For the first time in my life, I know what I want to do. And for the first time, I’m going to do it!” He throws himself into the role of Puck, and he’s good, he’s really good. But his father expects him to be a doctor and thinks this acting business is nothing more than a dangerous whim. Neil defies his father’s wishes and continues rehearsing for the play. After Mr. Perry discovers him at the theatre, he furiously tells Neil that he is not going to let Neil ruin his (Neil’s) life. Neil feels suffocated and trapped: he has found his calling as an actor, he has found himself. But Mr. Perry is stifling this identity with his expectations for Neil’s future. That night, Neil commits suicide.

Expectations like Mr. Perry’s can smother us. They can make us feel less worthy, less capable, less adequate because our worth and capability and adequacy fall outside the limits defined by those expectations. In their song “What a Good Boy,” the Barenaked Ladies lament:

When I was born, they looked at me and said,
‘What a good boy, what a smart boy, what a strong boy.’
When you were born, they looked at you and said,
‘What a good girl, what a smart girl, what a pretty girl.’
We’ve got these chains hanging round our necks,
People want to strangle us with them before we take our first breath.

When we feel smothered, stifled, or strangled by expectations, troubling questions form in our minds. What if I’m not a smart girl? What if I’m not a strong boy? What if I don’t measure up? Then another question compounds these: Will they still like/love/accept/welcome me? These expectations that help shape our identities now morph into ultimatums. They signal the possible breaking of a relationship: This is who I am, and if you don’t like it then fine. And the door slams shut. In this scenario, we begin to define our identities by focusing negatively on the rebellion against expectations rather than by stating positively who we are.

Expectations themselves are neutral things. They surely can be used to spur us to excellence or to inspire us to continue to grow and discover who we are. But they can also be used to deny our self-worth or sense of belonging. When John the Baptizer refuses to be defined by the expectations of the priests and Levites, he is holding onto the identity he has as the voice crying out in the wilderness.

The priests and Levites are unable to pin their expectation on John, but they can’t go back to their bosses empty-handed, so they press John asking: “What do you have to say about yourself?” The Baptizer answers with a quotation from the prophet Isaiah: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ ” Even here, when they ask him deliberately about himself, he answers by pointing ahead of himself. Their concern is based on his seeming lack of authority to baptize, for he is not the Messiah or Elijah or the prophet. But such trifles don’t worry John. He states dismissively: “I baptize with water.” And then he points ahead of himself again: “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me.” Everything John says about himself, he is really saying about Jesus. He only speaks in terms of Jesus; he deflects questions about himself, preferring to point to the one “who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”

Rather than playing into their expectations, John flourishes in his identity as an arrow pointing to Jesus. To change the metaphor, he shines because he lives fully into his own particular, God-given identity. Like the moon, he has no light of his own, but he reflects the light of Jesus who is coming after him. Even as we struggle with the expectations of others and with discovering our own identities as God’s children, I can think of no greater joy than to be a moon to Jesus’ sun, reflecting the light of Christ.

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.

Pointing the finger

By Richard E. Helmer

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.

Isaiah 58:9b-11

In a tense time like ours, the "pointing of the finger" seems to be one of the primal ways the world around us relates. This could not be truer in this season of contentious elections where partisanship is running rampant. Some point at Washington to place blame for all that faces us, others to extremists of every stripe, others to big business, others to various social policies and those who promote them. The threat of a single fundamentalist pastor to burn Islam’s holy book in a tiny never-heard-from-before church in Florida made international headlines recently. This incident broke open the raw areas in our collective consciousness where freedom of speech, religious conscience, and common decency meet. But it also reflected back to us our deep tendency to blame others for our ills. . . to point the finger, to shout past one another, to paint one another up in caricature until we lose sight of our common humanity.

Anyone who hangs around the Church very long knows that we are all too often no better. In a recent exchange of emails characterized as a Christian “Tea Party” moment, I watched the painting up of ecclesiastical tensions simply as a conflict of congregations vs. the diocese. The odd thing about that, of course, is that we are all the diocese, and moreover, we are all the Church together: congregations, dioceses, ministries, members, clergy, laity, staff. But the “us” vs. “them” mode is so much easier. It gives us someone to hold responsible for all our troubles.

It gives us a direction to point the finger.

One way of viewing Christianity is that the pointing of the finger leads ultimately to the cross. The crucifixion is our tradition’s ultimate expression of blame, heaped upon our God in Christ on the cross, who willingly bears that blame into death. Whether it’s the crowds stirred up by religious authorities and Roman imperialism in the first century; or it’s the clamoring for attention by blaming the other – from immigrants to Muslims – in our age, pointing the finger is an almost innate characteristic of our broken humanity, the summation of our hostility and our divisions as a people in search of a way out of our brokenness. And it is this brokenness that sacrifices Christ. And it is out of that sacrifice that God opens for us a new Way.

Our message as Christians is this: For the ancient prophet Isaiah and for us in community around Christ today, the life-giving alternative to pointing the finger is generosity.

Many of us in congregational ministries are moving into our pledge campaign season at this time of year. In the midst of a fractious world where people cling tightly to their resources out of fear, we are calling one another out to be generous in the midst of community. We continue with our ministries to feed those who are hungry. We continue in our endeavors for justice: to seek out and satisfy the needs of the afflicted. By living into a community of generosity, we help shoulder one another’s burdens, easing the pressure of the yoke. We learn to listen to one another with generous hearts, bringing healing and light in the midst of a shouting darkness. The generosity that is crucified rises again into new life, and we become like a watered garden – where the blessings of our baptism overflow into abundant grace.

If the world is calling us to the pointing of the finger this season, the Church is calling us towards generosity. For our hands were made by our Creator not to point in blame or cling out of fear, but to share. And it is in that sharing that we find God’s abundance for everyone. And that is good news: Gospel for a world that needs it now more than ever.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, church politics, music, and the misadventures of young parenthood at Caught by the Light.

Pursuing the "un-rest cure"

By Marshall Scott

I have long been a fan of the short stories of H. H. Munro, better known by his pen name of Saki. He has a wry, not to say vicious sense of humor, and a healthy disrespect for convention. One of my favorites is “The Unrest-cure.” As the story begins, an unwitting man is complaining to a friend about the rut that his life has become. It is largely taken up with work, and his avocations are so commonplace and regular that even he has begun to see them as tedious. The friend suggests that, just as the harried might need a “rest-cure,” perhaps our subject needs an “unrest-cure.” This conversation, dull enough in its own right, much less in its subject, would have been little more than a casual complaint, had it not been overheard by a young man with means and a moderately cruel streak; and thus there begins a tale.

Perhaps I should have been more conscious of that story on my recent vacation. I like to sail. I’m not a great sailor. I do know in most instances what I need to do, and we enjoy modest sailing, without injury to self or boat (if not as often as I would like). So, I was commenting to my wife one morning at anchor about my realization that part of what I sought in my sailing vacation was challenge – or at least a challenge different from that in my regular vocation. In every significant sailing experience I’ve had something go wrong, and I’ve managed to cope with it. However, part of what made it worthwhile to me was that the coping was not just intellectual or emotional. It required something physical, both in the sense of my own efforts, and also in the sense that it involved some engineering and responding to the natural world. It took a combination of intellectual and physical effort, and managing in the face of forces I would work with but not control. So, I agreed with her when she said, “There’s a lot of challenge in your work.” “But,” I responded, “this is different.”

Now, let me say that my wife sought something different. She wanted peace and quiet, and to be closer to nature. She does enjoy sailing, but she enjoys more watching eagles fly over anchorages. We both got what we wanted. She got closer to nature. I got challenges. And before it was over, nature kicked my butt.

Still, I appreciate her question to me: “Why would you want that (sort of challenge) on vacation?” I know that some folks take on more. My risks are modest and measured; and yet they are significant enough for me. They are significant enough that I feel proud when I succeed – and that I feel embarrassed when I don’t. These kinds of things are my “unrest-cure.” So, why would I – why would anyone - choose an “unrest-cure?”

Some of it is ambition – good, old hubris. I have said that “in most instances I know what I need to do;” but, of course, soon enough that begins to feel like I’m in control. I may tell others that control is an illusion; but I’m really as hopeful of controlling my world as anybody else.

In a way, too, it seems quite counter to the Benedictine tradition that is important to me, and, really, fundamental to the Anglican tradition. Isn’t this pursuit of excitement in what we claim to be recreational counter to stability? Isn’t there something sort of, well, gyrovague about it?

Perhaps, though, we pursue such an "unrest-cure" for a better reason. Perhaps we realize that we don't get recreation - literally, re-creation - without some disruption. We can't prepare the ground for next year's garden without uprooting this year's tomatoes. We can't prepare the field for next year's harvest without plowing under this year's stubble. If we want our schools and our hospitals to have up-to-date equipment and capacities, it's not just cheaper and faster to tear down and build new; at some point it's just not possible without tearing down and building new.
Our Hindu cousins are perhaps clearer about this. Shiva the Destroyer is also the one who prepares for new creation. But it is every bit as central to our Christian faith. If we've been paying attention, our Sunday lessons are reminding us of this. In these latter days of Pentecost, we traditionally hear more and more about "the Kingdom" and "the Day of the Lord." That is so great a theme in the Common Lectionary that our Methodist siblings in their calendar identify a new season of "Kingdomtide."
And though we long for the Kingdom, Scripture tells us again and again that the Kingdom comes in turmoil. The Kingdom offers great hope, but the Day of the Lord is no picnic. We will not gradually evolve our way into the Kingdom. No, God will bring it in the Day of the Lord, a day of darkness and not light, a day when two will be taken and one will be left. But, then, we of all people should be able to remember this; for we are those who know that unless a grain falls and is buried, there is no harvest. We are those who know that the only real way to resurrection is through the grave.

So, perhaps we can expect, and even seek some disruption in our pursuit of recreation (and, let’s be honest: just taking a family with two small children to see family can involve disruption and challenge enough!). Or, even if we don’t have that in mind, perhaps we might want to remember. There is some spiritual reflection to be found in recognizing the disruption and discomfort that comes as we seek recreation – literally, to be re-created. There is the opportunity to rediscover our limits, and to become aware again that, for all its promise, becoming renewed and restored also involves being disturbed, destabilized, and changed. And while there are differences of scale, that’s as true while we await the Kingdom as it will be when the Kingdom comes in fullness.

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.

First love

Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.

By Margaret Treadwell

Who was your first love? Ask this question of men or women and the response will almost always be thoughtful, moving and sometimes funny and quirky.

“I was in Ms. Bloss’s dancing classes, and I loved to dance. One day a dark haired, freckled, extremely attractive girl asked me to dance and later I invited her to go to the movies. When I took her home, she reached up and kissed me. I walked away with a particular lightness of step and I always remembered that kiss as my first love.”

“I was 15 1/2 and he was 22. He was the boyfriend of my friend’s older sister, and we met at her birthday party. I was an aspiring writer. He was writing his first novel while working odd jobs. We talked well into the night and I fell madly in love. Early the next morning I bicycled to my friend’s house where he and I were to meet up for a mini-golf game. I took my copy of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Later that summer he invited me out for my first grown up evening, and I didn’t get home until well after midnight. My father was furious with us and my first love disappeared – for a while.”

According to an article in Psychology Today (Jan./Feb. 2010) all “firsts,” especially first loves, affect us so powerfully because they are seared into our psyches with a vividness and clarity that doesn’t fade as other memories do. This is known as the primacy effect and “flashbulb memories.” Dan McAdams, author of The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By, believes these experiences (first day of school, wedding day, first-born child) give us natural episodic markers to divide up the stories of our lives and make sense of how we have been shaped and developed over time.

Playwright Paula Stone has written “a bittersweet comedy about first loves” for which she interviewed 80 people from ages 20-80 in dozens of focus groups. It all began when she received a wedding invitation and realized her own first love would be invited too. She started telling her friends and discovered they had fascinating stories to share. She created an interview format asking, “Who does your heart tell you was your first love? How did you meet? What was the spark that attracted you? When did you know? Where is your memory lodged?”

Paula heard about pounding hearts and shortness of breath, love at first sight, a gorgeous smile, a delicious smell, a great laugh, a black stocking, and a particular coat. She says, “The interviews were meaningful, intimate and sacred and I wanted to create a safe place for people to share what they never had in a lifetime. I wanted to capture the power of the story and use it to honor the past – who we were and the ways we’ve grown.”

In her research Paula found that most first loves occurred around the age of 19 and in the early 20s and only a quarter of those interviewed married their first loves. One woman who did is presently watching her husband decline in a nursing home. She said, “No ending is a happily-ever-after for all must end, but I would do it all over again.”

Another woman who decided not to marry her first love said, “He was so sweet and boring. After all the drama in my marriage to someone else, I believe I could have lived with boring. I never was able to recapture that first love but I think I learned from him what love really is.”

At a recent reading of Paula’s play (working title “Woo is Me”), the intrigue of whether the old lovers will meet at the wedding is full of poignancy, lightness and humor. Auntie Ida, one of the wedding guests, talks about her “love pod” – a place inside where she carries memories of all past loves good or not. She says, “Stay in life fully and keep your heart open for one another, including yourself.”

Do you still think about your first love? Choosing to let our first love stories grow up with us rather than acting them out can be an immensely rewarding experience that enhances our present loves. Talking with someone you love and trust about what you learned from that first breathtaking experience can bring new insights and closeness to a relationship, despite the tendency to keep it a secret so as not to “hurt” the other.

And the woman whose father drove her first love away when she broke her curfew? She spent time playing detective to find him before internet technology made it easy, then allowed him to become her mentor. She said, “He taught me that the world was incredibly interesting and that I could enter the realm of grownups to be a different person from my parents. His life ended with enormous difficulties, but I know his love for me helped me create a good marriage.”

An anonymous writer said, “There are three kinds of relationships: 1) For a season, often those first loves that are right for the moment; 2) For a reason, often to work out a necessary healing. 3) For a lifetime, often when we know we have found a spiritual partner.”

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


By Margaret Treadwell

Departures takes on the tricky subject of death and won the 2009 Academy Award for best foreign film. Masahiro Motoki plays the protagonist who suffers a startling job loss after which he decides to learn the Japanese trade of being an encoffineer – one who prepares bodies for burial. The various families who gather to watch the beautiful ritual he creates for their departed loved ones are in various stages of acceptance, denial, anger or sadness, reminding viewers that when a person has unfinished business with the deceased he or she will struggle longer and more intensely with grief.

We often think of only one response at the time of death – grief, but it’s much more complicated than that. While director Yojito Takita focuses the eye of the camera on death, Departures paradoxically becomes a movie about the value of life and how we confront our own lives. It made me ask, “How can human beings prepare for the death of a parent, husband, wife, child or beloved friend in ways that add value to our lives as well as to the lives of our family members?” I think the film’s response is:

• Honor your own life and develop your passions
• Create the best possible relationships, especially in your family
• Believe in a Power greater than self
• Seek satisfying work that contributes to the well being of others, and learn to do it well
• Understand that all of the above actions will benefit future generations beyond your own

Four months after my mother’s death at age 99, I know that my years spent developing relationships with extended family have been an invaluable preparation for the loss of both my parents. In 1996, the year my father died, 18 of my first cousins from his family had never met or had only passing acquaintance with each other. Our fathers, seven brothers who lost both their parents way too young, married strong women who preferred their own family of origin. As my mother explained it, “I just liked my family and your father was contented with them too.” Drifting apart is the way many families solve the unresolved emotional attachment to their parents, siblings and larger family.

In our generation, we cousins of cut-off parents were repeating this pattern, joining our spouse’s family like an “appendage.” But now our fathers were dying and when a childless uncle’s bequests made it necessary to locate all of us, we began to bridge those distances out of legal requirement. My cousin Betty and I decided the fun way to fulfill this duty was to create the first McDonnell Family Reunion, a biennial event now since 1996.

For 14 years we have developed our friendships through sharing play, secrets, laughter, and celebration of joyous life events – new marriages, babies, personal successes and yes, death. I believe the lighthearted pleasure we share is what keeps us returning to reunions and staying in touch throughout the year. We’ve mourned the loss of our cousin Barbara through a tragic death and now my extended family has sustained my nuclear family during this tender time of my mother’s death. During these last fragile years, three beloved cousins from her side were consistent companions by telephone, and as my cousins from Dad’s family grew to know and admire “Aunt Flo,” she also developed an interest in them. They reciprocated with calls, notes and visits. Expanding the circle was life giving for both Mother and me.

Only children are especially susceptible to feeling like orphans when both parents have died, but on Mom’s Nov. 14 funeral day, cousins surprised me by coming from Colorado, Georgia, Tennessee and south Alabama and sending notes from Guatemala, Vermont, Illinois, Texas, Kansas and Florida. Their presence meant the world, and their continued involvement has prevented the orphan perception from taking hold.

As intimated in Departures, we can never really prepare for death, but we can prepare our lives to accept death as a further step in making important connections. When the going gets tough, one conversation with an extended family member can work wonders to give perspective, a smile and a sense of calm. How fortunate that this is the year for Reunion 2010 on Mobile Bay.

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

Mountaintop removal

By Adam Thomas

I recently moved to one of the top ten most beautiful spots in the world. I live a three-minute walk from the Atlantic Ocean. I can see a lighthouse from my living room window. I bought a new car. I started working at a new church, which is as beautiful as the town surrounding it. The people at church are wonderful. The trees and flowers are exploding with spring colors. And to top it all off: it’s Easter, the happiest and most celebratory season in the church year. I know I am blessed, radically blessed.

So, why am I having trouble finding something to write about? Why am I having difficulty elucidating God’s presence in my life, at this, one of my life’s most idyllic moments? You’re probably thinking: “Adam, go back and read your first paragraph and quit complaining.” Fair point. But my difficulty is symptomatic of a deeper spiritual malady, which (strangely enough) a simple recitation of my blessings actually exacerbates. I’m sure this malady affects more Christians than just me, so let’s do a little diagnosing.

Our walks with God are topographically interesting. For the most part, we walk the straight path, which Isaiah and John the Baptizer proclaim is the way of the Lord. But sometimes, we meander through desolate valleys, in which simply finding the tiniest token of God’s presence is drink for our arid souls. Other times, we climb mountains, atop which we touch the very face of God and can never imagine a time when our spiritual energy will need recharging. The valleys and peaks, the lows and highs, are the times we remember.

We remember the smile the stranger gave us in the frozen food aisle when we’d forgotten that God was still around. We remember hearing the choir singing choral evensong and how our hearts soared into the very heart of God during the first chords of the Magnificat. We remember the smell of disinfected despair when we sat overnight in the hospital room. We remember standing on a literal mountaintop and breathing in the wind of the Spirit and seeing the patchwork creation spread out below us.

These valleys and mountains shape our lives as Christians. Some folks have Grand Canyons and Himalayas. Others have dry streambeds and foothills. But the slope of our lows and highs matters little. For this discussion, let’s agree that our walks with God have valleys and peaks. The spiritual malady I mentioned a moment ago severely limits our ability to process the peak category.

By removing the mountaintop receptors, the malady keeps our souls from gathering spiritual nourishment from the peak times in our lives. Our minds know that God must be moving in our lives for life to be so full of blessing. But our souls have trouble metabolizing that blessing into the nutrients that sustain us while we search for God’s presence. Without that sustenance, we cease our active awareness of God until there is a noticeable change from “good” to “bad” times. When the paradigm shifts from “good” to “bad” – that is, from mountain to valley – we enter spiritual survival mode and begin frantically looking for God, only to have the walls of the depression limit our sight.

The disciple Peter is patient zero for this spiritual malady. When Jesus calls him out of the boat, Peter walks on the water as if he’s ambling down a garden path. Walking on the water is a spiritual mountaintop, but the paradigm shifts quickly. Peter notices the waves around him, and he starts to sink. Only when he is floundering in the surf does Peter reach up his hand for Jesus to rescue him. Peter could have taken Jesus’ hand while walking atop the water, but he waits until his valley moment.

Like Peter, I forget to seek God when things are going well. When I’m on a mountaintop, I rarely open my eyes to take in the glorious view. Through an intellectual exercise, I know that I am blessed, but this blessing fails to filter into my soul. Only when the jaggedness of grief or deprivation assaults me do I begin my tardy search for God anew.

I know I’m not alone in dealing with the spiritual malady of mountaintop removal. If you suffer from it, then know that there are steps to address it. Take a few moments to look at your life. Orient yourself on the topographical map of your walk with God. Where are you in relation to your most recent valley? If you know that you are no longer in the valley, force yourself to do more than think about your blessings. Rather than an amorphous abstraction you call “blessing,” separate each small blessing into individual shimmering lights of grace. Write each one down. Then thank God for the blessings individually, and be creative. Thank God with action, not thought. If your blessing is having enough food, go feed someone who is starving. If your blessing is living near the ocean, go stomp around in the shallows. If your blessing is being a member of a loving family, go tell them how much they mean to you. If your blessing is the song in your heart, go sing.

Once you’ve acted out your thanks to God, don’t stop. Actively seek out ways to thank God for God’s blessing in your life. Every morning when you draw your first breath, decide to look for God’s presence that day. Then over time, you may see the ground beneath your feet rise into a mountain. And you will notice just how close is the face of God.

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.

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.

Singing and dancing through a vanishing era

By Frederick Quinn

<1> Camelot Off Broadway – St. Mary’s Cabaret Remembered

It was like Camelot, and each Monday night the aging singers and dancers from St. Mary’s Cabaret did their lively imitations of Al Jolson or Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire. Between forty to seventy theater people gathered weekly for an evening of song, dance, and socialization in the former convent of St. Mary the Virgin, 145 West 46th Street, off Broadway and Times Square, then disappeared into their single rooms in the fading tenement houses nearby.

The Rev. Scott Helferty, a skilled pianist and former seminarian at St. Mary’s, led almost eighty such evenings for two years in the early 1970s. “Roseland Dance City, a few blocks away, was closed on Monday nights, so St. Mary’s was a natural word of mouth attraction for a gathering of theatrical people now in their sixties and seventies. On other nights, many spent long hours in places like the Horn & Hardart Automat, nursing a cup of coffee or a piece of pie, the sort of self-contained night people Edward Hopper painted. “These were people in Broadway when it was at its peak in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, on the fringes as chorus and dance troupe members. Some had regular, some had intermittent employment. They were pretty much disconnected from families, so the Times Square/Broadway area was their home,” Helferty recalled. Retired now in Salt Lake City, the musician-priest was most recently interim vicar in Provo, Utah, served parishes in Chicago, Illinois, Portland, Oregon, and New Bedford, Massachusetts after graduating from General Theological Seminary in 1973.

<2> Monday Night at St, Mary’s Cabaret

St. Mary’s Cabaret came at the end of an era when there were over a hundred live theaters in midtown Manhattan and tickets cost .85 cents. All that quickly changed with the coming of television, yet the St. Mary’s entertainers kept hoping for the big break that would find them rediscovered, remembering a few colleagues who had been called out of retirement for roles in Broadway shows.

“The Broadway—Times Square area was in a severe state of decline. A third of the Broadway theaters and most of the great movie houses had closed. Porn shops and cheap stores proliferated. The great building spree around Times Square had not begun and along the side streets there were numerous former tourist and resident hotels that were now welfare hotels, where people lived at a subsistence level in the era just before homelessness became widespread,” Helferty remembered.

The musicians performing on a given Monday night handed the pianist faded dog-eared browned scores with tattered edges, music from musicals he had never heard of. “I was a pretty good sight reader, and they were easy to work with,” Helferty recalled. There were Irma and Irving, who did Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire dance routines. Irma had a long glittery dress cut up the side so she could dance in it, Irving had his well-preserved top hat and bow tie. “They were really good, they probably could have taught at Arthur Murray Dance studios,” he remembered. Another aging dancer arrived with scratchy 78 rpm records and performed meticulously choreographed Isadora Duncan routines, complete with purple leotard, veils and feathered boa. Clarice, a former Ziegfeld Follies dancer, had been a dime a dance girl at Roseland. A picture of her standing in her hotel hallway in a striking dance costume once appeared in la Vie des Arts, a Canadian arts magazine. Harry Kadeson, a Grade B movie singing cowboy, showed up weekly in his Gene Autry outfit, carrying a scrapbook filled with memories.

Guests brought finger food deserts. Participants were mostly self-identified Jewish and there was no proselytizing, but Helferty did invite Monday nighters who might be so inclined to witness a solemn pontifical high mass one night when Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey visited St. Mary’s. “I thought it was just very enchanting,” Irma said afterwards. When one is living on the precipice all the time it takes its toll.”

<3> Ministry to the Overwhelmed

How did he see this as ministry? “For a boy from Boise it was a whole new world,” Helferty replied. “We were all overwhelmed. The places where they were living were being torn down. They were literally living on nothing. The neighborhood was our meeting point and we were both feeling overwhelmed. My relationship with them was just to hear their stories. They certainly had a lot to tell. Some had had their moments, a fairly good part in a musical. They were very proud of that. None were famous or celebrities. The main fact is that they survived in an impersonal, cruel urban environment. The Monday night food may have been what they had to eat that day. Also, St. Mary’s was a safe place. Despite their well-kept, fading costumes and cheerful outlook, many of the guests had faces that showed the strains of life. “When one is living on the precipice all the time it takes its toll,” Helferty noted.

“It was fascinating, heart-breaking, endearing, and heart-warming. I think about these people more now than I thought about them at the time,” he concluded. Each Monday night cabaret ended with an upbeat song like “Sidewalks of New York.” “East Side, West Side, all around the town,” Harry sang with his cowboy twang, and Irma and Irving tapped along with the music. The others harmonized easily, sometimes a dining room full of elderly former entertainers closing the Monday night program, with Scott Helferty pounding out the tune on an upright piano.

The Rev. Dr. Frederick Quinn has written extensively on law, history, and religion. A former chaplain at Washington National Cathedral, his most recent book is The Sum of All Heresies, The Image of Islam in Western Thought, published by Oxford University Press.

Singing and dancing through a vanishing era

By Frederick Quinn

<1> Camelot Off Broadway – St. Mary’s Cabaret Remembered

It was like Camelot, and each Monday night the aging singers and dancers from St. Mary’s Cabaret did their lively imitations of Al Jolson or Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire. Between forty to seventy theater people gathered weekly for an evening of song, dance, and socialization in the former convent of St. Mary the Virgin, 145 West 46th Street, off Broadway and Times Square, then disappeared into their single rooms in the fading tenement houses nearby.

The Rev. Scott Helferty, a skilled pianist and former seminarian at St. Mary’s, led almost eighty such evenings for two years in the early 1970s. “Roseland Dance City, a few blocks away, was closed on Monday nights, so St. Mary’s was a natural word of mouth attraction for a gathering of theatrical people now in their sixties and seventies. On other nights, many spent long hours in places like the Horn & Hardart Automat, nursing a cup of coffee or a piece of pie, the sort of self-contained night people Edward Hopper painted. “These were people in Broadway when it was at its peak in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, on the fringes as chorus and dance troupe members. Some had regular, some had intermittent employment. They were pretty much disconnected from families, so the Times Square/Broadway area was their home,” Helferty recalled. Retired now in Salt Lake City, the musician-priest was most recently interim vicar in Provo, Utah, served parishes in Chicago, Illinois, Portland, Oregon, and New Bedford, Massachusetts after graduating from General Theological Seminary in 1973.

<2> Monday Night at St, Mary’s Cabaret

St. Mary’s Cabaret came at the end of an era when there were over a hundred live theaters in midtown Manhattan and tickets cost .85 cents. All that quickly changed with the coming of television, yet the St. Mary’s entertainers kept hoping for the big break that would find them rediscovered, remembering a few colleagues who had been called out of retirement for roles in Broadway shows.

“The Broadway—Times Square area was in a severe state of decline. A third of the Broadway theaters and most of the great movie houses had closed. Porn shops and cheap stores proliferated. The great building spree around Times Square had not begun and along the side streets there were numerous former tourist and resident hotels that were now welfare hotels, where people lived at a subsistence level in the era just before homelessness became widespread,” Helferty remembered.

The musicians performing on a given Monday night handed the pianist faded dog-eared browned scores with tattered edges, music from musicals he had never heard of. “I was a pretty good sight reader, and they were easy to work with,” Helferty recalled. There were Irma and Irving, who did Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire dance routines. Irma had a long glittery dress cut up the side so she could dance in it, Irving had his well-preserved top hat and bow tie. “They were really good, they probably could have taught at Arthur Murray Dance studios,” he remembered. Another aging dancer arrived with scratchy 78 rpm records and performed meticulously choreographed Isadora Duncan routines, complete with purple leotard, veils and feathered boa. Clarice, a former Ziegfeld Follies dancer, had been a dime a dance girl at Roseland. A picture of her standing in her hotel hallway in a striking dance costume once appeared in la Vie des Arts, a Canadian arts magazine. Harry Kadeson, a Grade B movie singing cowboy, showed up weekly in his Gene Autry outfit, carrying a scrapbook filled with memories.

Guests brought finger food deserts. Participants were mostly self-identified Jewish and there was no proselytizing, but Helferty did invite Monday nighters who might be so inclined to witness a solemn pontifical high mass one night when Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey visited St. Mary’s. “I thought it was just very enchanting,” Irma said afterwards. When one is living on the precipice all the time it takes its toll.”

<3> Ministry to the Overwhelmed

How did he see this as ministry? “For a boy from Boise it was a whole new world,” Helferty replied. “We were all overwhelmed. The places where they were living were being torn down. They were literally living on nothing. The neighborhood was our meeting point and we were both feeling overwhelmed. My relationship with them was just to hear their stories. They certainly had a lot to tell. Some had had their moments, a fairly good part in a musical. They were very proud of that. None were famous or celebrities. The main fact is that they survived in an impersonal, cruel urban environment. The Monday night food may have been what they had to eat that day. Also, St. Mary’s was a safe place. Despite their well-kept, fading costumes and cheerful outlook, many of the guests had faces that showed the strains of life. “When one is living on the precipice all the time it takes its toll,” Helferty noted.

“It was fascinating, heart-breaking, endearing, and heart-warming. I think about these people more now than I thought about them at the time,” he concluded. Each Monday night cabaret ended with an upbeat song like “Sidewalks of New York.” “East Side, West Side, all around the town,” Harry sang with his cowboy twang, and Irma and Irving tapped along with the music. The others harmonized easily, sometimes a dining room full of elderly former entertainers closing the Monday night program, with Scott Helferty pounding out the tune on an upright piano.

The Rev. Dr. Frederick Quinn has written extensively on law, history, and religion. A former chaplain at Washington National Cathedral, his most recent book is The Sum of All Heresies, The Image of Islam in Western Thought, published by Oxford University Press.

I know now what "a good death" means.

By Margaret Treadwell

"Every night I pray that God will take me, but I wake up the next morning and he didn't!" My mother said this often during the months before her death on Oct. 28. On her good days, she was looking forward to her 100th birthday on April 17.

Suffering with her frail body, yet extraordinarily independent and unafraid to speak her mind, my mother was interested in all my adventures, whether it be an opportunity to teach or publish, an escapade with our grandkids or travel with my husband. Last summer she said, "Peggy, I don't have time to die; there's always something going on with you!"

When my father died in 1996 after a long bout with Alzheimer's, my strong mama got a whole new life despite her grief, made diverse friends younger than she, listened to them and us without judgment, refused to gossip, kept her lively sense of humor and stayed faithful to her Episcopal church and the priests whose ministries sustained her as she became more homebound.

With a beautiful community surrounding her in Alabama, I determined to help her remain in her own home. As her pain grew, along with her litany of complaints, I tried to stay emotionally present despite being physically distant. But how I worried I wouldn't be with her at her death.

So when Mother's rector Rick called to say, "Come down now. It's time," my daughter Glennon and I were blessed to be able to go for five remarkable days before her death.

During that time, Mother was either deeply asleep or completely awake and present, wondering why we thought she was sleeping when she insisted she was hearing all we said.

Indeed, her responses were right on. On the second day, when my husband Jay called from a business trip, she asked about the details of it. When my son Josh called from New York, she wanted to know about his baby's first steps. When Rick called to check on her, she told him she wouldn't be here much longer, then said, "Know that I support you in everything you do except when I don't, and then I won't!"

Mother's singing voice disappeared several years ago, but on the third day she pulled herself out of sleep to recite words to songs, which we then sang to her, especially "Now the Day is Over" and "I'll be Loving You Always." She said, "I dreamed about Will [my dad]. We danced together, and he looked so handsome with the sweetest smile. I've loved my life!"

On the fourth day, when Mother never awoke, we continued to sing and pray with two close friends and her three caretakers. Early morning of the fifth day, we observed the signs of death. We gathered around her to recite in her ears (hearing is the last sense to disappear) Psalm 23 and The Lord's Prayer. On the "Amen" Mother took her last breath.

I know now what "a good death" means.

Later, at her funeral and life celebration, my husband observed, "It takes a village to let a 99 ½-year-old go!" Indeed her community poured out that day with love, memories and delicious food to nourish us. Our grandchildren joined the chorus of "Always" when I sang it during my eulogy, and Rick's homily captured Mom's mind, spirit and soul, which continue to live even as she has been released from her ravaged body.

My cousin Francis, a retired Episcopal priest, officiated at graveside. He told the story of a Jewish funeral where the rabbi turned the shovel over (upside down) to place the first spade full of dirt on the coffin. This signified regret but acceptance, and Francis did the same for Mother. Then grandson John, 5, wanted to dig the hole deeper and be chief shovel man; granddaughter Nola, 4, rounded up flowers from nearby tombstones for Mother's grave, while her sister Lily, 6, made sure her toddling cousin Katja, 14 mos., didn't fall into the hole. "Life is for the living," Mom would say.

As we continue to celebrate Mom's life, I'm surprised at the waves of pain and exquisite grief, which unexpectedly "smack me upside the head," grab my heart and punch me in the gut. A long life well lived doesn't diminish the void and ache of missing. I'm giving myself permission to be sad, to sleep when I'm exhausted, to have patience with myself and others for assuming that there is little need to mourn a good death of one so ancient. There are signs that transformation is in progress but will take time – God's time.

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

Going home

By Greg Jones

Can you go home?

A longing for home is a universal human thing. We all long for home...where it's safe, and warm, and comforting. Home's a place we were made for -- and we've tried to make them wherever we can, whether cave, caravan or condo.

Since God knit us together in our mothers' wombs, we have yearned to be connected, cared for, and expected at home. But, can you go home?

Home is what we long to go to -- and come from -- and work towards. And yet, so much of this life involves our leaving home. In good ways and bad. Certainly a big part of growing up is leaving home, and making a new one.

But, can you go home? Jesus had a hard time at home. Consider his home life. His first home was a barn. Then he lived on the lamb in Egypt as a refugee from Herod. Then he was raised in a podunk town. And in his religious homelife -- the synagogue where he knew them all and spent his faithful young life tried to kill him, and the Temple which he called "His Father's House" did eventually get him killed.

Yes, even Jesus had it hard at home (and his parents were saints.) What about you? Home, like life, can be a mixture of hopes and hurts. Maybe like Jesus you feel you cannot be yourself when you return home -- either to parents, family, hometown, friends, or whatever. Maybe you don't now. Maybe you've had to start a new life, away from too much hurt at home, and not enough hope. I think we all struggle to match the inner yearning for home with the realities of where we are.

Jesus presents the Good News in an interesting way. I believe he presents the Kingdom of God as the fulfillment of our longing for home. If one substitutes the word 'home' for 'Kingdom' you can see what I mean. Imagine if he said, "home is a place of enrichment, it is good news for the poor in body, mind and soul." Or, "home is a place of liberation, not captivity." Or, "home is a place of light and vision, not shadow."

Jesus tells us that God's dream is that all people have a home like this -- ideally on earth as in heaven. The Good News of Jesus is that He has come to build the way to that home, and to offer us the building materials for building such heavenly homes on earth (as best we can with God's help.) The building materials of such homes are grace, mercy, forgiveness, and above all, love. Love not for self, but for other. These building materials are precious, and of course, we can't forge them ourselves. This is where our prayer life and corporate life in Christ come in -- we must obtain all we need to build our Kingdom homes from the Maker himself.

Can you go home? Allow Christ to bring you by His way.

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.

Lessons from snow

By Bill Carroll

Snow brings out the best in people. Here in Athens, Ohio, I spend a dozen hours or so each winter clearing our driveway, sidewalks, and walkways. All around our neighborhood you can hear the familiar sounds of metal snow shovels on concrete.

The first year Tracey and I were married, we lived in Hyde Park, on Chicago’s south side. Like most people in that wonderful and bizarre little neighborhood, we parked our car on the city streets, observing arcane rules about which side of the street we could park on when the city needed to plow. We had to slow down and be very careful, because snow removal came late to Hyde Park (reportedly, because our alderman didn’t always vote with the mayor).

Sometimes, large sheets of ice would form and cars would skate through red lights or a four way stop, even if we were only going 5-10 miles per hour. We kept old cardboard boxes in our trunk, in case an ice pit formed in the gutter where we were parked. We’d layer the cardboard under the tires to improve traction, but sometimes that wasn’t enough. If we were still stuck, we could ask anyone walking by and they’d likely give us a push.

Hyde Park was by no means perfect. There were racial tensions and a history of difficult relationships between the University and the surrounding neighborhoods. Our neighbors, and we ourselves, had our vices and flaws, and we were involved in systemic injustices of many kinds. After a snowfall, however, we helped each other.

For most of us, snow brings out our latent tendency to live as neighbors. It summons us to responsibility. We look after snow removal, because we don’t want people to fall. We help one another, because one person needs help and another can provide it. We don’t count the cost. We don’t stop to ask “What’s in it for me?” Snow brings with it the possibility of moving from self-centeredness, for which we have powerful cultural inducements, to other-centeredness. As horrible as they are, natural disasters bring out similar good things in people. They awaken generosity of spirit, even self-sacrifice. Who would not risk his or her life to save a child, even someone else’s child? But snowfall seldom poses serious risks to life and limb. It gives rise to an ordinary level of caution, concern, and neighborliness. Most of the time, no sacrifice is needed, just a helping hand.

Snow also brings us opportunities for play. We throw snowballs and make people and angels in the snow. How difficult it is to contain the excitement of small children, especially when they have the day off from school!

When Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves, he isn’t saying anything new. He is reminding the People of Israel of something God has already commanded them (See Leviticus 19:18). Even the pagan world knew nothing of our isolation and rugged individualism here in the contemporary U.S.A.. In the ancient world, people were bound by a set of social obligations to everyone around them. Sometimes, these were oppressive (there is a reason the Enlightenment fought for individual rights, however limited and imperfect its vision); nevertheless, these real obligations gave people a sense of belonging and meaning.

What is new with Jesus is the command to love the enemy, and, if necessary, die for those who hate us. This is what it means “to love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). Also new with Jesus is his insistence that the commandment to love our neighbor, together with the commandment to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength, summarizes the entire law and gives us the key to understanding the whole of God’s will. Paul puts the same point this way: “Love does no wrong to the neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:10; cp. Galatians 5:14)

Just because a teaching is old doesn’t mean don’t still need to hear it. A functioning community involves obligations to our neighbor, but we often fail to fulfill them. Moreover, we also need Jesus’ radical redefinition of who counts as our neighbor. (See Luke 10:29-37.) Otherwise, we retreat into closed communities, impoverished by lack of difference, and help those who are sufficiently like ourselves.

The lessons of the snow are something we easily forget. Seeking our neighbor’s good, even when it conflicts with our own, is not something we have to wait to do. Every snowfall gives witness to the possibility of community and love. The Church, despite the teaching and example of Jesus, is not always good at practicing active, Christ-like love.

We could learn a lot about following Jesus in milder seasons by paying attention to what we do when it snows.

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.

Burning bushes

By Sam Candler

On the Saturday before the Third Sunday in Lent, I stood around helping my brother burn off some of the woods. My father was there, too. My brother-in-law, my mother, my wife were there. A family afternoon. Burning the woods is a regular affair on the farm where I grew up. I was glad to turn aside that day.

My brother had a nifty device filled with two-thirds diesel and one-third regular gasoline. When lit, its twisted nozzle functioned like a flame thrower, but it really just dripped fire out into the pine straw and bushes and sweet gum saplings. We always have to get rid of the sweet gums. My brother had already driven around the designated patch of woods with his tractor and plow, carving out a shallow fire line.

Burning the woods is critical to clearing out the underbrush that might start another, more serious, fire in those woods. But its main accomplishment is to clear out the underbrush for more birdlife and wildlife, and to provide for sturdier pines and primary trees.

We watched the wind, and we set the fire on the leeward side. That way, the fire would stay controlled and burn backwards into the wind. Fire likes to feed into the wind, probably like all of us do. And fire really does start quickly. I watched with my folks, mesmerized by the sheer chemical reaction spreading before us. We talked randomly about whatever was on our minds. Younger folks might call it "hanging out." Hanging out is much more enthralling when a fire is burning before you.

Occasional sparks drifted out over the fire line, and we put them out. A few of the larger pines caught fire at their bases. The water from the back of my fathers's four-wheeler put it out easily. That four-wheeler is really a mule, but it's a different sort of mule from the one that trudged through these same fields so long ago.

We heard a pileated woodpecker and then saw it sail through the glade in front of us. We listened to still another flock of sandhill cranes, but we never saw them, above the thick pines towering over us. We wondered why several deer sat nonchalantly in a nearby thicket, watching us, but never running away. Too many tame deer these days.

The next day I was at church, hearing about Moses, who turned aside from tending his family's flocks one day. He watched a bush being burned and yet not being consumed, He heard an angel remind him of his father's God. "I am who I am," Yahweh said. Holy ground.

Holy ground is where fathers and sons can stand around together. Mothers and daughters, too. With nothing important to do except burn something. With nothing important to say, except maybe "It is what it is." The standing around is more fascinating than the words. Something powerful is burning all around us. It burns, but it does not consume. Instead, it enthralls and inspires. Fire destroys the straw, but it germinates the seed. Fire creates fertility. Burning bushes makes for holy ground.

The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta. He chaired the House of Deputies' Committee on Prayerbook, Liturgy and Church Music at the General Convention. His sermons and reflections on “Good Faith and Common Good” can be found on the Cathedral web site.

Snowbound: Some Spiritual Lessons

By Kathy Staudt

Except for a brief grocery run between storms, I was “snowbound” for nearly a week, from February 9-13, with the two huge storms falling on the DC area. It took 2 days for our suburban cul-de-sac to be plowed at all – and then the second blizzard came. Unlike many in the area we have had our power on the whole time, so we were not materially deprived, apart from cabin fever. It was just a long stretch of time at being at home, mostly it’s been an experience of just being “stopped.”

At first we celebrated this time as an “enforced Sabbath,” something that is welcome in the workaholic culture of the DC area, when the weather conditions and the slowness of the cleanup process simply force us to let go of whatever important things we were doing. And for a day or so, yes, it was a welcome “sabbath time.” But after that a more insidious inertia set in.

Indeed, I have been wondering whether an “enforced Sabbath” is kind of a contradiction in terms. Sabbath is supposed to be a regular spiritual practice, a part of our routine – a way that we simply let go of busy-ness to acknowledge that God is Lord of all of our time and work, and that our work is not our own, but God’s. It strikes me that perhaps a more regular practice of genuine Sabbath would have been a good preparation for the spiritual challenge this snowstorm posed for me. For what I felt most of the time was a deep restlessness, a sense of being unhooked from any reliable routine or pattern, and so an inability to settle to much of anything – even settling down to read a good book, as I’d longed to do, and had time to do, or to write, or pray, or do anything much more than responding to what came: answering email, gmail chatting, facebook, grading the occasional paper.

By the end of the week I was snowbound both outwardly and internally. Unmotivated. Stuck. It is a place in life I recognize, and perhaps it has left me with a useful image, a new spiritual metaphor to remember when I do not have control over the way forward, and the place I’m in seems crowded, enclosed, confused, with too many competing demands. Outwardly, I kept busy, apparently “doing things.” Since I work at home, the work was all there, looking at me, and I picked my way through it, in an unmotivated way. But any substantive or creative writing was just blocked. With the rhythm of days flattened out, I lost the internal rhythm of prayer, study, work and rest that would normally steady and settle me. The computer was too alluring – a way of staying connected with people, emails and facebook posts that make me feel needed, important, not buried at the end of a suburban cul de sac. My spouse was at home, also working, we broke for meals together, and I did find that losing myself in the creative art of cooking does help to redeem a snowy day -- but even that grew old after 5 days.

Inwardly, my response to this snowstorm and the break in our routine was beginning to feel more like the kind of “stopping” of life that comes with illness, or grieving, or other unexpected interruptions. Times when we are “brought up short” – as theologian Richard Osmer puts it – where we come up against a break in our regular expectations of life and are not sure what to make of it.

Then there was the shoveling out: my way to freedom, once the roads were clear, thwarted by my own bad choices: I had parked the car in the driveway after the first storm, to save the effort of shoveling our whole driveway, which slopes uphill from the garage. But the second snowstorm buried the car under a snowdrift – so the work of digging it out doubled. In the end I needed to dig the whole driveway, roll the car back into the garage, and begin again. . No work saved, and hard to see how long it would take me – and no help in sight. The neighbor who had helped me after the first storm was tapped out; my spouse was laid up with bronchitis. My car would be free only when I could get it out.

The task itself was clear enough, but discouraging. I would dig away at the snow but there was nowhere to go with it – the piles blew back at me, and though I’m in decent shape it grew tiring, heaving each shovelful to the top of the growing snowpiles along the driveway. Gradually I’d begin to see patches of pavement, mingled with ice -- but I’d think: “this will take hours – maybe won’t be done by dark today. I don’t know how long my strength will last.” All I could do was to keep filling the shovels fullpiling snow high on the already deeply covered lawn behind me.” An unrewarding task for long stretches, but obviously the only way out.

Gradually, shovelful by shovelful, I began to break through to a way out.. It was fine as long as I could focus on the single task: lifting the next shovelful, moving the snow, pausing to admire the brilliant sky and the sparkling icicles around me. When I started to obsess about how long it would be before I was dug out, and whether it would be today or tomorrow, discouragement quickly overwhelmed.. There was no way of knowing how soon my efforts would pay off. I simply had to keep on. Knowing it would be done eventually. Not knowing when, or how long I could last, this shift, before taking a break.

Help came, finally, when I was about ready to admit defeat. – from someone with fresh arms and a fresh approach. He moved the last few shovelfuls and backed the car out for me, up and over the icy hill, and finally, I was free.

I’m appreciating some spiritual insights from this experience of being snowbound. It may be reaching a bit, but the metaphor works for me, I shall try to remember all of this next time I am aware of being spiritually “snowbound” – in that place of interior “stuckness” that is all too familiar for me.

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 snow shovel (or An illustration of God’s Providence)

Daily Episcopalian will continue on an every-other day schedule this week.

By Adam Thomas

Here’s something you don’t know about me: I don’t own a snow shovel. This fact was unimportant until a few weeks ago when a record December snowfall dropped two feet of powder on Berkeley County, West Virginia. I woke up to a foot of snow outside, and the sky was dumping an inch an hour. I opened my front door, and the snow made an encroaching barrier to my front stoop. I went to the cupboard and pulled out my house broom. Sweeping the snow from the steps, I felt like Gandalf staring down the Balrog: “You shall not pass!”

But a broom is a poor substitute for a proper shovel, especially with the quantity of snow making islands of every vehicle on the street. And this is where the providence of God comes in. Providence is a tricky thing because one can easily over-define it to a point where we are simply chess pieces for God to move around the terrestrial board. To make matters trickier, one can also under-define Providence to a deistic level: God is merely an observer, having set events in motion with the winding of creation’s clock long ago. Neither of these definitions is satisfactory. Theologian Paul Tillich strikes a balance when he says, “Providence is a permanent activity of God. He is never a spectator; he always directs everything toward fulfillment. Yet God’s directing creativity always creates through the freedom of man and through the spontaneity and structural wholeness of all creatures.”

So what’s all this have to do with my lack of a snow shovel? I’m glad you asked. Sometimes, encountering the Providence of God takes something quite small. We shall enter this small story during the early months of 2009, when a dear man from my congregation purchased a new car. He had been getting tired of his old Buick, and so he went for a shiny, silver Japanese sedan. But within a month of driving the car off the lot, he fell ill.

The cancer had been growing slowly, and for a time, the doctors held it at bay. The man spent several weeks in the hospital, until the medical staff, his family, and he decided that being comfortable in his own bed at home was as good for his condition as any drug. For several more weeks, he held on, making his wife laugh and cry, joking with the hospice nurses, slowly disintegrating from the inside. Not until his final day did the awareness, the flash in his eye, fade. He passed on in July, leaving his loving wife, a daughter, grandchildren, a cluttered house full of memories, and a brand new, silver, Japanese sedan.

Fast forward from midsummer to mid-autumn. A deer ran into my little Korean car, and the insurance company whisked it away to the total loss center to be evaluated. For some foolish reason, I didn’t have rental coverage as part of my plan. But I did have something even better: the man’s wife, who is the dear heart I’ve mentioned many times in blog entries over the last year. She found out that I was without a car, and asked (in her sweet, typical fashion) if I would help her out: “You see, his car’s been sitting in the garage since summer and if it doesn’t get driven, it will start to fall apart. I would be very pleased if you would drive it for me.”

I readily agreed to the arrangement, all the while smiling to myself because she made it sound like I was the one doing her a favor. After two weeks, my damaged car finally made it to the auto shop, the insurance company having decided it was worth repairing. I hoped to have it back by Thanksgiving, but the mechanic found more damage than the original estimate covered, which necessitated another visit from the adjuster. So when will it be done, I asked; by mid-December, the mechanic promised.

“Keep the car as long as you need to,” the dear heart said, when I told her the repairs were delayed. I suspect that if my car had been a total loss, she would have simply given me the shiny sedan because she’s just that generous a person. But I really like my car, so I was willing to wait out the repairs. I called the auto shop on December 17th hoping to hear that I could pick up the car that day. The collision was five weeks before, surely enough time to repair some front-end damage.

“Well, we took the car for a spin,” said the mechanic, “but it needs realigning so we put it on the lift and noticed something. Did you say your insurance company took the car to a total loss center first?” Yes, I said, not liking where this conversation was going. “Well,” the mechanic continued, “at those places, they use this kind of crane to lift the cars… We’d’ve never noticed it if we hadn’t put the car on the lift, but it looks like the crane cracked the fuel tank. So I need to get your adjuster out one more time to look at it.” Great, I thought. How long, I said. Another couple of weeks, what with the holiday and all, came the answer.

Two days later, the snow hit. With broom in hand, I stood on the front stoop and looked at the snow-covered Japanese sedan. The car had been driven a total of 317 miles before I took the wheel. I had put nearly two thousand miles on it during the last month. I thought about the dear man, a practical fellow, who bought the car last winter. I trudged out to the car, swept the snow from the trunk, and opened it. Inside was a shovel.

Now that’s Providence.

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.

Love came down at Christmas

by Kay Flores

A few weeks before Christmas, my friend Andrew asked what time our Christmas Day service was scheduled. I hated to say we didn’t have one scheduled – but it was true, we didn’t have one scheduled. Our small congregation had decided to focus our efforts on two special services: the Banging-of-the-pans-to-drive-away-the-dragons-of-darkness service (followed by Compline) held on December 21, and our Christmas Eve service, and there wasn’t much energy around another service on Christmas Day.

Andy then had a great idea: Let’s take Eucharist to our new rehabilitation hospital, where our friend Kay Rohde is hospitalized.

Kay, an Episcopal priest, and until recently the Wind and Wings youth coordinator in the Diocese of Wyoming, was told in late November that the numbness in her leg was caused by a tumor on her spinal cord. By early December she had the surgery to remove it. A few days later she was moved to Elkhorn Valley Rehabilitation Hospital in Casper, and has been hard at work ever since as her body relearns the physical skills she needs.

I was excited about Andy’s idea, and immediately took it to Kay. She consulted with the administration at Elkhorn Valley. They enthusiastically agreed to host a 10:00 a.m. service, as long as we made it an ecumenical service. As part of her occupational therapy, Kay made and delivered flyers to the other patients. We agreed on a service from the Iona Community, and my friend, Temple, and I prepared the bulletins. Our altar guild packed a to-go box containing a chalice, paten, and wine. A neighboring church shared gluten free wafers.

Kay Rodhe tells the rest of the story.

Folks began to gather in the cafeteria. The altar was a bed side table, set with chalice and paten. St. Stephen’s had prepared the worship leaflets, and the two young people from St. Stephen’s, Elizabeth and Catherine Kerr, handed them to the patients as they began to arrive. The room was full of the Spirit as the 20 patients and 9 members of St. Stephen’s sang O Come All Ye Faithful. We read the Christmas story from Luke and reflected a bit on the wonder of Love coming down at Christmas, and that no matter what is going on in the world, Love always will risk to be present - based on a poem by Madeline L'Engle. I looked out at the congregation, most in wheelchairs, some not able to speak out loud, but God was there - in their eyes, in their smiles, in the Spirit of Love that connected all of us. We blessed the bread and the wine and as communion was distributed, we sang more Christmas carols. We thanked God for the meal and for sending Love down to dwell among us and closed with a rousing verse and chorus of Angels we Have Heard on High. For those of us there, Christmas had come once more - and the feeling spread down the halls as they returned to their rooms to get ready for Christmas Dinner -(served to us by the hospital staff).

The thing about ministry is that when you minister to someone else, you are being ministered to, also. That was certainly true for me today. With the help of St. Stephen’s, we were able to give those here in the hospital a gift - to be able to worship on Christmas, to hear the Gospel, to sing the carols, and for those who wished it, to receive Communion. But I received gifts also. I had been feeling a bit down last night - about the time that midnight services would be starting. I badly wanted to be there, to hear the O Come let us Adore Him, to hear the music and smell the pine boughs and feel that incredible sense of awe at being a part of the Christmas story. Today, celebrating in a rehab hospital cafeteria, no candles, no booming organ, no pine boughs or choirs, just a small group from a little church in Casper who were willing to share their worship with people they didn't even know and a hospital full of people in pain, just recovering from traumatic surgeries, people who are trying to relearn how to walk, people who may never walk again - that same awe was there. Love came down at Christmas and wrapped arms around each one of us - and you could feel it! And for me another gift: One of my rehab goals was to be able to continue to function as a priest - and I am!

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war and hate
And a nova lighting the sky to war.
That time runs out and sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
in a land in the crushing grip of Rome:
Honour and truth were trampled by scorn-
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth
And by greed and pride the sky is torn-
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

~~Madeleine L’Engle

Photos by Elizabeth Kerr, click to enlarge, more photos here

Kay Flores, St. Stephen's, Casper WY, is soon to be ordained transitional deacon in the church she serves. She is a mentor and trainer for EfM both face to face and online and is an unemployment judge for the State of Wyoming.

The sandhill cranes

By Sam Candler

The day had already been satisfying and successful. I had led a men’s retreat on a beautiful piece of property about an hour and a half south of Atlanta, Georgia. The crisp November air had nourished a new sparkle in the oak and poplar leaves. Some of us went fishing; some of us shot guns. The trailing wind and rainy remnants of a distant hurricane had came through and opened up the night sky, revealing a thick and lush panoply of stars.

Out in the open country, the retreat itself was also thick and delightful. I remembered how Herodotus described the war discussions of the ancient Persians. Apparently, when deliberating about whether to go to war, they made such decisions twice. First, in the steady light of reason and tempered discourse, they reached one rational decision. Then, apparently, they would engage the same question while they were drunk. If they came to the same decision in both situations, they would act on it.

So it went on our men’s retreat. After Thursday night, on Friday, we discussed manhood and spirituality. What are the masculine features of a healthy spirituality? What does it mean to be a liberated man in our current economic situations? What is the love of the father, and why are there masculine images for God? We considered the four archetypal “soul types” that Richard Rohr presents in his book, “From Wild Man to Wise Man.” (those types are king, warrior, magician, and lover; more about those soul types on another day.)

On the way back to Atlanta, I drove through the county where I had grown up. I was actually trying to get to the county airport, where my son was preparing for a two hundred and fifty mile cross-country airplane trip. He has been obtaining the necessary licenses to be a commercial airplane pilot. But I just missed him. By 2:00 pm, he had already left with his instructor, flying southward. I texted him with our familiar family lines: “Have fun and be careful.” Those lines have informed our family blessings for almost thirty years.

Back home in Atlanta, I sat outside to catch up on mail and necessities. Given the late hour of my previous evening, I thought perhaps I should take a nap. But then, I heard the sounds.

I heard the familiar, wonderful, and guttural sounds. They sound like gurgles first, so clear and so loud – especially so on a crisp fall afternoon in Georgia. But they cannot be true gurgles, for they come from above, from the air. I have heard them almost every year of my fifty-three years. They are as dependable as these flaming November leaves on maple trees before me.

They were sandhill cranes. I counted at least eighty of them, not far above me this year, undulating in the breeze, substituting the lead, flanking out asymmetrically and raggedly. They were beautiful. This year, with the crisp afternoon sun on them, I could observe astounding detail in their necks and heads.

They were flying right over the developed city of Atlanta, which is nevertheless still blessed with trees and some open land. No matter how congested the Atlanta traffic becomes, and no matter how frantic our daily human lives are at this time of year, the sandhill cranes are an annual prayer flag for me. God sends them fluttering southward in the wind. They are being led and piloted by a power that has existed long before I was born.

Inevitably, I always hear the birds before I see them. So it is, Jesus said, with those born from above, those born of the wind of the Holy Spirit. “You hear the sound of the wind, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it goes.” The Holy Spirit pilots those birds up and down the continent every year.

This year, I am waiting for that telephone call or text message or email from another pilot, my son. No matter how different he is from me, and no matter how much he faithfully differentiates himself from me, still, a piece of me is with him all the time. A piece of me is up there with him in the Cessna airplane right now, flying freely to the south.

This year, my spirit has leaped up to join the sandhill cranes. Maybe I can fly with them. I’ll try to catch up to that airplane that took off a few hours ago. It has landed now, and the cranes will catch up to him. I hope he remembers to look up, even after he has landed. Even after he has succeeded in the day’s challenge, I hope he remembers to pause and to look up.

I think he’ll see those same sandhill cranes flopping and flapping overhead. They are always there this time of year, but most humanity in this generation has never seen them.

The Holy Spirit, too, is flying over us – and maybe through us and among us; but we will not glimpse that power until we pause and look around. Maybe we will look up, on a retreat; maybe we will have to look down, toward our own children. Maybe we will hear the Holy Spirit before we see anything, and maybe the sound will seem like guttural foreign tongues. The Spirit speaks like that sometimes. But she always soars, and she always waves for us to follow.

The Very Rev. Sam Candler is dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta. He chaired the House of Deputies' Committee on Prayerbook, Liturgy and Church Music at the General Convention. His sermons and reflections on “Good Faith and Common Good” can be found on the Cathedral web site.

Moving: A riot of riddance

By Ann Fontaine

We are in the process of selling our Wyoming house and moving to Oregon. In the last few weeks we have been clearing out the cupboards, having a garage sale, donating to the local thrift shops, taking books to the used bookstore, and going to the dump, in preparation for whenever we sell this house. Who knew how much stuff we had until we started contemplating moving to a house that is less than half the size of our home here in Wyoming!! A house with lots of storage that has been lived in for over 30 years is a blessing and a curse. Thankfully our daughter, who is Attlilla the Hun when it comes to ruthless riddance, was here for a couple of weeks to help us stop dithering.

Moving and downsizing is a good thing overall but hard to get in gear to do. The process has many blocks for me. Most, like inertia and always finding more interesting things to do are easy to overcome. The biggest block is memory. The things I cling to are not of great value – valuable things are easy for me to sell or leave behind. The things that our kids made in pre-school, items that were familiar from my grandmother’s house, and things that were held in the hands of my loved ones, who are now dead, are the most difficult for me to toss. Once our children have taken the bits they want and we have sent them those boxes we have been storing for them since they left home after college, no one will want the items that hold the most meaning for me. At the garage sale, they sit unwanted even in the free pile. This is the time for a kind friend or compassionate daughter to step in to help with the separation. I close my eyes and don’t want to know what is in the dumpster or on its way to the landfill.

There is also a cathartic aspect to getting rid of years of accumulations. Thirty-three years of paperwork (3700 pounds!) from my husband’s medical office and all our personal financial records except those required by the IRS are off to be shredded. Paper of all sorts is headed to the recycler. Church conventions and meetings, Sunday School ideas, clippings saved for who knows why: all those things we kept saying we should look through – gone. Joy is finding a note from one’s first teaching job – that says that I did good work with those little 4th graders, even though all these years later I wonder what ever possessed me to think I knew so much about raising kids when I was 21 and had none of my own. Sadness is finding a photo of a family who were perhaps once close but now, who knows. We packed it all up - affirmations of life and bits of shame – all being turned into some new paper for some other purpose.

The process of moving has a death and resurrection sense about it but it is also like waiting for a birth. We are in the “soon but not yet” phase of leaving our life in Wyoming. We have no offers on the house (we are not desperate enough to bury St. Joseph upside down in the yard) and in this economy who knows when an offer might come along. We have stripped ourselves of many possessions but still have more to go. We have stopped volunteering to participate in things we will not be around to be affected by.

Perhaps it is most like Advent, a time of waiting. The old things that made our life are ending – the new has only made its presence felt with a few light kicks.

I hope this process is good for the soul. The baggage of years can block the Spirit. Cleaning house and ridding oneself of unneeded material goods can make way for space to welcome new life. This is what I have been told by others who have preceded me in this activity. It remains to be lived into.

A riot of riddance

closing my eyes

I toss it all into

the shredder

moments of glory

moments of shame

all the same

now – fine bits of confetti

perhaps for a party

I wait, not stagnant, just grieving and waiting.

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.

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.

Gifts and glazing windows

By Heidi Shott

One morning a friendly man arrived at our house and, without much ado, climbed onto the roof of our enclosed porch and chainsawed it from the rest of the house. Even though we were paying him and the porch was on the verge of collapse, the effect was surprising – it’s strange to see cut adrift from its moorings a cozy space where you’ve cracked lobster claws, triumphed at Scrabble™ and enjoyed many a blissful snooze.

One lazy summer afternoon, a few summers before the chainsaw episode, my friend Christine and I sat on the rickety porch talking about absolutely nothing while our kids ran around outside. At one point she gazed over my shoulder and in her calm mother-of-five voice said, “Ah, you’re missing a window pane there, Heido.”

I looked behind me and sure enough a pane was just…gone. We stepped outside to the deck and the troops gathered around. Everyone had to stick a hand through the hole. At the base of the window the glass lay, unbroken but sheepish. “If you don’t fix that, Mom, the flies will get in,” my ever-helpful son Martin said, poking at the neighboring pane with a stick. It clattered to the deck. “That one too.”

Well, there was no way around it. It was summer. Maine has bugs. It had to be fixed before nightfall. Before long I was back on my deck with glazing compound and glazier points. I don’t know where I learned to fix window panes – maybe growing up on a farm or the summer I painted college dorms – but it’s something I know how to do.

Warming to the task, I began the fun of rubbing a snake of glazing compound between my palms. I relished the satisfaction of placing a little metal point in just the right spot to keep the pane snug against the sash and the expert flick of the putty knife smoothing the compound so pretty and even. Except that when I finished, it wasn’t. It wasn’t in the same hemisphere as pretty and even. What it was, was -- marginally -- okay. But here’s the truth: as homely and unprofessional as my panes looked, I was a little proud.

As I stood on my deck dodging annoyed bees and wielding my putty knife, I began to wonder if that’s how the gifts of God work: some of us have general ability in a number of fields, some of us are tremendously capable in one area. Some of us have strong minds, some of us have strong backs. Some congregations have a powerful call to one ministry, some are drawn to many missions of a limited scope. Some priests are gifted in pastoral work, some are drawn to other pastures.

If that is true, then there’s the beauty, the symmetry of our life as the Church of Christ – on the parish, diocesan, Church-wide, and Communion-wide stage. Each one, each entity has a niche but we need what the others bring to the table to be complete. We tend to think of gifts as big, bold offerings, but perhaps some of us are gifted with the ability to do a lot of things well enough. It’s not a flashy gift like preaching or singing or running a tight meeting, but what congregation could do without those few capable and willing souls who are there, day after day, doing what needs to be done. And how do we shake the crazy notion that a certain way of being a church or a priest or a saint is more valuable to the Kingdom of God than any other?

My late father, who insisted that knowing how to shingle a roof was a life skill his children needed to possess, used to say of himself, “A jack of all trades, master of none.” He always said it with a self-deprecating chuckle, but we knew he wore it like a badge of honor. I think God has created a lot of people like my dad and me, those who can do long division in a pinch, tie on a fishing lure, roast a turkey, comfort a friend or write a heck of a good letter when the need arises.

Those among us with tremendous ability or a singular talent are dear to us for showing us God’s image so clearly. Those with broader gifts sound the daily gentle hum of the Spirit of Christ in our midst, and they sure are handy to have around when a window pops out.

Heidi Shott is canon for communications and social justice in the Episcopal Diocese of Maine.

Finding community at the riverside

By Jean Fitzpatrick

What a treat it's been this summer to take my walks at Croton Landing, a brand-new park along the Hudson. Honeysuckle and beach plums there provide a foreground to sailboats and kayaks floating on sparkling waves. The river is tidal (the original inhabitants called it Mohicanituck, or "the river that flows both ways") and on the brackish water you see gulls, cormorants and even great blue heron. It's all part of what will one day be a 50-mile RiverWalk from the Bronx to Peekskill, where there used to be not much more than old factories, trash-littered industrial sites, and the Amtrak and Metro North railroad tracks, built a century ago to transport the robber barons from Wall Street to their palatial homes overlooking the Palisades. The place isn't paradise: Trains still rumble by every so often, horn blaring. Jetskiers slap against the waves. Mosquitoes nosedive straight to my ankles. But our new park is a giant step toward reclaiming the river's breathtaking natural beauty.

Actually, human nature may well be the most wonderful part of the scene. On a recent afternoon, flocks of ducks and geese paddled across a rocky inlet while kids on the path zoomed by on bikes, scooters, training wheels and skateboards. A middle-aged South Asian couple strolled along, deep in conversation. Teens sunbathed on the grass as poodles and terriers strutted past with their walkers. A small boy in a yellow T-shirt clutched a fishing line; a group of men talking in Spanish unloaded tackle-boxes and coolers from their car. Under a weeping willow a man in short sleeves and headphones played electric guitar. Near some girls playing with hula hoops, a woman I'd never seen before called me to the water's edge and pointed to a hawk on the rocks who'd captured a small brown animal; neither of us could see his prey well enough to identify it. Everyone nodded or said hello. As we watched the sunset put on its show -- purple-tufted clouds with undersides fiery pink -- perfect strangers smiled at one another, saying, "Isn't this park great?" It's as though we were not only happy to have our stretch of the river back, but also grateful for the opportunity to experience it together.

Walking along, I found myself thinking about healthcare. With 45.7 million uninsured -- roughly one out of 6 Americans -- I tried to imagine who that one vulnerable person was: the kid on the scooter? The guy with the guitar? The woman watching the hawk? Strange to think how easy it is in a public park -- and how hard, apparently, in a town hall meeting -- to recognize that what benefits some of us benefits us all, that when we work for the common good we're all better off. Discouraging to see how so little compassion can exist in a nation where some 80 percent identify themselves as Christian. Sad to realize that the all-too-widespread emphasis on personal salvation -- the product of our individualistic age and not of the biblical vision that calls us into covenant with one another -- must surely contribute to this sorry state of affairs. How important were the words of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori's opening address in Anaheim, when she spoke of individual salvation as "the great Western heresy." "I am because we are," she said, "and I can only become a whole person in relationship with others."

We're recognizing this every day at Croton Landing. Watching those flocks of ducks and geese paddling by is humbling, in a way. They've been smart enough to know it all along.

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.

As summer winds down

By Greg Jones

For most of my life I have gone to Maine in the summers. It is a place of vast wilderness, rocky coastline, and just a touch of civilization. Downeasters are few relative to the square miles of woods and lakes and coast, and so the human being can quickly feel very small in Maine, even when you add in the large tourist population each summer. In many years of walking in Maine woods, canoeing lakes and rivers, and puttering on vast beaches loaded with cobbles not sand, I have also felt naturally humbled by Maine. God has made a beautiful place in Maine -- just as of course he has done all over this great planet.

Have you ever been humbled by nature? By God's creation - to be more precise? We live in a vast world, amidst a vaster cosmos, and if one becomes even for a moment thoughtful, one quickly realizes how small one is in comparison. It is tempting when one contemplates his smallness to become depressed, perhaps, or even insignificant. And yet, the Good News of God in Jesus Christ leads us to a very different conclusion. Indeed, Scripture indicates to us that we are very small compared to all that God has made (and will make after we are gone) -- but -- nonetheless, the gospel also tells us that the God of all things loves us even as much as he loves himself. We are small, and yet, we matter. To the biggest One of all.

Wisdom, Scripture says, for we small specks in the vast cosmos comes not when we pretend to comprehend our universe or our place in it, but when instead we humbly seek union in our selves, souls and bodies with the Lord of all. Wisdom, the fulfillment of soul and mind, comes not in the consumption or comprehension of the world's stuff, but in seeking God: in prayer, song, care for others, thankfulness, and the seeking of peace amidst the strife of life.

This Fall, it is my prayer that we Episcopalians continue to be among those wise ones who make the most of the time, and seek God together in these ways.

"Every bird that cuts the airy way"

By Kathleen Staudt

My spiritual practice in the summer is to begin each day on my patio, in the cool of the early morning, sip my first cup of tea of the day, sometimes write in my journal, and watch what is going on in my back yard. We have a regular wildlife sanctuary this year, on our fifth-of-an-acre suburban lot. In the yard of the abandoned house next door (awaiting new construction), grass and shrubs have grown up, and a family of deer has taken up residence there. There’s now so much growing next door that they don’t even come into my yard any more. The rabbits, on the other hand, have eaten down just about whatever will grow – and yet there is something lovely, peaceful about them, browsing on the clover in the grass, in the early morning light. As I watch them, and the growing light, the sound of birdsong around me increases – cardinals, catbirds, crows and mourning doves, gradually drowning out the not-so-distant hum of cars on the capital beltway, half a mile away.

But what I most love is watching the birds on the feeder each morning. Though the English sparrows and grackles can be aggressive, a wonderful variety of birds visit each day, sometimes fighting over the black oil sunflower seeds, sometimes perched beside each other, simply being fed. Purple finches, goldfinches, house finches, cardinals, sparrows, downy and hairy woodpeckers, a flicker and occasionally a red-headed woodpecker, the occasional blue jay – and, this morning, hovering briefly over the bright pink and orange potted zinnias beside me, a tiny hummingbird!

I don’t get tired of watching them, even when they’re fighting over roosting spots or charging each other off with a flap of wings. Rather, I have the sense that I am being admitted into another world, watching them from my patio. They have their issues and their competitions but there is such a variety of species, colors, shapes among them – all birds, but abundant in their diversity. I find myself delighting in just seeing them all there together in all their variety – and I wonder, sometimes, how they see each other – across species and families yet within their bird-world. My feeling, watching them from the outside, is delight. They seem to be giving to another way of being, beyond my understanding. They invite me to watch and pay attention.

William Blake wrote somewhere, “How do you know, but every bird that cuts the airy way is an immense world of delight, closed by your senses five?” He’s on to something there. Watching the birds each morning is a contemplative practice, bringing me to the limit of what I can see and observe, fascinating me, offering a glimpse into a beauty, a mystery, I cannot name, and teaching me to sit still and pay attention. In this way it is a contemplative practice. It is one of the things that I love most about the summer months –this time to sit outdoors, before the air becomes too warm, to watch and wait for the birds to invite me into the mystery of prayer.

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.

Burning make-believe witches, contemplating the real Christ

By Donald Schell

Mundaka, Spain, Midsummer Eve 2009

On vacation last month, I attended a witch burning. She wasn’t real, of course---it was the local village festival. It started in the plaza. People milled around, talking and gossiping with neighbors, greeting new arrivals, but mostly waiting.

By ten, as the long dusk finally yielded to darkness, we heard shrill fifes and snare drums. Musicians strode into the square each one deftly playing a fife with one hand and drumming their snare drum with the other.

The crowd listened impatiently, and cheered when the witch flew out an alley and into the crowded square.

Her bearers were four very athletic young Basques; it was their skip-dancing that catapulted her into the square, flying on the broom to which she was shackled. The dancers carried her on a bier-like platform on their shoulders, a comical, but credible and somewhat eerie, life-sized bit of straw and black taffeta sculpture. Was she flying around the crowd or were we seeing a memory of how someone would be carried to the execution? I put the question aside.

The crowd offered our ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ at the witch’s long white hair and flowing black dress rippling in the breeze and the tiny white Christmas lights eyes that flashed on and off in her plastic witch mask face. Riding on her back, the black cat’s red Christmas light eyes seemed to flash their own effigy of anger at the helpless, dizzying ride the bearers gave witch and cat as vigorous prancing steps rocked the effigies crazily from side to side, backwards and forwards.

The leader of the bearers shouted something in Basque and they skip-danced headlong into the crowd, driving us laughing and screaming in all directions.

Now musicians led us all out of the square and into Mundaka’s narrow twisting streets. It was a full hour before the bearers had to pause, panting for breath. With just one fife giving them a little, lighter music, they marked time slowly in place while the score of little witches who had been following (six to ten-year-old village girls dressed all in black) danced a circle around the bearers and bier and then turned back to dance under it, cutting a giddy figure eight around the brawny bearers and their burden. Then down more twisting streets, past the harbor and up the hill. Finally, they danced the witch into Atalaya Park where the huge pyre of discarded wooden furniture, bedsprings, and even a surfboard stood on the lawn beside St. John’s Church. They pyre made me wonder, was this ritual like spring cleaning or redecorating? Like new years’ resolutions?

The musicians took their place to one side, and the villagers danced—some expert in the traditional Basque dances, other just beginners—all were welcome. Everything felt deliberately, teasingly prolonged, but finally the four carriers climbed the pyre and placed the witch on the very top. She was the stillest she’d been since she appeared. For a moment I wondered how exhausted and nauseated a human prisoner would have been from that two-hour tortuous dance. Was I being too serious? I didn’t pursue the thought, but the image and memory stayed with me.

The music had stopped. The young men who had carried the witch lit the pyre with torches. The witch’s electric eyes flashed in near silence. The crowd was quiet. There was no sound but the sea breeze that lifted the edge of the witch’s dress to show her straw stuffing and faint crackling of fire. Small fires joined together and the flames grew taller.

I’ve found it hard to write about this and capture my confusion. I will confess, somewhat reluctantly that the event was quite wonderful, haunting, and yes, beautiful. We stood, enjoying being part of a tiny human gathering of dancing and firelight in the vastly larger stillness of midsummer night on Spain’s rugged coast.

But it troubled me too. We were celebrating and re-enacting a terrifying, violent death. My first pass at the frightening part was whispering to my wife, Ellen, “I wonder if anyone here knows the old stories about the last time this really happened. How did it become a party?”

But I was speaking a question that made no sense on a magical evening.

Close to 1 a.m. as the fire burned itself down, the musicians finally stopped and the little witches and traditional dancers danced the last steps in their circle dances and bowed to one another, laughed, and scattered.

As we walked back to our hotel, I said to my wife, “Imagine what protests a playful re-enactment like this would produce in Salem, Massachusetts – or Berkeley!”

Remembering the evening as I write, the delight and wonder remain. This was emphatically NOT a human sacrifice, though it imaged one. Somehow remembering and retelling violence won’t sit still to be told straight. Is that a grace or our dilemma? Off and on as we watched I’d wonder whether an outcast woman had ever been burned as a witch in Mundaka, here in this specific site. And watching the exuberant event I heard a faint echo of political rhetoric of wartime ‘sacrifices.’ We have a hard time being honest about death and particularly so when the death we’re remembering is someone dying at others’ hands.

But something else in this play, this turning from violence, the logic of fire on the shortest night of the year felt, I have to say this - holy. I remembered friends’ description of the annual Burning Man encampment in the Nevada desert that ends with the ritual burning of the old man and that year’s temple. Ecstatic play, stillness, fire and the night come together in something haunting and beautiful.

Now remembering my first-time experience of this old piece of folk liturgy, I’m drawn back to the contradictions and my unease at not knowing where I stood. What I was consenting to? And did asking that question cut me off from the atonement, the healing and reconciliation and renewal people were finding in the play of it?

Even not quite getting it, I saw that this village-wide party was turning long-ago real-life horror into something freeing. The witch burning was a kind of liturgy. Had it reconciled or united us by letting us embody something dark in ourselves and celebrate letting go of it?

A couple of villagers had explained their sense of it the afternoon before, ‘The witch is really the dark side of all of us, so on Midsummer Night we let her out to see her and laugh at her, and then we consign her to the light.’ Hum. I sort of got that. Maybe.

But I was also feeling how post-Christian Spain has become. Most of the village would probably claim Catholicism, but only a fraction of the village had been at the very satisfying Catholic mass we’d attended. Spaniards’ Catholicism gets acted out in their huge Holy Week processions (with a few people going to mass afterwards) and in Fiesta events like the witch burning.

What did such Catholics think about Jesus’ death?

That question brings me closer to my unease. What sense does our talking of Jesus’ death, our re-enacting it in Holy Week, and our gratefully recalling it each Eucharist make to an inquiring stranger? How like this lovely but uncomfortable evening is going to our liturgy for the first time?

How does ‘showing forth his death’ make us free? I get it in my gut, and I can talk about it easily with someone formed in our church culture, but are we making sense to people who come to church hungry for God and community?

Do any of us really know how to tell Jesus’ death so that strangers hear Good News? Struggling with these questions for two thousand years the church has proposed many, many answers.

Europe today is very secular. In Europe, the witch (and maybe Jesus) live as part of folklore, custom and fairytale. The human pleasures and even the sense of awe that emerge in their rituals touch no story but our present moment – a house cleaning and a symbolic letting go of dark aspects of ourselves.

Sometimes I hear us ‘proclaiming’ his death in so formulaic and orderly a way that I wonder whether we’re making an effigy. Do we make any connection at all between Calvary and Abu Graib? Does our telling of Jesus’ death touch our own and others’ hearts? And is Jesus’ real teaching and courageous living still in it?

I’ve known moments of heartbreak meditating on Jesus’ suffering. I’ve known gratitude for knowing him and feeling his presence and teaching living in me or in another who loves him, and I’ve felt that living presence in some who don’t know to name him. But I haven’t got a neat ending for this. I’m still wondering.

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

Deliver me from evil

By Leo Campos

The office where I work is being moved. The whole corporate office is being boxed up and we are moving to a new building. While this is wonderful news, it is also cause for much weeping and gnashing of teeth. It is amazing to me the amount of stuff that people can collect in their tiny cubicles. They look like a clown car - boxes and boxes of stuff keep coming out of each of these small workspaces.

Together with the sheer volume of stuff accumulated, there is also a large amount of discontent and stress which is associated with any move. Psychologists tell us that issues of work, and moving houses are among the top three or top five (depends who you ask) most stressful things in life. When you have an office move you are pretty much guaranteeing a perfect storm.
So I walk around trying to simultaneously stay out of people's way and reassure them that the servers will be functioning just perfectly the day after the move, that none of their highly important emails, all 1,527 of them, will be lost - even though I not-so-secretly suspect that the majority of these highly important pieces of data refer to cookie recipes or hangover cures.
I also try to be prayerful or at least cognizant of my own need for prayer during these times. I grab on to my prayer beads like a drowning man to a rope.

As is gets closer to the day of the move I find myself praying against all sorts of possible, probable or completely ludicrous things that might go wrong - from a clumsy mover dropping a server on the floor - deliver us Lord. From having another meeting so people can vent their frustrations - deliver us Lord. From a meteor striking the Earth - deliver us Lord! And on and on.
This whole petition for delivery tends to be one of the most overlooked or over-used of the lines in the prayer the Lord gave to the disciples. Usually it gets translated in our hearts as "Lord protect me and do not allow anything bad to happen to me." There is a tone of fear and trepidation. There is recognition of weakness. there is also a petition for the opposite to happen - don't let me get fired, don't let me get robbed, don't let me be injured. The request for deliverance from the Evil One or just generic, garden-variety evil is also common in Jewish prayers of the time.

But is this how I should read it? Or is this the only way to read it? There is an interesting story from the Desert Fathers which goes like this:

There was an old man living in the desert who served God for so many years and he said, "Lord, let me know if I have pleased you."

He saw an angel who said to him, "You have not yet become like the gardener in such and such place." The old man marveled and said, "I will go off to the city to see both him and what it is that he does that surpasses all my work and toil of all these years."

So he went to the city and asked the gardener about his way of life. When they were getting ready to eat in the evening, the old man heard people singing bawdy songs in the streets, for the cell of the gardener was in a public place.

Therefore the old man said to him, "Brother, wanting as you do to live according to God, how do you remain in this place and not be troubled when you hear them singing these songs?"

The man said, "I tell you, Abba, I have never been troubled or scandalized."

When he heard this the old man said, "What, then, do you think in your heart when you hear these things?" And he replied, "That they are all going into the Kingdom."

When he heard this, the old man marveled and said, "This is the practice which surpasses my labor of all these years."

In this story it is clear that the evil I am asking to be delivered from is not the other, but rather myself. To be able to say with all certainty that "I have never been troubled or scandalized" would be amazing.

Take a leap of imagination and pretend for a second that you are not and will not be troubled by the behavior of others (or your own); that your environment will not have any effect on you, that you can truly say with Paul that you have nothing though possess all things (2 Cor. 6).

The next part, "Scandalized" is a lovely word which comes to English via the Old French "scandale" which means "cause of sin". It in turn comes from the Latin "scandalum" which means a trap, stumbling block, or temptation. And, as usual, these words come from the Greek.

Imagine and pretend for a moment that you are not and will not be scandalized by others. That their atrocious behavior will not bother you in the least. And, perhaps harder, that you will also not be impressed by their apparently flawless behavior either.

Hold on to this image. See how easy it is to then be able in your heart of hearts to know, not just believe or hope, but be certain that they are all going into the Kingdom?

Every day I sit at my boxed up cubicle, listening to the semi-hysterical prattle of my co-workers about the latest moving crisis and let try to let this be my prayer: they too are going to the Kingdom. Followed quickly by only 5 more days Lord. Only 4 more days Lord…

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).


By Derek Olsen

I stood in the kitchen. I stared at the beets. They stared back at me. Wilted greens descended a darkly crimson stem to the three large bulbs that looked more brown than anything else. I’d seen beets in jars; they were a ruby red and looked nothing like this. The crimson of the stems evoked memories of rhubarb growing behind our shed at my boyhood home in suburban Ohio. I never really like rhubarb, but at least three recipes floated to mind that used it. Nothing for beets.

My family, like many young families these days, is interested in making healthy and environmentally sound choices. We exercise regularly, make most of our meals from scratch, and prefer local and organic ingredients. When we heard that a nearby community supported agriculture (CSA) organic farm would be selling shares and that our church would be a drop-off point, it was a no-brainer for us. We jumped at the chance.

Which led to me in the kitchen with the beets. My dad hated them, so my mom never cooked them. And since I learned the basics from her, I’ve never cooked them. In the aisles of my local supermarket this isn’t an issue—I just don’t buy them. But that’s not the way it works with a CSA. Beets came home in the bag; what was I to do—send them back for carrots? Eating local doesn’t just mean eating food that’s grown nearby—it means eating the food that’s available at certain times. I had no conscious expectations on that first day that my wife brought our share home, but I sure didn’t expect nothing but five different kinds of salad greens (the beets came later). Where were the cucumbers and tomatoes I had unconsciously expected to see? It was obvious when I took the time to think about it—of course the greens would mature fastest, especially the tender young ones. I just hadn’t counted on it and, as a result, didn’t start working salads into our meals that week until the arugula had already gone limp. I quickly learned that our Tuesday drop-off date meant that Tuesday and Wednesday were arugula and leaf-lettuce salad days. We get into the Romaine on the down side of the week; sautéed spinach is great with weekend pizza and roasts. I’d like to say that we round it all out with the cabbage—but we still have four heads of cabbage stuffed into our fridge. I keep swearing I’ll make some cole slaw or boiled cabbage—it just hasn’t happened yet.

At this point, halfway through our first CSA summer, I find myself pondering discipline, abundance, and opportunity. I expected to discover good greens, to support the local economy and sustainable food production. I didn’t expect to discover an alien discipline in eating. I’ve only been buying my own groceries since the 1990’s. All I know are supermarkets where all manner of fruits and veggies are available in all months of the year. Sure, I knew December’s ethylene-gassed tomatoes were unnatural and a little scary, but I’ve never before been so starkly confronted by the realities of seasonal eating. You can’t just go to the garden and get what you want. Despite our consumer-coddled ways, everything has its season and time and you get what the garden gives.

And if you think there’s a larger theological point hidden there about grace and God as the giver of good gifts, well, I’d suggest you’re right.

Too, that leads to abundance—even when it’s abundance you neither request nor know exactly what to do with. Like my surfeit of salad greens or the unexpected presence of beets, the abundance that we receive may not be the abundance we expect. In church parlance when we speak of God’s abundance and flourishing it always comes off sounding like a good thing. Are we missing the fact that sometimes it can be a downright challenge? I mean, what are you suppose to do with a bag full of lettuces? The answer is actually simple: start eating salads—even if that wasn’t part of the original plan. One of the repeating themes in the Scriptures is the miraculous abundance of God. From the manna in the wilderness to the oil in the cleansing of the Temple, from Peter’s great catch of fish to Jesus’ multiplying loaves, God’s privileging of love and life have been signaled through signs of plenty, literally, metaphorically, and spiritually. But are these gifts always received and utilized as the Good Giver intends?

And that leads into my third place of pondering: opportunity and its cousin, creativity. Sometimes we fail to embrace the disciplines that lead us to recognize God’s abundance. At other times, we see only a plague where we should be welcoming plenty. Opportunity and creativity are necessary to seize the possibilities freely offered. Sometimes this means throwing caution to the wind and embarking in the direction of where you see God’s fullness and promises of more. Sometimes it’s much more mundane and means taking some time to learn new recipes.

As for me, I’m still figuring out what to do with the beets.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a 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.

Snapping turtles

By Adam Thomas

Snapping turtles live in the muddy water underneath a dock that extends into Lake Kanuga. I know this because I have been slowly fattening them up with Wonderbread since I was eleven. I’m 26 now, and (while I’ve doubled my body mass in the intervening years) the turtles remain – stubbornly – about the size of my hand. All but one. There is the “Big One” that rises Kraken-like from the depths and that you only ever see out of the corner of your eye.

For years during the last glorious week of July, my friends and I have gone down to the water’s edge to feed the turtles. We used to sprint to the dock. Now we amble. Once there, we untwist our ordnance and pass out the sliced, carbohydrate projectiles. Some employ the patented tear-and-toss approach, which maximizes the number of pieces for the turtles to eat. Others drop whole slices of bread into the water and count the number of bites necessary to consume each piece.

Within seconds of the bread hitting the water, the turtles surface. Plop. Snap. The first breadcrumb disappears, and ripples are the only evidence the turtle was ever there. Plop. Snap. The second piece vanishes. Plop. Snap. We keep a weather eye out for the Kraken. Plop. Snap. There he is, the Big One, the Leviathan that God has made for the sport of it. Plop. Snap. No, it was just the way the light hit the water. Plop. Whoosh. Snap. Missed him again. Maybe next year. Plop. Snap. Plop. Snap. Plop. Snap.

The turtles propel themselves out of the depths, eyes on the dark spots on the surface. They trap the bread in their little, beaky mouths, and they dive again. They stay on the surface just long enough to snap up their sustenance before retreating to the darkness of the brackish shallows underneath the dock. After years of dropping bread to the turtles, I’ve realized that we do the same. We never stay topside in the sun for too long. We prefer the anonymity of the murk. We prefer to focus only on that bit of bread, a floating shadow above us. We prefer to surface only at feeding time, lest the daylight expose us to all the pesky problems of the world.

Now, I’m pretty sure that the above metaphor is thinly veiled enough that my impending addition of the Holy Eucharist to this discussion will seem both appropriate and timely. Here goes. All too often, we approach our worship with a Plop. Snap. mentality. For an hour and fifteen minutes on Sunday morning, we notice the Wonderbread falling from the sky, and we surface to snap up our fill. Then we dive until next week. Same time. Same place.

The trouble is twofold. First, the Wonderbread, heavenly manna, God’s grace – call it what you will – does not descend on us at predetermined times once a week. However, we condition ourselves to notice it only during those times we’ve set aside for God. We kneel at the altar rail. Plop. We lick the bread off our palms. Snap. In seven days time, we’ll commune again. In the six days in between, we are more than a little oblivious to the fact that God wants to commune with us every day. Indeed, we may say “daily,” but too often we mean, “Give us this day our weekly bread.”

Second, the surface is where the action is. The psalmist prays, “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice.” God’s grace pulls us out of these depths, out of the brackish water underneath the dock. We surface in the brightness of day. As our eyes adjust, we notice all the injustice and desperation and fear that the murk makes easy to ignore. And as we share the bread and cup, we remember that the Body we ingest connects us to the greater body of Christ in the world. Jesus says to his disciples, “ If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light." Being children of light means remaining on the surface, knowing we share our lives in a larger community, and addressing those inequities that the light throws into sharp relief. We can accomplish none of these if we dive back to the depths – back to anonymity and ignorance – immediately after receiving our nourishment.

When we begin to notice the abundance of God’s grace around us, which pulls us to the light of the surface, we can break out of the cycle of the Plop. Snap. mentality. Silent ripples should not be the only signs that mark our ascent to the surface. Just as God blesses Abraham, God blesses us so we can be blessings in the world. God nourishes us with the bread of heaven so we can nourish others.

At the end of July this year, I will once again amble to the dock to feed the turtles. I will toss the bread into the water. Plop. Ever vigilant for signs of the Big One, I will watch the little, beaky mouths spear the soggy pieces. Snap. And I will pray to God that we can all remain on the surface, paddle there in the light of the sun, and serve our Lord.

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.

Not a pretty sight

By Donald Schell

Peter is twenty-eight now. This memory must be almost twenty years old. It was Christmas. I’m guessing we were home between the early Pageant Liturgy and the Midnight Choral Eucharist on Christmas Eve. Peter, just beginning to grow into his manhood, took an elegant nonchalant stance leaning against the mantle over the fireplace when a tea-light on the mantle ignited his t-shirt. He felt heat on his back glanced over his shoulder and did what any of us might do seeing fire - he ran. His mother, the nurse, did what she knew to do – though I don’t remember her telling us that she’d been trained as a tackle in nursing school. She ran after him to the dining room, threw her arms around him, and slammed him against the dining wall, smothering the flames. And when the nurse had dealt with the first stage of the emergency, his mom reappeared to comfort him and calm him enough to get the t-shirt off and survey the damage.

Between Peter’s shoulder blades, he had a blistered area about four inches across, second-degree burns. Some small areas were charred, third degree burns. My dad, the physician was there and Ellen and Dad cleansed the wound and Dad set out the twice-daily protocol for debriding the wound. For the next several days I was her assistant.

A serious burn destroys our body’s most powerful defense against infection, our skin, and to make matters worse, dead skin in a moist wound is particularly hospitable to airborne bacteria. Debriding is tough love. Twice daily with a sterilized pair of tweezers Ellen methodically pulled dead skin from the wound. Dead skin is attached to living skin. It hurt Peter. My job was to help him lie very still on his stomach while she worked. I say ‘help him’ because Peter proved a brave and cooperative patient. Step by step Ellen told him what she was doing, and when she was about to pull. He did his best to steel himself and not to jump or pull away from her. My pinning his shoulders down was his back-up. Because sometimes he had to flinch, and then, without my hands on his shoulders holding him still, he would inadvertently poke himself on the tweezers or break his mother’s grip on the scrap of skin she was pulling away. Sometimes too, Ellen asked me to help by pulling the healthy skin on either side of the wound taut to make a dead skin fragment yield an end she could grab.

My role was mostly silent. For the first couple of days I thought of what an unlikely nurse's assistant I was. Growing up with both father and grandfather physicians, I lost track of how many people had asked me if I wanted to be a doctor. Usually I just said, ‘no.’ Sometimes I might venture a boyish imagining of vocation as ‘a preacher.’ But either way, my unspoken response was a forceful ‘NO,’ imbued with the painful knowledge that not only didn’t I feel called to medicine, but that I couldn't do it. Visible wounds made me queasy. Injuries to my own body frightened me. I was convinced I was too squeamish to be a doctor.

When my firstborn was coming and dad heard that her mother and I were taking birthing classes and that I planned to be in the delivery room, he wondered whether my presence there was a good idea. ‘Birth can be a little startling,’ he said. ‘It’s messy. There’s blood.’ But I was determined, and was glad to be present, and am still very glad for that experience. It was also my first hint that I’d outgrown some of the old un-ease at how raw bodies can be.

Then in my Clinical Pastoral Education at St. Luke’s Hospital, New York, I saw some badly battered bodies, some living, some dead, and I did my job all right, helped families talk to staff, stood by the body, said prayers, touched when it was helpful and appropriate. For my C.P.E. summer I’d been assigned to be the student chaplain on the Intensive Care Unit, which included burn patients.

Eighteen years later, as Ellen and I began our twice-daily routine with Peter, I remembered St. Luke’s burn unit. The memory of a child on the burn unit, most of his body burned, no one knowing whether he’d live or die, helped me with context and focus as we worked on Peter. Where, I wondered, was God in such suffering? I wasn’t satisfied with any answer I could offer to that question, but ‘where is God,’ resonated in this work, the painful and more hopeful treatment of my son. My job was to watch closely to anticipate when Peter's taut muscles would jump or lurch. As the delegated minister of stillness, my task was to watch, to hold a steady gaze as Ellen’s tweezers patiently took us to lower layers of Peter’s burn.

In the second day of this gazing as I watched Ellen’s meticulous work, I saw in Peter’s wound what Symeon the New Theologian called, ‘the impossible beauty of the life in Christ,’ or, to put it in plainer language, the awesome beauty of Life.

So soon after the burn “the wound” that I’d begun to know well from steady scrutiny through twenty minutes of teamwork unexpectedly showed a wholly different face. Just hours before I’d seen only ugly disfigurement, an opening to infection, damage, and grave risk to his health. Now healing was visible. In that same place where old skin was dying, brand new skin was beginning to appear. It felt so much like seeing healing in the moment that I wondered whether we’d actually see new cells or fresh patches of healthy skin move into place as Ellen worked. Peter’s body’s own work healing itself from session to session presented greater changes day by day. I was astonished. Watching the wound was moving me to a kind of joy. I loved gazing at it.

Had I not loved my work as a priest, that gazing spoke deeply enough to prompt a vocational crisis. Why had I imaged I couldn’t bear doing what my dad loved so much? Being a physician, seeing healing happen – ever – was an amazing privilege. Did Dad have to get over his own queasiness? Gazing at the wound, I understood something of my father’s heart and of his joy in his work. My Dad was an often skeptical Christian, but he did insist Life and God did the real work of healing, which he said made his work simpler and humbler: doctors could remove obstacles, sometimes clean things up or put them back together, keep them clean and in their right place, and watch healing overcome disease while trying to prevent complications.

Those days of watching my son’s very ugly wound heal I experienced, saw, and felt beauty where I’d imagined nothing was possible but ugliness. I’m not saying I found the idea of healing beautiful, not even my own thoughts observing the process of healing, but rather seeing Life present as Peter’s body healed, I felt the radiance of the Life that is the Light of humankind.

Culturally, but also religiously, we have a hard time with beauty. Sometimes we explain that difficulty in economic terms. When we’re working for justice or any pragmatic alleviation of human suffering, we mistrust beauty, suspecting it’s a luxury or a distraction. By common cultural consent we reduce beauty to a purely subjective, personal, and even idiosyncratic matter of taste.

But theologians as diverse as Jonathan Edwards (who calls the Spirit “the beautifier, the one in whom the happiness of God overflows … the one who bestows radiance, shape clarity and enticing splendor.” (Paraphrased by David Bentley Hart in The Beauty of the Infinite, the Aesthetics of Christian Truth). Or Gregory of Nyssa (“Human nature’s perfection is nothing but this endless desire for beauty and more beauty, this hunger for God.” From Gregory’s Life of Moses, quoted in Hart) Or Hans Urs von Balthazar,
Or – liberation theologian Alejandro Garcia Rivera whose work, The Community of The Beautiful, Jesuit James Empereur draws on so heavily in La Vida Sacra, Contemporary Hispanic Sacramental Theology.

Ancient theologians, a famous Puritan in New England, a Roman Catholic teacher beloved by Vatican conservatives, a Jesuit, and new work in the tradition of liberation theology all tell us beauty drives it all.

Gregory of Nyssa describes the engine something like this:

God creates life, Life beholds Beauty, Beauty begets Love, Love of the Life of God.
(Paraphrase from Gregory’s On the Soul and the Resurrection by Scott King who set this text as a four-part canon in Music for Liturgy)

Just as ‘love is stronger than death,’ beauty, the real thing has power enough to include and transform the raw suffering of a healing wound.

Beauty makes our world radiant with the life of God.

Some recent discussions here at the Café focused on verifiable truth claims got me thinking about Peter’s burn and healing and prompted this piece. Watching my son’s wound heal doesn’t prove the existence of God. In fact those who play the game of proofs, sooner or later will admit that none of the proofs give us a loving, forgiving God; it’s simply not possible

Love proves nothing, and watching that wound heal wasn’t an experience of proof or testing but one of simpler knowing: in a community of love facing a hard task, I was seeing the love that sustains our every moment in Life doing its work. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but it was simply beautiful.

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

Open to the Thrust of Grace

By Heidi Shott

Each evening, until my twin sons were ten or so, I gathered with them at bedtime to say our “thank you” prayers, which ended with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. One night after the Amen and the last ten kisses of the day, I began to tiptoe out when a seven year-old head popped over the top of the upper bunk.

“What is it, dude?” I asked, tired and ready for a few, yawny hours in grown-upland.

“Whoever wrote that last prayer was a chump,” said Colin. A barky laugh escaped me. Never before had the words Jesus and chump come together in my mind.

“Jesus made up that prayer. You think Jesus is a chump?”

“Well, Mom, how can things possibly be the same on earth as they are in heaven?” I won’t embarrass myself by trying to recount the answer I gave. In fact I don’t really remember what I said, but I do remember the question. On some level it’s one I ask myself every day.

On a recent Friday, after lying awake for 30 minutes, I turned to my alarm clock to discover it was 4:30 a.m. I’d been thinking about 53 different things I had to do. Rather than do any of them, I put a sweatshirt over my pajamas and set off for a walk around my neighborhood.

Two hundred and fifty years ago, early settlers here saw the value of the setting and set up a mill at the head of a tidal river along the coast of Maine. Our small village of colonials and capes grew up along the millpond at the base of the lake that pours into the salt river below.

As I ventured into the early morning, the alewives had begun the day’s run up the fish ladder on the other side of the millpond. Gulls, osprey and cormorants were fishing for breakfast, making noise and swooping low across the water.

“Pretty nice,” I sniffed to myself as I walked across the bridge that separates the lake from the pond. I was too deeply engaged in thinking about the logistics and politics of Thing-To-Do #14 to be moved by any early morning beauty.

But as I rounded a corner and a vast field of lupine unfolded with the head of the river in the distance, God got me at last. And I thought suddenly that the answer to Colin’s long-ago question lay in a moment like this.

Earth is like heaven when you can recognize God’s grace in the midst of the most stressful week. A line from a song by the Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn buzzed in my head: “One moment you’re waiting for the sky to fall; the next you’re dazzled by the beauty of it all.”

My pace slowed. Mist rose from the bay and I gave the geese and their goslings that stake claim to the roadway at the lower end of the Mills wide berth. At the top of the dam, I stopped to see how many alewives had made their way to the last barrier before the lake, their spawning ground. From there I completed the circle back home by trespassing on hydro company land and into my own backyard. My sneakers were wet with dew and spider webs in the tall grass shown in sparkles as the sun began to rise.

As I approached the back of my house, I thought of my sweet menfolk still deeply asleep, my husband, those boys – now teenagers in the prime of their sleeping years. None of my 53 Things-To-Do seemed quite so important, even though about 40 of them involved the Diocese of Maine.

My reclaimed calm wasn’t about church or work or anything remotely Episcopal. It was about God’s loving voice saying, “Here it is. Here it’s always been. Here it will be. All of it, for free.”

By the time I made my way up the hill to the kitchen, the early light revealed a fine day ahead. I turned on my computer and did 12 or 15 things before it was time to make lunches and whisper, “good morning,” in everyone’s ear.

May God’s kingdom come that way more often.

*Title from Bruce Cockburn’s “Lovers in a Dangerous Time.” http://cockburnproject.net

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

Becoming Episcopalian: one priest's journey

By Donald Schell

The church where I was baptized and grew up hovered on the edge of mainstream. Officially we were part of the Presbyterian Church, USA, but we were taught that we were Evangelicals, solid on our fundamentals and so confident that our personal decision for Christ made us Christian in a way that liberals (despite what they said) were not. Our youth group activities took us to Baptist and Independent Fundamentalist churches. I sat through a lot of altar calls. A spirituality of ‘knowing Jesus’ was deeply rooted then and still lives for me. But ‘Making a decision for Christ’ and the horror story version of atonement that I heard preached did not fit.

In one dark day in Sunday School, our teacher told us this story of a hanging judge in the Old West:

“There was a judge who was bringing peace to a land ravaged by cattle rustlers and gunslingers. More often than not the judge’s passion for justice in that lawless land moved him to condemn the guilty to death by hanging. One day a man was found guilty of stealing a horse and the judge condemned him to be hanged by the neck until dead. The town was appalled. There were extenuating circumstances. The man was their neighbor, married with children, their sole support. When the condemned was a dangerous stranger, the respectable townspeople were glad for the hanging judge, but this time they were horrified. They begged the judge for mercy. The insisted the condemned man was a good neighbor. It was his first offense. “No,” the judge thundered, “justice must be served; a horse has been stolen, so someone has to die.” A stranger stood near the back of the courtroom spoke with startling calm, “Your honor, hang me, and let the condemned man go free.” The judge seemed caught off guard, paused, frowned, and said, “Son, do you understand what you’re doing?” “Yes, your honor. I have no family. I will die for this man’s freedom.” So the judge ordered the horse thief released and the stranger hanged by the neck until dead. And when they cut the stranger down, the judge stunned the whole town by asking all, including the horse thief to join him at the funeral for his only son.”

The story made me angry. My Sunday School teacher assured us it was a true story, and I did understand it was meant to teach us something about Jesus’ death on the cross, but the father/judge was a monster, and the son was a fool. One pointless death replaced another. The townspeople should have done whatever they needed to do to stop the judge from murdering in the name of ‘Justice.’ I took the story home and told it to my parents, lifelong members of this congregation. My mother said, “The story is not right, and God didn’t kill Jesus.”

I’m thankful today that even as a child, I recoiled from that ugly story, and I’m thankful for my mother’s response. She didn’t offer an alternative atonement theory, but she did model that a story of heartless retribution wasn’t pointing us toward the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The ugliness of the story was an assault on faith, and my aversion to such a monstrous story was a theological response. Why is this adamant ‘NO’ theological? Because, like mathematicians and physicists, beyond mere logic, we test our theology for elegance and economy. Gregory of Nyssa says God’s beauty makes us long for God, moves us to fall in love. If this story were really ‘it’--the Good News-- I could only say ‘NO!’

As a kid, I loved Bible stories and found some big parts of what I was offered for theology off-putting. The community of people in the church obviously cared about each other and gave generously of themselves for the church’s work. I loved them. I also loved music (including ancient and renaissance church music and global music), old church buildings (like California’s adobe mission churches and the Orthodox log church at Fort Ross), so loving the community of people I longed for worship that invited real participation from all of us.

In the turbulent 1960’s after the deaths of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, I entered Princeton Seminary. Leaders of our Presbyterian church (like many denominational leaders and activists then) were actively working for peace and racial justice. I was deeply relieved finally to be in a church where people didn’t think Martin Luther King was a communist--some walls had come down. It would be possible to explore and deepen faith. In the openness of my first year at Princeton I first met and fell head-over-heels in love with the writings of the early church fathers like Irenaeus and Gregory of Nyssa. I heard a new voice determined to describe how human experience and faith-in-community could lead to ongoing formation and growth in Christ. The seminary professor who was offering us these riches from Christian tradition was a Russian Orthodox layman who had been a minister in the United Church of Christ. For most of 1968-69, I thought I was going to follow his lead. I’d found in Russian Orthodoxy a church that could give me a more coherent answer, a church that knew what it stood for. I planned to complete my year at Princeton, become Orthodox, transfer to St. Vladimir’s Russian Orthodox Seminary and spend my ministry with a community I understood and that understood me.

I applied to St. Vladimir’s and was admitted pending a face-to-face interview with the seminary’s dean. I drove from Princeton up to Crestwood-Tuckahoe, New York and spent a wonderful hour talking with John Meyendorff. Fr. Meyendorff quizzed me on theology, seemed satisfied at what he was hearing, and then asked where I was going to church. I told him the Episcopal Church at Princeton (the University Chaplaincy). Did I receive communion? Yes. He said, “Then you are an Episcopalian, and you don’t have to become Orthodox. You may be where God wants you to be.”

This was the year I read and re-read The Brothers Karamazov. I felt myself in the presence not just of a scholar, but a staretz, a spiritual elder with a good dose of the wisdom of Dostoyevsky’s Fr. Zossima. This saint was telling me I might already be home. He said I was welcome at the seminary if I chose to come, but he had a request first. ‘Your vision of this church has been formed from reading our ancient teachers and their best modern interpreters. But we’re a church with a lot superstitious immigrants. Go the bookstore and buy what the store manager can sell you of Orthodox Sunday School materials. Don’t come unless you understand who you will be working with if you become an Orthodox priest.’

The bookstore manager greeted me jovially, heard my story and congratulated me. "‘I’ve walked this path too. Welcome to the truth faith. You will come to loathe the Presbyterians and regard the Episcopalians as clowns." I was taken aback at his mean-spirited response. Presbyterians had taught me to love Jesus. In the Episcopal Church I’d begun to understand common prayer. These communities had given me a priceless foundation. After my conversation with an open-hearted saint and that bookstore manager who I feared might be me in a couple of years, I took my Sunday School books and drove home talking to myself, elated, weeping, perplexed, and trying to find where in this conflicted experience God was speaking.

My Italian landlady in Princeton had a good Catholic answer for a good Evangelical. ‘Go to Sacred Heart Church and pray before the Blessed Sacrament. Jesus will tell you what to do.’ I was shocked at it, but Jesus seemed to want me to accept that I’d already found my home in the Episcopal Church. For good measure, I left Sacred Heart to go spend a little more time on my knees at Trinity Episcopal in Princeton. Jesus was saying the same thing there. I phoned John Snow, the Episcopal chaplain, my pastor, and one of the best preachers I’d ever heard (or have heard since). “John, I need to talk to you. I think I’m becoming an Episcopalian.”

John and I had a great conversation. I told him all the theological stuff I was working on and he said, ‘We’ve got plenty of room for you.’ I told him I thought the Episcopal Church was actually a mess theologically, a church without a backbone, incapable of standing for anything. He smiled and said, ‘maybe you’ll come to appreciate that.’ I have.

John helped me make a very late transfer application to General Seminary. I went home to California to work that summer in the Presbyterian Church where I’d grown up. It was a good summer; I was glad not to be making a conversion that stripped away and repudiated the good people who had taught me to love scripture, community, and an abiding, mystical friendship with Jesus. Starting General Seminary in September, almost the first thing I discovered in the theological mess I’d now embraced was that my professor for the Pauline Epistles, a priest who seemed to be an existentialist agnostic, was with us in the chapel daily praying Morning and Evening Prayer, and he came faithfully to the community’s weekly Eucharist. Remembering John Snow’s words I wondered at my new professor’s faith. Could this be how my new church’s theological messiness was a holy gift? Maybe there was some grace in sharing prayer and Eucharist with Christians I didn’t understand. Maybe the gift was praying with this priest I didn’t understand and (still not understanding him) discovering he was my brother in Christ.

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

Image or presence?

By Leo Campos

My stepfather was one of those larger than life individuals. It was just the way he was. He would walk into a room and commandeer it. I am not sure he would do it on purpose; I used to think it was a natural outgrowth of being used to having his orders obeyed. He was born in Argentina of English parents. In his late teens or early twenties (sometime after World War II) he jumped on a Triumph bike and drove the 1,000 miles from Buenos Aires to Sao Paulo in search of fame and fortune. Argentina at that time had the highest GDP in the world, while Brazil was barely waking up. On paper this seemed like an unwise move and he told me how often his friends in Argentina laughed at his decision, asking if he was going to Brazil to help the “banana bending” industry. Just think of how Brazil was portrayed in Carmen Miranda movies and you will see that such stereotypes were widespread.

The trip itself would probably make a good movie – there were no reliable roads between Brazil and Argentina in those days. He had to rough it for the 1,000 mile trip. He risked it to reach a country with a language he did not speak and very foreign culture. How different were the countries? Well, he tells me that he was shocked the first time he saw a black person – Argentina simply never had the levels of slavery associated with the rest of the New World.

My stepfather by that time had already developed a level of certainty which enabled him to trust his instincts. This is a man who, while working on the railroad as a young teen (no child labor laws back then!), would risk his earnings in dice games - and frequently double his income. Every successful decision, in turn, gave him greater self-confidence to take further chances. The more success he accumulated the more he developed what I call an expectation of certainty. It was a tangible force. This force enabled him to find the strength to work against pretty phenomenal odds to accomplish what he set his mind to. Certainly the success came with much hard work and many sacrifices, but the hard work almost seemed inconsequential - it was simply inferior to his will.

How much of this commanding presence was really presence and how much of it was self-image? Self-image is how we perceive ourselves as objects of others' attention. For me to be aware of how you see me, requires that I create a fantasy, an abstraction - I have to engineer an artificial “me” so I can become an object to myself – taken to its logical extremes you get the frivolities of high fashion. Presence, on the other hand, is indefensible and independent of external factors. It is a purely, or almost purely, subjective state. “I am this.” I am what I am.

These two poles of self-awareness are not mutually exclusive. A strong presence will probably create a strong self-image. A strong self-image will most likely create a strong presence. But the approach to it is different. If you develop a strong sense of presence, then you will not be too concerned with protecting self-image, but the reverse is not necessarily true.

It is instructive here to look at the encounter between Jesus and the centurion (Luke 7). The centurion is used to authority, and he recognizes it in Jesus. On paper this seems like an unwise move, much like my stepfather’s. Why would a centurion come seeking the help of a Jewish peasant, when he could undoubtedly have chosen some more qualified medical doctor? Just say a word and it will be so. The centurion must have been an excellent leader, for he could see the potential beneath the external appearances. He came to Jesus because, using whatever methods of decision he used, he simply expected to be right.
So here’s the catch: what are you seeing in the world today? Where are you looking? What does this say about you? What potential are you seeing? Do you see potential for good or for ill? Are you expecting to be right, or expecting to be wrong? Most importantly are you leaning more on your presence or your image? What 1,000 mile trip are you embarking on? What will you find at the end?

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).

Graced unworthiness

By Jared Cramer

I am not always on time. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. I am often running behind. This is a bad enough habit to have as a person, but it’s even worse when you are a clergy person. People generally prefer it when their priest is on time to liturgies. Early is even better. My wife is doing a good job of trying to make me more punctual, but she’s not working with the most malleable of people. Bad habits sink in.

This past Wednesday, I was not going to be late. I set my alarm precisely for the time I needed to get up. I told myself there would be no snooze button. I was set to be the celebrant for our parish’s 7:15 AM service of Holy Communion and I was going to be there early, ready to go.

Except that when I set my alarm I was thinking the service was at 7:30 AM.

So, when I came to the doors at the back of our chapel at 7:22 AM, arms laden with Bible, BCP, and alb, I was briefly confused upon seeing a morning prayer service already in action. Then I realized my mistake. I was mortified. I turned away from the door, briefly considering hiding in my office, thinking saying “I forgot” would be better than “I don’t know what time your service is.” But it was too late, someone saw me.

The lay person officiating finished the creed, saw me, and then invited me to come and continue with the prayers and then to move into Holy Eucharist. I apologized profusely and came to the front of the chapel, continuing the liturgy they had already begun, my face likely as red as my stole.

I worked through the rest of the Rite I liturgy they had begun with a constant stream of self-deprecating thoughts in my head. Then, right before the end of the prayer, I came upon the key paragraph:

And although we are unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses, through Jesus Christ our Lord;

It’s tempting, when you are a new clergy person, to begin to believe that the life of the church rises and falls on you. But that morning, as the newly risen sun streamed through the windows of our chapel, persistent grace reminded me once again that, late or not, I am always unworthy to offer any sacrifice. My heart joined to the words, knowing that, even given my momentary shame, this was still my “bounden duty and service.”

Every day our offering to God begins and ends with God’s grace. Some days, our need for grace is painfully evident. On others, we can begin to think that we are the ones making this thing called the church actually work. And even in that prideful failing, our offering remains wrapped in grace upon grace.

And, reminded of this powerful truth, I did not eat humble pie, but received with gratefulness my risen Lord. I tried to accept that grace, as the wafer dissolved on my tongue. Next time, I’ll double check my calendar. But today, I’ll try to believe what Paul heard God say about his persistent weakness, “My grace is sufficient for you.”

The Rev. Jared C. Cramer is a Clergy Resident at Christ Church, in Alexandria, VA and blogs at Scribere Orare Est. He is also the author of the forthcoming book from Lexington, Safeguarded by Glory: The Ecclesiology of Michael Ramsey Applied Today.

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.

Lost things and the power of memory

By Jane Carol Redmont

I have been thinking recently of all the things I’ve lost.

Eighteen months ago there was the turquoise and fuchsia chiffon scarf, a gift from my mother, which blew off my neck at a professional conference in San Diego as I was on my way to lunch and whose absence I did not notice till a minute or two later. My companion and I retraced our steps near the waterfront, queried the local shops and stands, searched the ground. Nothing. I went to two lost and found booths, at the conference center and in the immediate neighborhood. A day later, I had to leave town. Back home on the East Coast, I kept thinking of tracking down the scarf. I still miss it.

A few years ago there was the Russian shawl, black with bright flowers in tones of pink and red, made of light wool fabric, breezy enough for spring but warm enough for winter and fall, a vast and beautiful square that dressed up slacks, my winter coat, and the proverbial little black dress—the accessory to end all accessories. I wrapped it over my shoulders, safely draped or casually knotted. Only a few times did I wear it slung over one shoulder, and the last time I did, I lost it, walking in a park in Brussels in animated conversation with an old family friend. Suddenly I noticed it was gone, surprised I no longer felt its weight. We retraced our steps, forty minutes’ worth, through the park which was acres wide and full of trees and benches and lawns. We never found the shawl. Someone had taken possession of it, no doubt. I want my shawl back. Not an approximate replacement, not one of the shawls I have seen in slightly different colors and smaller sizes and not quite the same flower pattern, readily available in Russian goods stores on the internet. I want the one I lost, the one my parents gave me, the one they bought 30 years ago, in the Brezhnev era, during their three years in what was then the USSR.

Further back, in college, there were the stolen rings. In my senior year it was the emerald ring, my birthstone –perhaps synthetic, perhaps real, I never quite knew or cared. It was a gift from my paternal grandmother, who emigrated to the U.S. in her teens and was not a woman of means; presents were part of our relationship, but small ones, never lavish. This was an exception. The ring disappeared from my dormitory room along with a few other pieces of jewelry. In the first semester of my freshman year (we still called women freshmen then) the stolen ring was carved obsidian in a silver setting, a hand-me-down from my mother, who had gotten it the year she and my father were married in Mexico. It was a stylized face with a chipped nose, impossible to replicate and easy to identify. After several long visits with a new boyfriend in another dorm, I saw the ring on the hand of a classmate who lived in that building. I asked for it; she lied and said it was a gift from her brother. I was, at seventeen, scared and barely in college for six weeks, afraid to contradict her. I still have fantasies of tracking her down –it would be easy enough, through the alumni association-- and writing in a note: “All is forgiven, but give up the ring. Let my mother see it on me while she is still alive.”

And then there were the books. In their move back to the United States after nearly three decades in France, my parents had to leave some of my childhood books behind. I was an adult already, not living with the books, but secure in knowing I could visit them, like old friends. My parents did ship paperback editions of French and English and American classics — the books of my adolescence— and the hardbound literature anthologies from my French public school curriculum. They also kept the large illustrated books of fairy tales. But the other books of my childhood had to stay behind: my copy of The Three Musketeers, the French-language children’s biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt and Marguerite Plantin, daughter of the Renaissance-era printer Christophe Plantin, and especially, especially, a book that belonged to my brother before it found its way to me, a history of Paris for children, a book I long to read again and whose stories I loved.

It is through this book of history and legends that I learned about the Parisii, the tribe that gave Paris its name. Under the Roman conquest of Gaul, after 52 B.C.E., the city became Lutetia, but the Parisii came first and it is their name that endures. The book was also chock-full of tales of the saints, two of which I still remember: Denis, martyred on what became known as Mons Martyrium (later abridged to Montmartre) and carrying his head in his hands all the way to what is now the town of St. Denis, and Geneviève, the 5th century shepherd girl who prayed away the Huns. I cannot hope to track down my own copy of the book but in these days of the World Wide Web, it is possible to find a book that has long been out of print. Every so often I search for the title on the Web, and last week I found it. Someday I will order a copy for myself, but for now I am just happy the copies exist and moved to have seen the cover again, with its red color and its picture of the boat that is the symbol of the city of my birth.

This spring I lost one of my favorite rings, the only one I have worn with any consistency in the last half dozen years, a plain silver flat coil made by a Navajo artist. A couple of months ago, I put it on in the morning and it slipped off my finger somehow before I left for work. Unless I dropped it down a drain while washing my hands, it is somewhere in the house, but I do not know where. I even tore open a vacuum cleaner bag three weeks ago in hopes of finding it. No ring. Perhaps the cat has used it as a soccer ball and it is beneath the couch in the place I cannot reach. Yes, I am talking to St. Anthony about this one. It should have been easy to locate.

I am embarrassed and irritated at the regret and longing I feel for these things. I ask myself why I hang on to their memory, why their absence hurts. They are, after all, only things.

My first layer of answers has been a combination of two responses. In the first, I chide myself for being a materialist, unable to let go of possessions. In the second, less judgmental, I remember one of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, that desire is the root of suffering: attachment to things is part of that desire.

Only recently have I started to layer onto the first two responses a different set of reflections.

The scarves and rings helped me to feel beautiful. The books told me stories. The silver coil was a consolation, a gift I had bought myself in New Mexico before a week of workshop facilitation, in the summer following a painful break-up. I was attached to these objects for their beauty and for what they added to my life.

But nearly every one of those lost things, besides being beautiful, had been a gift from a person I loved, usually a family member. The thing spoke to me of that person, of our relationship, and of the place from which it came, a place with significance in my family history. As a family, we are emotionally close but geographically spread out. Because of professional occupations and life partnerships across cultures, we are at home in several places, comfortable in more than one country. With this diasporic reality also comes longing: to be at home in more than one place is also to miss the place where one is not and the people who live there. The things I lost felt like extensions of my body or of the bodies of my loved ones, arms around me, protections, talismans.

In the preoccupation with objects, there is also loss and anticipatory loss. My parents are nearing the end of their life. My brother, who is one of my closest friends, lives an ocean and a continent away. My grandmother died three decades ago. Is it easier to focus on the loss of objects than on the loss of relationship that comes with distance and death? Probably so.

There is more. Almost all of these items of clothing or jewelry were lost or stolen or flew off my neck in places and times of instability or transition. At college, four thousand miles from my home, when I was first settling into a strange country, and later, in the “what next?” phase of my senior year. At an academic conference where my colleague and I were interviewing sixteen candidates for the third position in our small religious studies department, vacant after a difficult institutional struggle. In a public garden in Brussels, as an old friend of my parents’ and I walked and talked and argued about the rights of immigrant Muslim women to wear headscarves and what the headscarves signified in modern Belgian society, after passing some women wearing hijab.

Transitions and migrations are everywhere among us. I knew and saw this before my visit to the stunning “Migrations” exhibit by Sebastião Salgado and its related children’s photos a few years ago, but Salgado’s photographs crystallized this for me. As the number of migrants and refugees increases around the world, I look at their pictures and remember my forebears who came to the U.S. as immigrants, some in the 19th century, others in the early 20th like the paternal grandmother who gave me the emerald ring. Most of all I notice the faces, but I note also what people wear and take with them. I wonder what I would take if I had to leave my home in a hurry, not for college or work but in the duress of emigration or the trauma of war.

This preoccupation may come from belonging to a people –most of my ancestors were Jews— who often had to run: inquisitions, exile, pogroms, trains to the camps, emigration to a safer and more promising land. But in the U.S. especially, all of us have displacement in our bones and disruption in our histories: descendants of immigrants from Europe and Asia, internally displaced Native peoples, enslaved Africans stripped, literally, of every object and piece of clothing. For those who were able to migrate and take a few things, there was always the question: What is portable? What do we choose? Most of us, whatever our origins, end up with both the useful and the beautiful, a mix of survival and sentiment. I have seen pictures of immigrants at Ellis Island carrying not just suitcases but large baskets, jars, blankets, spectacular hats. A family of Hungarians, preparing to enter the new land, looks out from a picture, the children dressed in their cleanest and best. More than a century later and on another soil, a refugee family in Burundi stands together in beauty, clothed in shimmering colors.

I probably have thought about objects and transitions more than before during this year because of an attempted break-in at my new residence during Thanksgiving week and a precipitous move just before Labor Day after a tree destroyed part of my house. Mercifully, once the disaster recovery team cleaned the rubble, little of what was inside had been damaged or broken, with the exception of my grandparents’ bed, one of the few heirlooms I owned. Now, at the end of a strenuous academic year, I think of summer travel and begin composing in my head the notes to the house-sitter: how and when to feed the cat; what to guard from intruders and weather; what to grab first and save (after the cat) if there is a fire.

Given the choice, I would grab –after the passport and the cat—the picture in the slightly battered frame on the wall of my study. Given to my mother by her mother’s cousin William, born in the German Rhineland, it is a lithograph by a printer in Alsace, on the other side of the Rhine in France. It was, William wrote on the back, a “prayer director,” an aid to prayer, with words in Hebrew and images of biblical scenes—a rarity in a tradition with a prohibition against graven images—created sometime in the first half of the 19th century. On the back is a translated list of biblical sayings and an identification of the images, numbered and written in neat block letters in Cousin Willie’s hand.

“And I shall dwell in the midst of the people Israel,” the list reads. “The Ten Commandments.” “Know before whom you are standing.” “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, etc.” (Yes, he wrote “etc.”) “From the rising of the sun to the setting thereof, the name of the Lord is praised.” The images, in tones of blue and brown, are the Tablets of the Law, Moses striking the rock, the binding of Isaac, the blessings of Jacob, and the wise judgment of Solomon.

William came to the U.S. in the 1920s, much later than the rest of my mother’s maternal family, who had arrived during the second half of the 19th century. The lithograph left Germany not with him but with his sister Mathilde, who left in the late 1930s, not a moment too soon.

The wall hanging, William wrote on the back, was given to his grandfather, who served as a civilian provisioner to an army post during the Franco-Prussian war, “for his good deeds.” William does not say who gave the lithograph to my great-great-grandfather, but it was probably a gift from his congregation: William’s inscription notes that prior to the gift, the “prayer director” hung on the East wall of the synagogue in the family’s small town in the Baden region.

In the mid-1960s, toward the end of his life, Cousin Willie gave the lithograph to my mother. After the translations and descriptions on the back of the frame, he noted that the “prayer director” had hung on the East wall of its recipient’s home and later on the East wall of the home of his son, William’s father, in the city of Speyer. William then wrote, “Brought to Los Angeles, Calif. in 1938 by my sister Thilde” and added, on the next line, “To perpetuate,” and signed his full legal name.

Judaism and Christianity, the religions of my ancestors and of my choosing, are steeped in memory and materiality as well as in the freedom of hope. Memory teaches. It teaches through things, through the stories we tell about them, and through the stories they tell us. It walks us into the future.

Let not our things own us: ultimately they, and we, belong to God. Still, our things are bound up with our histories and our flesh. This too can be holy: To stop and think about how we live with our things and our memories. To know, when we cling, why we cling. And to tell the stories. To perpetuate.

Jane Carol Redmont grew up in Paris in a family of American journalists and moved to the United States at the age of 17. A former member of the Massachusetts Governor’s Commission on Refugees and Immigrants, she chairs the Bishop’s Committee for Racial Justice and Reconciliation of the Diocese of North Carolina. Her latest book is the new paperback edition of When in Doubt, Sing: Prayer in Daily Life (Sorin Books, 2008). She teaches at Guilford College and blogs at Acts of Hope.

The Rev. Pookie

By Howard Anderson

It was a bit like the movie “Father of the Bride,” when Steve Martin’s daughter announced that she was getting married. Rather than seeing the lovely, mature woman in front of him, the Daddy in him sees his little girl, in pigtails, saying a ridiculous thing-“I’m getting married.” Our little Pookie getting ordained? How can it be? As Bishop Alan Scarfe, the Bishop of Iowa laid hands on our little girl, making her a transitional deacon, I was seeing something quite different, and someone quite different.

I was seeing, in my mind’s eye, the new born baby girl, who, when I held her the first time, changed my life forever. I was seeing the little blonde Haole girl running naked across the hot sand at Makapu’u beach, her little bottom covered with sand, accompanied by several of her little friends, and the “herd” of them jumping, laughing into the Pacific. I was seeing the little girl standing in front of her stuffed animals, her faithful old dog propped up in a bean bag chair, with glasses on her snout, with thin slices or radish she had picked from the salad, handing each a thin, white slice and saying “take, eat, this is my body.”

I was shaken out of my reverie by a small voice next to me saying, “Papi, Momma is crying, what did Bishop Alan do to her?” Now there’s a question for you! My grandson, Will, watching his Momma kneeling before the Bishop, tears streaming down her face, was concerned. I leaned toward him and said, “Don’t worry Will, those are tears of joy. Your Momma is very happy to be ordained.”

I was moved to be asked to be a presenter. My wife, Linda, and I, just as when we held her at her baptism, at her various graduations, Will’s baptism, stood this day to support her in her decision to answer the call of The Holy One to give her vocational life to serve God’s people as an ordained person. As I listened to Bishop Scarfe preaching to and about Kesha, I could sense how deeply he knew our little girl, now a woman. She had been on his diocesan staff, and all her foibles, gifts, skills and charisms he knew well. And what a window on her soul his words were…and challenging. More tears. The symbol of unity in the Church, the Bishop, was ordaining a person, our little one, with such tenderness and insight. And then I began to remember. My own ordination as a Deacon came back so clearly.

I remembered, years earlier, a bishop I loved and love still, Bob Anderson, laying hands on me. Like my daughter, I, too, had been a lay professional for many years before I was ordained. And like Bishop Scarfe, Bishop Anderson was ordaining someone he knew well. These two men were ordaining someone whom they had loved, challenged, counseled, someone with whom they had laughed and cried in many unguarded moments. Warts and all, fears and gifts, accomplishments all laid humbly before the Holy One…all made holy through Christ’s love and the power of the Spirit.

Feelings washed over me and time slowed, as the ordination proceeded. Kesha had fought the call to ordination almost as long as I had. Proud lay professionals in the Church for over a decade, she and I were alike in this way. I had feared God could not be trusted. I could not get myself to believe what I preached, that The Holy Spirit guided the Councils of the Church and guided God’s people to call some apart for ordination. Kesha and I had always talked “shop.” And we both believed that the primary vocational sacrament was not ordination, but Baptism. And yet, here she was. Now ordained.

Kesha as a 10 year old, watched another family member, her uncle, announce that he was leaving his position as an athletic trainer and physical therapist for a major Division I university athletic department to follow his older brother to seminary. This was just too much of her. Her mother a parish school principal, and her Daddy, two uncles, a great grandfather and four great uncles all ordained. She placed her little hands on her scrawny hips and crossly said, “Now all we’ll ever talk about at family gatherings is God!”

But The Holy One is a patient and persistent suitor. And here we were. Father and daughter…both reluctant, both now ordained. Her collar felt too tight she said. She was not convinced that there was an ontological change. “Will my friends all stop cussing around me and only want to talk about church?”

And then the pictures. The Mom and Dad and ordinand, their baby, newly ordained and chafing already at the collar. The proud husband and even prouder little boy all smiles. More tears. More laughter.

Future and past all collapsed into a wintry Iowa day when a young woman began a new and perilous journey off to fight the good fight armed with only a bit of bread, a little wine, some olive oil and a couple of books. Paltry things in the world’s eyes. Very ordinary. But with the Spirits gifts empowered, just enough. The Rev. Pookie now thank you. The Rev. Pookie.

The Rev. Dr. Howard Anderson is rector of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, Pacific Palisades, California. He was a long time General Convention deputy and most importantly, is grandfather to a six-year-old theologian, Will.

Sacred simplicities

By Ched Bradley

In high school I had a small part in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, that iconic American play celebrating simplicity. Recently I saw a film of the 2003 stage production starring the late Paul Newman as the Stage manager. I had a dim understanding of Wilder’s point in 1962, but now I understand it more fully.

In the play, the young bride Emily dies in childbirth. In the afterlife, she learns that she can return unseen just once for a day. Her departed relatives and acquaintances counsel against it, because “the living don’t understand.” They don’t understand that they’re too busy to notice the sacred in the ordinary. But in a longing for reconnection, Emily returns to learn that her counselors were right.

In 1970, Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi captured the corollary; “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?” I wish I could relive the simple times spent with my maternal grandfather – a bright, gentle man who deeply loved me, God only knows why. We played catch on the beach; he serenaded me with folk songs; and made fun of my doting grandmother’s tireless and mostly failed efforts to teach me manners. I wish I could spend just one day with my mother. We talked about trivia, mostly, because many subjects were perilous. But, like my grandfather, she loved me unconditionally which I felt in my soul. I miss my Kansan grandmother, a creative volcano who taught me to drive in a cemetery, and who led me down a rose trellis (from the second floor) to outflank my crotchety grandfather who forbade us to leave to explore tornado damage.

Why are life’s daily simplicities sacred? Perhaps it is because they are so often about love. I appreciate now the love that we experienced in the ordinary. Must it remain true that “the living don’t understand?” Probably, though I suppose if I adopted a moment-to-moment earnestness, people would wonder (even more) about me. But the longer I live the more important is the unadorned company of family and friends, and the better I understand that simple love is the meaning of life.

In his book, In the Company of Cheerful Ladies, Alexander McCall Smith says, “…for that is what redeems us, that is what makes our pain and sorrow bearable – this giving love to others, this sharing of the heart.” Our children can learn from us the sacredness of simplicity appreciated over a lifetime. Jane Sigloh writes, in Like Trees Walking that “…old lovers leave a legacy for the young because what binds them together, even when separated by death, is deeper, broader, and higher than they ever imagined was possible.” In Wendell Berry’s poem, To Tanya at Christmas, the poet speaks to this legacy:

Our lives rise
in speech to our children’s tongues.
They will tell how we once stood
together here, two trees
whose lives in annual sheddings
made their way into this ground,
whose bodies turned to earth
and song. The song will tell
how old love sweetens the fields.
Amen. Amen.

Ched Bradley is senior warden at St. Luke’s, Bethesda.

Letting go

By Margaret M. Treadwell

Every spring we watch and wait for our magnificent Yoshima cherry tree to reach peak bloom, signaling the afternoon for our annual Grove Street Cherry Blossom Popcorn Party beneath the popping buds. The lucky day this year fell on a glorious, warm Palm Sunday afternoon which brought out neighborhood families to revel in the tree’s splendor and each other’s celebration of spring after a long winter indoors. A soft southwest breeze wafted blossoms to the ground creating a pink carpet for our gathering. One friend commented that the sensational old tree helped to keep the spirit of neighborhood and fellowship alive.

When we moved from New York to our house in October 1975, we knew little about Washington cherry tree traditions and had no idea that we’d bought a front yard treasure. So we were awed when the tree popped five months later just in time for our daughter’s 4th birthday party to be celebrated beneath its branches. We began to commemorate all important family events with the tree as backdrop for photographs - more birthdays, graduations, Christmas card snapshots, a wedding, and now grandchildren arriving at Nana’s and Poppy’s. As our cherry has aged to be somewhere around 75-85 years old, far beyond its expected longevity, we have surprised ourselves by becoming the elders on our street, glad that we chose to be deeply rooted here along with our tree which has grown to wrap around our upstairs corner bedroom windows.

Last June, a robin couple built their nest in the tree just high enough so that we couldn’t see into their home but we could observe the parents’ preparations and nurturing when their fledglings’ tiny insatiably open beaks peaked up over the nest’s edge. Mother Robin was extraordinarily diligent in flying out to find food, feeding her young and during one horrific storm, spreading her wings over the nest like a living umbrella to shield her family of four from the cold rain and wind. As they grew larger, Mr. Robin began showing up more often to guard the nest of churning little bodies while his missus was scavenging for their food. His presence appeared to calm his offspring.

Within two weeks, the babies became so large that they almost pushed each other out of the nest, ruffling their wing feathers as if practicing for flight. One amazing day, we watched them begin to fly one by one out of the nest. Finally only one remained, and while his parents hovered around their last baby, I remembered my mixed emotions when our younger child left home (documented by pictures beneath the cherry tree). A story entitled “Soaring” in Friedman’s Fables by Edwin H. Friedman helped me over the rough patch:

Mr. and Mrs. Bird had successfully launched nine fledglings, but as the fable unfolds we experience their desperation over the youngest’s failure to launch or take any advice on how to flap his wings, lift his head, fly! The more perplexed they become, the harder they try, the more Baby-bird resists their mad pokes and chirping which somehow enable him to avoid his destiny instead of facing it.

Finally the parents are fed up enough to leave the nest for their own happy pursuits, but this infuriates Baby-bird which resolves to show them by jumping to a triumphal splat on the ground below. However, his attempt fails when nature takes its course, his wings pull away from his body and soon he is soaring naturally without his parents’ constant interference to foul up his functioning.

Friedman’s moral? “ The children who do best in this world are those we make least important to our own salvation.”

He wrote the fables to celebrate ambiguity, believing that “… questions are more important than answers, in part, because they are eternal while answers resemble fashions that come and go with the age.” In this sense, each fable is best understood as a question and several that flow from “Soaring” are as follows:

• Why do some fledglings have more trouble leaving home?
• How did Baby-bird wind up thinking that learning to fly was for the benefit of his parents?
• Why do children tend to function best in those areas where their parents are least anxious and most incompetent?
• Can you think of any books on raising children that try to get parents to de-focus their child?

As for me, when I see the fat- breasted robins playing in our yard, I imagine they are the now grown children who flew from our cherry tree nest a year ago. They are strong, feisty, and in charge of the garden. And I think to myself, “Babies do grow up and should leave home, and when they do, they return a lot more interesting.”

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.

My pioneering grandmother

By Luiz Coelho

My grandmother's family emigrated to Brazil on a cargo ship that took six months to arrive! She was raised at a coffee plantation in a region where every single white person was related to each other, and could trace their origins to the same pioneer who got rich in Brazil and brought most of the people from his village in Portugal.

When she was young, she couldn't be friends with people of color. "It was a big transgression" - she said. Only when she went live in Rio (with my grandfather and their three girls), did they get in touch and develop friendships with black and mixed-race people. My mother was still an infant, and at first, she would cry every time a black person approached her. It was the very first time she saw them, in a country where about half of the population is not white! Eventually, she got used to seeing people who had dark skin tones, but just the fact that there are people even today who lived and can recall those events is very sad.

My grandmother had a conversion experience while reciting the Nicene Creed at her Catholic Church. Later, she became a Protestant, because "they also believed in the Creed, plus, they could read the Bible," but she's still fond of the Catholic Church "now that they can do those things as well." She might be a crypto-Vatican II Catholic of sorts.

She had three girls. Only my mom and aunt survived childhood. My grandfather, who also was her cousin, didn't care (or didn't want to care) about birth control. But she knew that they couldn't raise decently any more children, so, she prayed every day she wouldn't get pregnant again - and she didn't. That was her only choice of family planning. I wonder how many women still have to do that.

She worked overnight shifts at a sweatshop. My grandfather eventually got sick, and could not take care of the family by himself. Labor conditions in factories back in those days were deplorable, and my grandmother felt compelled to join a labor union and campaign for labor rights. Eventually, the government passed laws that forced factories to comply to a maximum of eight work hours per day. She still remembers how joyful she felt when that legislation became law.

Her multiple work shifts were not in vain. Thanks to her sacrifice, my mother and my aunt never had to work while at school. They passed the test to go to normal school, and eventually graduated and became elementary school teachers. Both went to college later. My grandmother also adopted an orphan teenager. This girl also went to college, and is now a retired federal judge.

Every time I think about women, and their achievements, I think about my grandmother and her life. Now she is 90, and many of the challenges she faced seem to be so far away from us. However, they are many women still face them. If it were not for my grandmother's witness of life, maybe I would not pay as much attention to this fact as I should. She has been, however, my model and guide, and in her I see the work of all those wonderful women who work and pray next to me.

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."

Suffer the little children, and their parents, too

By Leo Campos

I have heard and read much about Jesus' openness to children. In his day and time children were not of much more value than cattle, if that much. So for Jesus to permit children to "bother" him was different enough to merit a mention. It is also one of those small little details which seem to me to be proof of the impact of Jesus in the lives of those who followed him.

It is also, in my opinion, proof of Jesus' celibacy - against those inclined toward a gnostic or DaVinci-esque view of Jesus. Only a really cool uncle would say such a thing about children. Of course, Jesus never said such a thing directly to my youngest son.

Case in point: taking my 3-year old to school can turn any morning into drama of epic proportions. Part of the difficulty is that he is one of those kids who absolutely must do everything for himself - no matter that he lacks the finer motor control or the experience or both. He must get it himself, do it himself. He will not tolerate any help...even though without help he cannot (physically) do the task. Even though if I did it we would be out of the house already and I would not be late for work. No matter. A typical conversation will go something like this:

"Daddy I want milk!"

"What do we say?"

Pause. He looks at his father and practices the look he will give me 20 years hence at the early onset of dementia, "I. Want. Milk."

I adjust my glasses, the International Sign of Infinite Patience and explain, "We say 'please'."

"Oh yeah. Please? Milk? Please!! I said please."

"Yes you did. Here's your milk," and I hand him a glass of milk, in his favorite white plastic cup which turns purple with the temperature of the liquid.

"No," he frowns, crosses his arms, and if he knew how, he would probably tap his toes too.

A puzzled look crosses my face, and instinctively I check the cup to make sure it really was milk I poured in there, remembering that one time when it involved my wife's kefir. "Don't you want milk?" I stretch the glass to him.


I look at this child like someone looks at a small but extremely dangerous animal that is making threatening noises, "You asked for milk!"

After a few seconds of death-staring each other, I say, "Ok. Don't have any milk. See if I care. Do you know how many starving cows in Timbuktu would love some milk?"

I try my best to slam the milk down with dignity and focus my attention back on doing my cereal box lectio. My cereal now is mushy. A few minutes later I hear, "Look Daddy I got milk."

Suffer unto me indeed. But Jesus did not mean this particular pint-sized lovable terror; he meant the approach to certain things in life which all children share. For example, regardless of how the day begins, without or without military interventions, duct tape, and sugar frosted cereals, when we get to the car the request is usually the same: "Daddy can we say prayers?" By this he means he wants to listen to my CD of Morning Offices which I got from GIA Music (highly recommended, by the way). So we put it on and listen and sing along to the psalms and the canticles.

On my wife's side of the family, music is an integral part of their self-identity. Everyone, it seems plays various instruments well, has a range of multiple octaves, and can usually be counted on to start some sort of sing-along around the piano - and that's just the pets. My tone-deafness and general music analphabetism elicits the same sort of look one gives to those brave souls who wear their Phillies hats out in public.

The other day our little one was singing to himself the intro to the Offices ("O God come to my assistance, Lord make haste to help me"). I could tell it was in tune because my beloved wife was frantically calling the DNA research lab, canceling the DNA tests, and just as quickly dialing her family and holding up the phone so they too could hear it.

But the issue with the daily singing of hymns goes deeper than musical appreciation or even family affiliation (and perhaps a larger percentage of inheritance later in life). The point is that my son finds routines comforting. Children, it seems, make natural Benedictines - they thrive on the day-in day-out routines: certain predictable things happen in certain predictable hours, in certain predictable days. My little one quickly memorized what days he could bring a book and what days he could bring a toy to daycare. He must have dinner no later than 5:45 EST. He demands a certain amount of reading every night - usually from a limited collection of "best" books (a collection which his older brother is always trying to expand). And then there is "compline."

"Daddy. My brother has not read me a book."
In the background I hear a "Did too!" from his brother.

"But son, I heard him in there with you for the past half an hour," I reply hoping against hope his mother will be home soon.

Silent pause. He looks at me on the couch with the practiced caring disdain of an overworked nurse, "He has not read me a book," he repeats probably figuring out that all adults are hard of hearing.

"Which book?" I ask putting down my own reading, the international sign of Fantastic Daddyship.

"Don't let the pigeon drive the bus!"

"Ok - let's go read the book."

And after reading, not one but three Mo Willems books plus a few others, there is the bathroom run, and then the prayers. The "friend light" (night light) has to be on and the correct blanket in place. And on and on.

Routines - they bring stability and, strangely, an opportunity to explore and play. Play is much better when carried out within boundaries. There is perhaps a certain feeling of security which routine affords. Those of us who recite the Daily Office find their constancy and their repetition extremely comforting. While novelty is the fastest way to happiness, repetition is the surest road to joy.

Instead of ruing the boredom of our lives, we should spend sometime thanking God for routines - and then setting about doing the work He has given us to do within that routine. To complain of boredom and routine betrays a lack of creativity and of insight - both of which are fundamental tools for a deep spiritual life.

Children, especially my lovable younger one, are masters of creative ways of existing within the boundaries, of playing in and with the boundaries. They are masters of living. Let me suffer unto the little children and learn to live better.

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).

A sense of place

By Margaret M. Treadwell

Did you grow up in a small town you left to pursue careers and adventures as an urban dweller? My hometown is on the banks of the Tennessee River in the northwest corner of Alabama, where back in the day we children could play anywhere fancy free and without worry for our safety. “It takes a village” was an unknown phrase, but our actions seemed always to be known by a plethora of kind, intelligent adults who loved and cared for us as if our families all belonged to each other. Sheffield, Ala., gave me a sense of place and basic trust in a good world.

Named for Sheffield, England, our town was incorporated in 1885. It was created to be an iron and steel center, using locally available iron ore and shipping products to market via river transportation. Boom and bust years followed until 1933, when the newly elected President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, signed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act. The TVA’s programs, along with those of the National Recovery Act, helped bring the area out of the severe economic depression during the 30s. Pictures of our town from WWII through the 1980s show a bustling main street filled with a variety of shops to meet every need.

Today, this street is boarded up and closed down, a victim of poor planning by town fathers who refused to merge with the nearby town of Muscle Shoals, where the strip including Wall Mart attracts business unfortunately bypassing Sheffield. Even before the current economic crisis, Sheffield looked dead and decaying. It has become a bedroom community and settling place for senior citizens living in several retirement facilities.

But Sheffield still has a heart if you bother to look beneath sad appearances. The town may be boarded up, but the spirits of good people abound in three abiding institutions: The art association brings the community together with lively theater and museum exhibits; the library provides a center where residents gather and poverty-stricken kids receive warm adult attention with story hours, computer use and help with homework and book selections; the churches continue to draw spiritual seekers who give back to the town.

Grace Episcopal Church is a good example. Five years ago, rector Rick Oberheide was called to help the congregation grow or perish. He focused on a mission of hope for transformation and is overjoyed that young families are flocking to services, joining the parish and committing themselves to the vision. Meanwhile, he is a pastoral presence to his aging parishioners, including my homebound mother (98) who adores the visits that Rick calls “Tuesdays with Flo.”

Rick says he’s an unlikely priest, describing himself as directionally challenged (he gets lost no matter where he’s driving around town), but spiritually directed. His family’s dysfunction left him a spiritual orphan at a very young age, so as a child he began to seek mentors and a church to call home. Finding the right wife and psychoanalysis helped him form an identity and then a love for other people that flows to his parishioners and to others, no matter what their religious beliefs. Remarkably, he has welcomed two retired Grace church rectors back as parishioners as well as several other former priests from other dioceses. He appreciates their assistance at services and with shared leadership. Encouraging his predecessors to participate brings a presence of the past that has helped foster healing and growth.

One of Rick’s greatest gifts is his ability to be vulnerable and to laugh at himself. His stories abound, like the time he rose to leave an important interview, opened the wrong door and walked into a closet. Or the time his microphone was turned on before a service and he went to the men’s room where he says, “I opened my own Niagara Falls amplified throughout the church. The congregation cracked up.” His latest story has become a Sheffield legend:

When a church patriarch named Frank died, Rick drove immediately to his widow Mary’s home, which in his directional confusion, he mistook for the house next door. He knocked, entered and found a group of people he’d never seen. Believing they were out-of-town relatives, he began to converse and minister to them. After a while, he said, “Where is Mary?” Said an elderly woman, “Mary? Why Mary died!” Rick said, “No, it was Frank who died. I spoke to Mary this morning!” A silence filled the room. For a few minutes everyone was speechless. Finally someone said, “Mary is not here because she died. Could you have the wrong house? Frank lived next door but we didn’t know he died.”

Rick sums this one up, “Grace is the space between how you want to react and when you speak.”

As more small towns struggle during these current hard times, we can support the heart of town in people who dream of a positive outcome and continue to give back to the community with love, optimism, humor and commitment to future generations.

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.

Figuring out what is "meant to be"

By Greg Jones

What if some things were meant to be, and some not?

When you look at your life what about it is "meant to be?" And what isn't? What's a mistake? A sin? A...well...a do-over? What in your life are you grateful for - and what would you like to see redeemed? And can those things be brought together?

It's hard to know sometimes, what's meant to be, and what's not. In some cases, of course, it’s easy. I believe that at a minimum, every person was meant to be. All loved by God, all cherished, all made in God’s image. And certainly every person — no matter how long they live, no matter how much or how little they succeed— has the implanted power of God inside already —a soul, an animus, a spark — an inner light. And certainly every good a person does — every truth, every kindness, every patience, every grace — comes from this inner light, planted there by the One who let it be in the first place.

And, so, every person is meant to be, and every grace which passes to and through them is meant to be. So what’s left?

Every vice, every sinful choice, every wasted moment – in a way of looking at things, these are things that are not meant to be. In this same way of looking at things, every harm done to others, either by accident or on purpose, was not meant to be. As well, the many collisions of this universe of cold and chaotic forces which impact upon the beloved of God, maybe those things are not “meant” to be either. After all, in this way of looking at things — which Jesus offers — there is a "ruler of this World" which one day will be cast out of it.

What Jesus chooses to do in going to Jerusalem and dying on the cross, and rising again, and ascending into fullness with God and all, is to begin the reconciliation and redemption of what should and what should never be. God gives everything that is meant to be. And God will redeem everything that isn’t. That’s why God not only creates. God redeems. Thanks be to God.

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.

A religious homecoming: Notes from a journey

By Richard M. Weinberg

Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God.
1 John 4:7

“For God is love.” So ends the eighth verse of this same 1 John passage from chapter four. And all of my life I have used these two verses as a mantra in times of serious doubt. My relationship with God has been enduring yet punctuated over the course of my childhood and young adulthood by my relationship with the church, and my identity as a gay man.

Ignorant Bliss

As a devout Roman Catholic raised in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., I was a faithful attendee of Mass, served as an altar boy, never missed a Sunday school lesson, and ensured my parents and brother attended church with me every week. I prayed the rosary often, confessed my sins regularly, and pondered living a full life as an example of an obedient child of Christ.

As adolescence took hold of my life and distracted my mind and body like every teenager, I began to identify with my great aunt who lived with her female partner, as I wondered silently if I were like them. Then, when my aunt, Lynn, posed to me one evening while watching television, “Well, you know your grandfather was gay, right?” it shook my core to realize that, yes!—I am, too. It was all the more reason then, that coupled with my self-inflicted rigid beliefs and my own sexual epiphany, I was utterly wounded the morning in Sunday school when my teacher lectured on the sin of homosexuality.

An Abomination

I sat in the front row with my eyes growing wider as I listened to the lesson. Occasionally making sure my visual discomfort was not noticed by my classmates, my usual engaging questions were silenced by the news I was hearing. During a break in class, I called my teacher to the hallway to speak privately, and asked “out of concern for a family member” about the implications of such a lifestyle.

Of course now I can admit that it was my own sexuality and the reality of the church’s non-acceptance that brought me to question my teacher privately. From that point, my faith slowly deteriorated as I frequently sought excuses to miss Mass and grappled with the seemingly daunting conflict of choosing between being myself or being in God’s grace. I continued throughout high school with the corresponding stereotypical existence of a “different” kid, fearsome of bullies in the hallway who mocked and chided me, and all the while sinking into a deeper depression as a result of a stripped faith and trust in God.

Becoming Spiritual

I could not have asked for a more loving and accepting family. To this day my parents, grandparents, brother, and other family members support me unconditionally, and I know my mother in particular was distraught with worry during those trying years as to how to help me. Perhaps in some way my guilt was augmented by the thought that I could have it so much worse. I could have had a family that threw me out of the house. Yet I fundamentally could not come to terms with the implications of how the church felt about who I was, and that these feelings of helplessness were a direct result of the pain I experienced from a place that once provided me the utmost comfort and solace.

Throughout my undergraduate years my depression gave way to the excitement of life and the experience of maturing. Most significantly, I fell in love for the first time. That relationship with another man made me realize that being gay was completely natural. I experienced first-hand that two committed same-sex adults can be just as happy as their heterosexual counterparts, and that there was no reason to believe that God didn’t love me for who I was. I also discovered the practice of yoga, and bestselling metaphysic titles taught me that a relationship with God could be had outside of the church. I toyed with the label agnostic, and I spoke to my close friends and a rabbi about Judaism. I did not step foot inside a Christian worship service for more than five years. I would shudder at the thought, refuse invitations, and even avoid music performances that took place in any sanctuary.

A Church for All Souls

Thankfully, I found a way to hear God’s calling to come back. Upon moving to downtown Washington, D.C. during my grad school years, I was forced to seek out a paying church choir job and landed at All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church in Woodley Park. I remember my first Sunday in the choir, participating in the order of service with such familiar liturgy, reciting the responses and prayers that brought back years of Roman Catholic Mass. Yet it was different.
The Rev. Joan Beilstein, an open lesbian who was then interim rector, preached from the pulpit. A skilled, openly gay choir director led our ensemble, and at coffee hour I met numerous same-sex couples who were happily engaged in the life of the parish. I learned that All Souls had grown to be a particularly welcoming parish as a result of the former rector, the Rev. John David van Dooren, who drew attention during the Minneapolis General Convention in an August 2003 article in The Washington Post. “Founded in 1911 … All Souls was once known as one of the most conservative Episcopal churches in the District.” Under van Dooren’s leadership, the church—“dwindling in membership, at risk of closure by the diocese”—became one of the most revitalized parishes in D.C. Beilstein estimates that during our time there, some 40 percent of the congregation was gay and lesbian. On the Sunday of the bishop’s visitation, I listened to the Rt. Rev. John Bryson Chane preach on the inclusiveness of the Episcopal Church, and his views that gay brothers and sisters are equal in the eyes of God.

A Troubled Communion

But there are those within the Episcopal Church who are seeking to disassociate themselves from what they see as a too liberal acceptance of gays and lesbians, including the ordination of gay clergy. As theologian Walter Wink writes in his well-known essay Homosexuality and the Bible, “Sexual issues are tearing our churches apart today as never before. The issue of homosexuality threatens to fracture whole denominations.” And the issue indeed has. At the same 2003 General Convention, the major issue debated was the confirmation of the church’s first openly gay bishop, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson. Ever since his ordination, it seems too often we read another article about a U.S. Episcopal church voting to break off and align itself with a conservative African diocese, while most recently, news emerged in December 2008 of intentions to create a new church in North America, which portrays itself as the conservative arm to the Anglican Communion.

Through my most influential mentor and friend, I ended up employed at Washington National Cathedral in December 2006. The epitome of a beautiful landmark, constructed for the glory of God, welcome to people of all faiths and none, yet governed by the Episcopal Church, the Cathedral entered my life unlike any other edifice before it. More than a place of work, I was embraced fully by its community, its clergy, and my colleagues. The programs and ministry of the Cathedral were evident examples to me that Christianity does exist within the center—and that rather than discord there is dialogue; rather than slander, respect; and rather than damnation, there is understanding.

The Cathedral makes clear its role of being welcoming to all people, which includes a diverse worshiping congregation with many gay and lesbian members, as well as a growing number of people in their 20s and 30s. The Cathedral’s own openly gay vicar, the Rev. Canon Stephen Huber, who oversees the Cathedral congregation, recently mentioned his own childhood experience in a sermon, which resulted in overwhelmingly unexpected positive feedback on the significance of identifying himself as gay from the pulpit.

A Spiritual Home

I was received into the Episcopal Church by Bishop Chane in May 2008. Kneeling in the Cathedral nave surrounded by the soaring Gothic vaulting, and my family and friends with their hands on my shoulders, I knelt as Chane recited, “Richard Mosson Weinberg, we recognize you as a member of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church, and we receive you into the fellowship of this Communion. God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bless, preserve, and keep you.” I felt tears pouring down my cheeks and the full divine presence of God so close to me in that moment. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life.

Earlier that May, I attended a screening at the Cathedral of For the Bible Tells Me So, a feature-length documentary that chronicles the experiences of five “normal,” Christian, American families handling the realization of having a gay child. Enhanced by the in-person discussion among filmmaker Daniel Karslake, Bishop Gene Robinson, and the audience, I sat simply in profound gratitude for my own experience in coming out, growing up, and joining the church out of my own renewed faith. Eight months later, I watched Bishop Robinson participate in the inaugural concert for President Barack Obama. Robinson’s words, “Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance—replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences, and an understanding that in our diversity, we are stronger” resonated deeply.

I view my faith journey as a full circle, and also commensurate with my own self-discovery. Now, as a more mature, religious, Christian gay man, I am proud to call the Episcopal Church my spiritual home. And I am comforted that here at the Cathedral there is a voice for a generous-spirited, welcoming Christianity, firm at its center and soft at its edges, where all people are invited to engage and learn, and cultivate a fuller relationship with God.

Richard M. Weinberg is assistant director for integrated communications and co-editor of Cathedral Age magazine at Washington National Cathedral. He serves on the Advisory Council of Generation O, Washington National Opera’s young professionals and student outreach program.

Pharisees and Tax Collectors

By Luiz Coelho

A couple days ago, I was overhearing a conversation (yes, I do that) between two women on “churches” and “religion.” Basically, one of them made a comment about being a Reform Jew and finding it very hard to deal with the Conservative Jewish school where she was working as an intern. The other woman, then, told a little bit about her experience as a child of a Southern Baptist father and an Episcopalian mother, and of being raised in the Episcopal Church.

Believe me, I am not the “gossipy” kind of person, but that conversation did attract my attention, after all, it was about the Episcopal Church. And when the Jewish woman mentioned that in Reform Judaism they had the freedom to question while in Conservative Judaism things were much stricter, the other one replied “Yes, I imagine it is just like being Episcopalian as opposed to being Southern Baptist.” I chuckled. I had to!

I have to admit that sometimes I succumb to the dangers of “episcolatry.” Let me explain. Not rarely we are taught, in the Episcopal Church (and, to a certain degree, in other Anglican Provinces), that we have freedom of thought, that we use reason, that we practice inclusion, that we are fighting for a change, and that we are not “fundamentalists” (a word that has been used both by Liberals and Conservatives at times, with no clear boundaries), among many other great things. Nevertheless, the pride that emerges from all of that often consumes me and not rarely I catch myself bearing a silly sense of superiority, almost as if I had find the “True” Church.

Lent has just started and it might be a bit cliché to revisit all the basics about this season, in a sort of Lent 101 course. But I believe, however, that in many cases we grasp much less than we should about this season of fasting and repentance. I tend to focus more on fasts. In fact, I was probably born on a diet, because I recall doing them since I was a child. So, it is not extremely hard for me to give up on edible temptations for a while. It is the repentance part that drives me crazy, and by reflecting upon some of the daily Lenten readings, I realized that I am most likely still far away from the ideal Jesus shows in the Gospels.

This is probably why I chuckled to the conversation I mentioned before. It is not a problem to understand that all of our struggles and achievements as a Church draw us near to the Gospel. The problem lies when we question why the “uncool fundamentalists” (among others) claim to sit at Christ's table. I have to admit that, not rarely, I have acted as the pharisees who criticize Jesus for having a meal with tax collectors. Yes, this passage, which for years was used to justify the inclusion of those seen by the Church as impure (usually liberal-minded Christians), ended up being used by me in a rather curious opposite direction. In the midst of cyber-wars and name-calling, I might say that several times I felt tempted to look down on people who, regardless of opinions or attitudes towards any of the hot topics or people en vogue, are marked as Christ's own and are just like myself: sinners in need of God's grace.

Lent might be, therefore, an appropriate period to repent from a fake sense of superiority that does us no good and in fact diverts our attention from what we are really called to do. Episcopalians or not, there is plenty of Christian ministry to be done around us. There are mouths to be fed, souls to be nurtured, people to be reached, gifts to be used and a life of service waiting for each one of us, whenever we are. Not rarely we will be criticized for claiming to be the sinners who sit at Christ's table, but that is far better than being the ones who feel “superior and clean,” and in no need of repentance. I still believe it is possible to speak with integrity and not succumb to such temptations. And this is what I have taken as my Lenten discipline. I know it is hard, and have no idea if it will work, but I am giving it a try.

So, my prayer is that, during this period of Lent, while we try to discern better what God's call in our life is, we can see every single person that we interact with as God's beloved child, and also as a potential brother or sister in Christ, in need of care, prayer and repentance.

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 weight of "dark matter"

By Greg Jones

People who study the universe talk about something called "Dark Matter." Turns out that the majority of the matter in the universe is invisible, not only to the animal eye, but to any kind of eye - whether x-ray, infrared, ultraviolet, gamma ray, or whathaveyou. Dark Matter is something which dominates the mass of the universe, cannot be seen, and is only detectable because of one thing: it has weight. Yes, the dark stuff of the cosmos has weight - and as the cosmologists tell us, it's quite literally pulling on everything. It can't be seen, but it's heavy anyway.

I discovered a bunch of Dark Matter on my trusty five year old laptop today. Well, not exactly, but I discovered that 99% of my hard drive was full, and I had no more room to do the basics any more. Things were running slow. I had to get rid of good programs, just to manage the shortage of disk space. Yet, every time I tried a quick stab at getting rid of junk on my drive, it didn't seem to make much difference - there were literally billions of bits of extra stuff on there that I couldn't seem to see, find or detect in order to remove. The digital Dark Matter was keeping me from the mission I needed to accomplish with that laptop - and it seemed helpless.

Then I went after it with a purpose. I got some good hard drive cleaning software, and with that and about an hour's time, I went through that little rig and found all the stuff I didn't need or want anymore. Mostly, it was stuff that was all hiding in dastardly places allowed for by the arcane operating system born into the rig by its maker. All that stuff that was hiding in there - running either little routines or simply taking up space - well I got rid of it. All of it. And it felt really good. And now, that little computer runs better.

What about you? As Jesus said to Peter, "your mind is too much on human things." Are you weighed down with all sorts of Dark Matter? Old things that are stashed in your mind, heart and soul that have weight, but you've lost sight of them? Is it time for a spring cleaning of issues, concerns, anxieties, agendas that are almost forgotten, but yet still remembered in the attic of your mind?

Maybe, this Lent is a time to look for that dark matter of the soul - and - well - chuck it out. It's called confession. It's called prayer. It's called letting go of dark matters, and allowing the Spirit to cleanse us.

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.

The habit of kindness

By Heidi Shott

After a number of years together, my husband and I determined that we are not meant to be opponents. We can’t play singles tennis; we can barely play ping-pong. We end up feeling bad whether we win or lose. So instead we ski and scuba dive together when we get the chance. There’s no winning or losing, just companionship and wonder. Recently I came to realize that my desire not to whip my husband also applies to my sons and almost everyone else.

I was wasting some time on a game of computer hearts. The game allows you to name the dealer as well as your opponents. For a few weeks I’d been dealing under the name of one of my sons who’d been fiddling around with my computer. But that evening I decided to re-christen myself dealer and name the three other players after my husband and our twin boys. After a few hands, I felt awfully sad. I can’t bear to beat my loved ones, even virtually.

So I thought about people I’d really like to cream. One name, a boss from early in my career, rose to mind immediately, but for the other two – I’m pleased to report – I had to dig down deep. I finally settled on a particularly difficult member of an organization I used to work for and a vindictive college dean about whom I will say nothing because my mother taught me not to say mean things about dead people.

Suddenly, playing computer hearts became exceedingly fun.

While I didn’t mind losing a hand to these three people, I began to take tremendous pleasure in beating them. I thought about what they had in common: one man, two women; two from Maine, one from Virginia; two professional contacts, one academic. What was it that allowed me to hold this antipathy all these years? Then I hit upon it: All three of these people had, at one time, made me feel very small and unworthy.

God has made us so vulnerable, particularly when we are young. An unkind word, a public humiliation, a thoughtless putdown can stay with us over the course of our lives. I have a friend who worked as a newspaper intern during a college summer. One day the paper’s popular columnist carelessly told him, “You can’t write.” It was a throwaway line, but my friend believed it for about 15 years until he took a job that required writing everyday. After awhile he realized he was a very good writer. It had never occurred to him to brush aside what the columnist had said.

On the other hand, those moments when we are singled out, praised and recognized can change the entire course of our lives. We become like spaniels, eager to please, full of good will and belief in all we are capable of.

Here’s a confession: I often think kind things about people, but seldom take the time to tell them. Last week, my sons and I went to a niece’s sixth grade Colonial history play. Though she and her family live nearby, in the busyness of daily life, we seldom connect. After the performance, she approached us to say she was delighted we had come. Will it matter that we attended? Who knows? But I think supporting her interests and cheering her successes over the years will matter a great deal, if we can keep it up.

Practicing the habit of kindness is my discipline this Lent – my plan is to take a moment to write one kind and encouraging note or email to someone who won’t expect it. It’s impossible to know when the stray compliment or the “well done” will indelibly mark someone’s life. As that anonymous 17th Century nun has often been quoted:

“Give me the ability to see good things in unexpected places, and talents in unexpected people. And give me, O Lord, the grace to tell them so.”

The habit of kindness can be practiced in all of our worlds – among our families and friends, in our congregations, in our workplaces, in our neighborhoods. It’s free, it’s Christ-like, and, unlike ping-pong, everybody wins.

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

Coming home to Lent

By Kathleen Staudt

On the Sunday of the Transfiguration, February 22, I began my day in summer sunshine, sitting on a patio in Sidney, Australia watching the sailboats and ferry boats that were just beginning their day, and reading, for my morning devotion, the story of the Transfiguration. We spent those last 12 days of Epiphany “down under,” -- away from the awful brushfires though they were very much in our awareness all over Australia, a national tragedy—and mostly by the sea. For us it was a sojourn into summertime, a conference by the southern beaches (our reason for going) along the Great Ocean Road, and four days of pure vacation on a tropical island in the Great Barrier Reef, living alongside Creation at its liveliest – with nesting birds and turtles, and a whole colorful and unimagined world right under the surface of the water, off the beach, on a part of the reef that still seems healthy and beautiful. It was a time of reconnecting with my “summer self” – the me who spends time each morning in summer on the patio, writing poems and watching the birds, claiming that season as the time of regrouping and regeneration that the summer is for those of us who live by the academic calendar.

Even sitting there that Sunday morning I knew it might be hard to remember my “summer patio self” by the end of the day. Because the end of the day would be almost a day later. Before February 22 ended for us, we would be back in Washington, in freezing cold weather, and ready or not, called to jump back into the busy life of teaching and formation that is characteristic of my winter-time --- AND it would be Lent 3 days later!

Now, a week later, after a wonderful whirlwind weekend of teaching, barely recovered from jet lag, I look back on that time on the patio as a quiet example of what the Transfiguration story gives us: a lamp shining in the darkness, the letter of Peter calls it; a moment on the summer patio, sipping tea, resting in the quiet of a Sabbath morning on the harbor, reflecting on what it means to be invited into the presence of the living Christ and seeing, just for a moment, that it’s all true. I wonder if those disciples connected, just for a moment, with their own deepest selves, the part of themselves that was called out and loved – as he showed them, just for a moment, that ‘yes – it’s all true”; and they heard “This is my Son, the beloved” – before they headed back down the mountain to discover how much work there was to be done, how much the world needed healing, and dealt again with their own inadequacy to the task of healing and reconciliation that called them back down the mountain.

This Lent, the vastness and smallness of the world, revealed through the time of travel, offers a special gift to me: I am hoping that the memory of my “summer self,” sitting with Jesus on that patio down under, will stay with me this season, as I enter the swirl of activity that this season inevitably brings for someone engaged in retreat and formation work. Perhaps that time as my summer self is the “lamp shining in the darkness” that I’ve been given, this Lenten season.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt (Kathy) 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.

Practicing hopefulness by living "as if"

By Margaret M. Treadwell

When I was around seven-years-old, I began praying every night for a baby sister whom I promised God would be named Hope Ann McDonnell with initials that would give her the nickname of HAM. Although I have no idea where I got that name and she never arrived, I realized as an adult that I stayed stuck in hope with no actualization.

Hope. Friends around the globe contacting me about the inauguration of President Obama constantly use this inspiring word. How brilliantly I experienced it that day on the Mall when our gold embossed invitation with silver gate tickets only served to propel us into a crush of humanity. In trying to escape, we somehow landed in the Museum of the American Indian where, to our amazement, we witnessed the swearing in on a giant screen while sipping hospitably-offered hot chocolate. We and some 500 others crowded up the spiral staircase constituted a Mall microcosm from many nationalities, ethnic groups and states, united for that moment in the personification of hope and the ideal use of that special edifice. We took pictures of those around us happily holding up our official invitations, which never could equal our own celebration. Open to serendipity, our experience was far better than our original hopes for the day.

As the days have unfolded since my peak experience on January 20th, I’ve been wondering what we really mean by hope and how to keep it alive with the worsening world news from the media and our new president who based his campaign on “The Audacity of Hope.” Certainly we seem to be living the cliché “ hoping against hope.”

Webster’s dictionary defines hope as 1) the feeling that what is wanted can be had or that events will turn out for the best. 2) to look forward to with desire and reasonable confidence. 3) To believe, desire or trust. 4) A person or thing in which expectations are centered.

These definitions suggest that the focus of hope is outside of us – on events in the future, another person or thing. Much easier to seek there for salvation, yet here is President Obama insisting that our hope lies in all of us forming a community to work with him and each other, a familiar refrain from clergy in dying churches and other leaders in stuck organizations. Even though we know that no leader can be the Messiah, we human beings continue to behave like Jesus’ disciples, who expect Him to fix things while they refuse to look at themselves or draw on their inner resources where real hope for change and a new life lies.

Hope begins at home in our families. Almost everyone who calls my office for the first time hopes to improve a relationship with a loved one. Usually they want to change another person to achieve their desires. One of the first steps in an assessment plan is to examine expectations of others and ourselves. Are expectations realistic or merely distractions from more important questions? Do we want to change in someone else a characteristic or habit we don’t like in ourselves? Often if we work on the very thing we want our spouse, partner, child, parent, friend to change – voila! His or her change occurs while we looked away to work on changing ourselves. A person cannot stay the same if a motivated leader shifts his or her position in the family (or church or any institution.)

I refer to this as the “as if theory,” in which I coach clients to practice living as if hope for another is possible while refocusing on better defining themselves, as if their heart’s desire were attainable. We talk about practicing “futuristic positivity,” a term created by the neuropsychologist Angelo Bolea. He explains that the brain has both positive and negative neurons but the negative outweigh the positive by a two to one ratio. Why? Our great, great ancestors needed to protect themselves by sensing the worst possible outcome in order to survive, a defense mechanism we can now outgrow to our benefit. Just watch your child function more maturely when you practice naming the positive strengths in him or her.

Futuristic positivity is practicing the “as if” vision without being locked in to an expected outcome. Sometimes this focus on hope is best conveyed by how we express our attitudes rather than what we say. Sitting quietly. Standing tall. Looking someone in the eye. Listening. Breathing deeply. Kneeling to pray. Laughing out loud. Walking through the wind and rain with hope in our hearts though our dreams be tossed and blown.

"Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.”
--Barbara Johnson

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.

Peter's mother-in-law, Thomas Dorsey and us

By R. William Carroll

Now Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told Jesus about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

Just think what it would’ve been like to be her. There she lay, sick and at risk. Almost certainly afraid. Back then, fevers were serious business. Even today, they are signs of danger. But Jesus came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. And her fever left her.

What a moving story it is. What powerful emotions those around her must have felt. Perhaps it stirs up something primal in us as well. How we long for Christ’s presence in our moments of grief and distress. How we long for him to take our hand and lift us up, whenever we find ourselves brought low.

Throughout the Scriptures, we see God doing the same. In today’s Psalm, we read that God lifts up the lowly but casts the wicked to the ground. Another proclaims that “the LORD sets the prisoners free, the LORD opens the eyes of the blind; the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down.” God is not afraid to take the side of those who have no one else to help them. When we find ourselves at our lowest, we can depend on God.

It was thus with Thomas Dorsey—not the band leader but the African American Gospel musician of the same name. It was a parishioner at the congregation I serve who first shared with me the story of how he came to write Precious Lord. It was shortly after the death of his beloved wife Nettie in childbirth and the subsequent death of their newborn son that Dorsey penned the words to this beloved hymn. Later, it became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. Mahalia Jackson sang it at Dr. King’s funeral. The first verse goes like this:

Precious Lord, take my hand Lead me on, let me stand I am tired, I am weak, I am worn Through the storm, through the night Lead me on to the light Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

These words are a moving meditation on the Savior’s presence in moments of grief and pain. They exude faith that, no matter how bad things get, Jesus will lead us home. Whatever trouble we face, however beaten down we are by the world or our fellow human beings, Jesus has been there before us. In the words of the great spiritual: “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus.” If we but call on him, he will come and show us the way. Dorsey’s words come out of the particularities of his own suffering. They are deeply rooted in the tradition and historical experience of the Black Church. But, like any classic text, they have in fact become universal. They apply equally well at a deathbed or in prison. They can soothe a broken heart or console a grieving parent. They provide hope and strength for us in times of loss, danger, and struggle--whenever we are tired, weak, or worn.

Jesus takes us by the hand and lifts us up, but that’s not the end of the story. It continues: “The fever left her, and she began to serve them.” So it is with us. When Jesus heals us and becomes our Savior, we are pressed into service. There are times in our life where it is enough to be near Jesus, when it suffices to bask in his love. But Jesus did not call us, nor did we answer, so that we could stand still. Jesus did not call us, nor did we answer, so that we could stay the same. The call of Jesus is a call to serve. Indeed, he himself once said that he came not to be served but to serve. When Jesus lifts us up from low places, he always also sets us free to serve those around us.

Think about it in terms of a beloved hymn that we often sing during the season after the Epiphany. I want to walk as a child of the light. I want to follow Jesus. To follow him means to go wherever he may lead. He is the star who goes before us as we walk the pilgrim way. And we do so gladly, because he has set us free.

It’s not an easy path Jesus lights up before us. When he walked it, it led him through the valley of the shadow of death. His path is strewn with suffering and death. Even there, his light shines, showing death to be the gateway of eternal life. With Jesus at our side, we can face even this. Listen, once again, to another verse from Dorsey’s hymn:

When the darkness appears And the night draws near And the day is past and gone At the river I stand Guide my feet, hold my hand Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.

The Christian hope is that we can cross safely over Jordan, over the frontier that divides life from death, without fear, resentment, or regret. Our hope as Christians is that nothing—no, not even death itself—can separate us from Christ’s love. We stand at the river bank with him, confident that he will lead us home.

In this hope, we can continue to put one foot in front of the other, day by day, and do the work of love. No matter what the cost. No matter how tired or afraid we may become. No matter what dangers or doubts may stand in our way. The love of Christ urges us onward. Jesus came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

The Rev. R. William Carroll serves as rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio (Diocese of Southern Ohio). He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He is a novice in the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

The anger of grief

By Ann Fontaine

Making my rounds as Chaplain Ann in the Veterans' Administration nursing home I came to the door of a man whose first words were – “I don’t need a chaplain unless you brought me a gun!” – a startling introduction to my summer of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE).

I did not really want to be in the nursing home, I wanted to be in some sexier rotation like Emergency or Liver Transplants. I drew the short straw and ended up with 120 men and 6 women – a somewhat different population mix than your average parish. All were veterans of wars from WWI to Vietnam. Many were estranged from their families due to the life of a career military person or alcohol or drug abuse. I was newly graduated from seminary and fulfilling the requirement in our Diocese that all clergy take CPE before becoming a priest. The real chaplain at the nursing home was an Assemblies of God career military chaplain. So, great, I thought, me—Episcopal, woman, liberal, anti-war, Harvard Divinity School graduate, and him – Assemblies of God, doesn’t believe women can be pastors, career army. He delighted in calling on me to provide ex tempore prayers and putting me on the line to witness my faith.

As I came to the man’s room that day – anger was all around – in me and in him. One thing I had learned a year before when I was very sick and in the hospital, wondering if I would see my next birthday, is the powerlessness of a patient. I was at the mercy of anyone who wanted to come in and poke or prod me. Invasion of space is the norm for a patient, so I decided I would not go into the patient’s space without invitation. I drew an imaginary line beyond which I would not go. Since these were usually double rooms, it meant the area that the so-called privacy curtain surrounded. If the patient showed signs of me being too close, I would back off even more.

Standing at the edge of that space, I am sure my jaw dropped open, but I tried to remain a non-anxious presence and said, “No, I did not bring a gun.” He said that he did not want to see me if I would not bring him what he wanted. I told him okay but I would be around all summer and if he wanted a visit – I would be there. This interchange continued everyday for a couple of weeks. When he discovered that I was not going to push my chaplain shtick on him, he began to talk, I think so I would stay a little longer.

It turned out that he had had surgery and a nerve had been accidentally cut leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. He went into surgery physically able to spend hours fishing on his boat and enjoying life. Now he was looking at a future confined to a wheelchair. He talked about how he was estranged from his family and told me other things about his life. He had no hope and wanted to end his life. During every visit he would ask for a gun. Every visit I told him I could not do that. Often we would sit out in the courtyard in the sun for our visits, with him still full of anger about the life ahead.

I thought about his situation a lot and one day as I was driving to work crossing the river, I saw some people loading a boat with a hoist. I thought – maybe this could be a solution for the man. I could not wait to share the idea with him. He was out in the courtyard when I got to his part of my rounds, I told him what I had seen. I explained about the hoist and how one could be rigged up to place him in his boat so he could go fishing again. He was strong enough above the waist to do most anything. I said, “What do you think?” He said, “What if the boat tips over?” And in a moment of idiocy or grace I said, “Well, I guess that would solve your problem about the gun!” There was silence and I thought, yikes, I can’t believe I said that. Then he started laughing – deep laughter, so hard I thought he would fall out of his wheel chair. It was one of those things that worked and changed the whole dynamic but I still can’t believe I said it.

One of the things I learned that summer is men, especially, use anger to express grief. I often forget that when I first encounter the anger but usually the learning comes back to me and I can engage with them in a different way. I can sometimes find a way that will remove the roadblocks to our communication. I recoil from anger and don’t deal well with another’s anger, although I know that grief is often the core of my anger too.

I wonder if this is part of the anger that often emerges in the church. It can be good if the church is seen as safe enough to express actual anger at communal injustice and abuse. But when it is grief masquerading as anger – how can we help one another to mourn instead of striking out at one another?

Anger is not a bad thing but it can eat one up if it lingers on with no resolution. Do we need an internal checklist for ourselves when we react with anger or others react with anger?

Is the anger empowering me to take on injustice and abuse?

Or is it a morass of my own making?

Is this anger becoming a habit?

What is really going on?

Why do I care?

Do I feel powerless in this situation?

Am I angry that things are changing?

Am I afraid that all I trusted in is now worthless to others and by extension I am worthless?

What other questions might we ask next time we react with anger?

How might we approach those with whom we work and live who are angry?

What's in a name? Much

By Greg Jones

What's in a name? In yours? In mine? Sounds. Meaning. Identity. These are in a name.

When we named our children, we considered how the names would sound. We considered the flow - the rhythm - the number of syllables, the way the names fit together. We considered, "What will people shorten it to?"

Sound is in a name. After all, and before all, language trips off the tongue before it is ever written down. Language is sound, and names are meant to be said, cried and whispered. In love, in friendship, in tears and laughter, in prayers. Names are to be spoken in the relationships which make up the fullness of human living. Names recall for us the essence of a person.

Jesus. Joseph. Mary. A single sounded word - a name - conjures to mind the whole person. Does it not?

What's in a name? In yours? In mine?

Meaning's in a name.

In ancient times, among ancient peoples, and among those intentional about understanding their own traditions, people are usually given names that plainly mean something. What's your last name for instance? Jones? It means son of John in Welsh. Cooper? It's English for barrel maker. And so forth.

My middle name 'Gregory' means watchful in Greek. What about yours?

I've always identified with the story of the young boy Samuel hearing his name called in the precincts of the holy place. I've always identified with it not only because my mother named me Samuel Gregory, but because like Samuel, it was my mother who first dedicated me to God. She gave me over to God in baptism, in worship attendance, in Sunday School, in Youth Group, in mission work with the poor and forgotten, in all the things the Episcopal Church does.

She gave me a first name of Samuel - gave me to God in the Church - and so I guess it's no stretch for me to find myself in the story of First Samuel.

It's fascinating to consider Samuel and his mother Hannah. She named him 'Samuel' which means in Hebrew 'His Name is God.' Which is to say that she gave her son a name which points away from him and toward God - toward YHWH. Samuel's very name points to God's name, and how befitting a one called before he was born to be a prophet. A prophet who did what God asked, even the hard parts.

How fitting that Samuel's very name implies an attentive and obedient servant - given that he was that by choice as well. "Here I am, Lord," said the boy Samuel.

What's your name? What's it mean?

Some of Jesus' followers had Hebrew names which point to God - such as Nathaniel which means 'God has given.' Many of his disciples had Greek names, such as Philip which means 'horse lover.' What is clear is that beyond their names given to them by their families, the disciples had to take on identity in Christ by their own choice and obedience - and as such they all got new names and identities added to their birth names.

Beyond your name, and mine, which may or may not plainly speak to your identity in Baptism - how much of your true identity, of who you think you are, of what you call yourself, is bound up in your response to God's calling you by name.

Samuel said, "Here I am Lord, your servant is listening."

Is that true of you and me as well?

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.

New Year's: beyond resolutions to conversion

By Peter M. Carey

In this time of year, it is customary for many of us to make New Year’s resolutions. With the ending of the calendar year, it is natural to look back over the last year and reflect about what has happened, and what we have done, and then to look ahead to see how we might smooth some of our rough edges, take care of our bodies, minds and spirits, and look ahead with hope. The trouble for us, however, is that many New Year’s resolutions only last a few weeks, or perhaps (if we’re really diligent) a month or two. If you frequent a gym, this is the most crowded time, but, no worries, within a few weeks the classes will thin out, and you will be able to get back to the Stairmaster or treadmill or bench press without any waiting.

A trouble with New Year’s resolutions is that they don’t seem to “stick” unless we really have dedicated ourselves to them, unless we have been “scared straight,” or until we have adopted a set of daily practices that lend themselves to a change of behavior, and not merely just a change of intention. As Mark Twain reminds us, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

The promise of the Christian Faith is that God is with us, helping us always to turn to our better selves, and to grow into the fullness of who we are meant to be. This may sound like a cliché, but let me illustrate my point with three images: Scrooge, Groundhog Day, and “metanoia.”

First, we have the character Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Like so many stories of the just-passed Christmas season, we have all probably seen multiple adaptation of Dickens’ novel, from Mickey Mouse, to the Muppets, to Patrick Stewart from Star Trek, to older films depicting Scrooge and his visit from 4 night visitors. First he is visited by his recently deceased partner, Marley, wrapped in chains, clearly suffering in death for his chintzy life before he died. Marley tries to warn Scrooge, that he needs to change his ways, that he needs some new resolutions, some new ways of living. But, to enact a change, what follows are three ghosts, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future.

Scrooge is given the gift of remembering the past – even the hard parts of the past, to see a bit more about why he might have ended up this way. Not immediately, but gradually, his heart begins to be open again, to grow a bit more supple, to grow a bit larger. The ghost of Christmas Past offers Scrooge the gift of a wider perspective, to see himself in earlier times, when his heart was not so hardened. The ghost of Christmas present offers the gift of seeing the love, and also the poverty of the Cratchett family, to see what Joy they have, even while they don’t have much materially, they have an overabundance of love, compassion, and generosity. This vision is in contrast to his material riches, but spiritual poverty. His heart continues to open. Finally, the ghost of Christmas future paints a picture of heartache for the Cratchetts, as Tiny Tim has died for lack of good medical care, and the family is devastated, but not without Joy, and love and compassion, even as they mourn their loss.

As you know, Scrooge emerges from his slumber and immediately changes his behavior, he is Joyful, loving, caring and generous, and he begins immediately to make amends, and to give away what he has. His heart is opened, is supple, and he turns from his old ways.

The second character is Phil Connors from Groundhog Day. If you’ve seen the film, you will remember that Bill Murray’s character is a rather grumpy weather reporter who has been assigned to cover “Pauxutawney Phll” the groundhog who comes out on February 2nd and looks for his shadow. Anyway, Connors becomes “stuck” in the same day over and over again. At first, he does all he can to learn the background and interests of a romantic interest he has – so that the next day, he can go on a date with her. Along the way, he decides to learn the piano, because the skill at the piano remains with him each day, until he is a virtuoso. However, gradually, his interest in repeating the day moves beyond selfish aims. He becomes focused on an older man who is wandering the streets, homeless and hungry. At first Connors avoids him, but one day Connors learns that this man has died, and Connors is shocked, and devastated. So, the following day Connors does all he can to give the man food, to care for him. Gradually, living this day over and over again (somewhere like 100 times – it is hard to count the days while watching it), Connors’ character is transformed from a focus on self, to a focus on others. His focus becomes on helping others, and doing good for goodness sake. Finally, when his transformation is complete – and he falls in love, he awakes and it is February 3rd.

The third strand is the New Testament term “metanoia” which means “repentance” or “change of heart,” or “to turn.” Also, it can mean “to be converted.” It is used from time to time by preachers or people who think they can force us to change from the outside. But, more accurately, this “change of heart,” or metanoia is caused by the work of the Spirit. This transformation is a gift from God, a gift of perspective upon our past – the ghosts of our past, a gift of wider perspective about our present, and a gift of greater vision about the future that waits for us if we continue doing things the same old way. Some have said that insanity is “Doing the same things the same way but expecting change to happen.”

For the story of the wise men who visited Jesus, the change might have been so subtle that we didn’t hear it in those readings from Matthew at the start of Epiphany. However, though subtle in the text, this change of heart for the wise men was profound. King Herod’s chief emotional response is fear. This king is in fear of the possibility of a new king who will take over the land, and threaten his earthly rule. He sends these scholars, astronomers, these wise men, to go and “pay homage” to the child – but really, they are on a spy mission, they are there to gain information and report back to Herod – so that he might wipe out this child.

However, something amazing happened to the wise men; they were transformed. The gospel doesn’t say much, but what it does say is that they “went home by another way.” They encountered the Holy in Jesus in such a way that they could not go back to their old ways, their hearts were opened, and they turned, somehow, to a new way – literally “another way” back home.

Isn’t this the gift that we also have been given in the Spirit? Whether the image is of these wise men going home by another way, or it is the idea of metanoia, a “change of heart,” or the image of Phil Connors seizing the everyday opportunity for transformation, or the sense that the ghosts of our past, present, and future might offer us the gift of accepting Scrooge’s transformation?

So, sure, go ahead and make New Year’s Resolutions, but also accept the true gift that has been given to us, the gift of transformation in the Spirit – the gift of a supple heart, an open Spirit, and a richer and truer life that God desires us to have.

See you at the gym!

The Rev. Peter M. Carey is the school chaplain at St. Catherine's School for girls in Richmond, Virginia and is also on the clergy staff at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Richmond. He blogs at Santos Woodcarving Popsicles.

A crack in the earthen vessel

By R. William Carroll

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.

2 Corinthians 4:7-12

I’ve always loved Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians and especially this passage from the fourth chapter. The letter is from a missionary to a young church, and it speaks of Paul’s sufferings as an apostle. One of its great themes is the consolation that comes from knowing Christ, even (and especially) in suffering. I commend it to you in its entirety.

The letter has taken on new meaning for me in the past couple of weeks. It has always spoken to me in terms of spiritual suffering. Blessed few of us reach adulthood without our share of that. I’ve certainly had mine. But I think that since a recent hospitalization and diagnosis with the early stages of diabetes, the physicality of Paul’s sufferings have taken on a new meaning for me. In particular, I am struck by his statement that we are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus.” Apparently, my diabetes is easily treatable, perhaps without medication and certainly (for now at least) without insulin. But it is still a serious health condition, the first I’ve had, and when I finally pass from this life, it may be what kills me.

Truth be told, we are always already carrying the seeds of death in our bodies. This side of Eden, mortality is the human condition. But illness of any kind or other milestones of aging make this fact, which we’d prefer to deny, present for us in a whole new way. The other day I had a conversation with one of the members of our parish, who told me that she and her friends spoke about this often.

The thought of our own death creates a choice. We can choose to withdraw further into denial or rage against perceived injustice. Or we can choose face the truth with eyes wide open and accept the gift of life for what it is. I am convinced that the Gospel always calls us to the latter path. For on it, we discover the secret of joy, as we draw closer and closer to the crucified and risen Jesus. On it, we find that his life has become our life, breaking the power of death over us. Perhaps it is only here that we truly begin to live.

“For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.”

The Rev. R. William Carroll serves as rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio (Diocese of Southern Ohio). He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He co-edits The Covenant Journal with Lane Denson, and his sermons appear on his parish blog.

As a door nail

By Donald Schell

In the six weeks since my dad died, my mind has been wandering a lot. I read the newspaper or an email and think about emptiness and wonder about death. I hear a disturbing piece of national or global news and by some crazy logic of faith or hope, I remember my dad’s death, and feel sorrow for others’ suffering and the uncertainties we face, and then I’m moved to gratitude that we’re all alive and in it together. I try to write something (like this) and sooner or later the act of reflection and listening reminds me of something about him.

When I quit being irritated with myself for being so unfocused, I notice that raw edge of my consciousness feels oddly open to contemplation these days. Driving home to San Francisco after my first visit with mother after dad’s death, dazzling sunlight on the trees and the glistening waters of Crystal Springs Reservoir shone with life like I felt when I was newly and deeply in love thirty-four years before. Each sweet inhalation of breath surged with the contradiction of being alive with my father newly dead.

My mind seems awake, but it goes where it will. This attention that isn’t mine feels full of contradiction. If I try to direct attention, it stays bound to something else, something that continues the grieving.

I’ve been thinking again how much grieving shaped my life even from my birth. I was born in 1947, about three years after my parent’s marriage. In those years of their beginning my mother’s father died of a heart attack and her brother, a B-24 pilot was lost in action over Taiwan, the remains of her brother and his crew finally found months later. My parents faced all that as they lived through not knowing whether my dad, also a bomber pilot would return from daylight bombing raids on German munitions factories. And when I was born my dad was twenty-five and my mother all of twenty-two.

It took my mother a quarter century to discover how completely her devastating losses had closed her down. My dad’s steady love for us (for mother, for me and my sisters and brother) carried her and all of us through until her suicidal crisis finally got her started with a good therapist. Until then she’d walked a bitter road cherishing the unpredictable breaks in her deep depression and fending off Christian friends from our church who told her she was just suffering a crisis of faith. With the therapist’s help she found her buried grief and learned to trust grief’s logic and let it take its course. Grieving gave her back her life.

Mother led the way and was our teacher in grieving, and we’re reminding her of it now. I have to remind myself that it’s all right that I’m moved by the radiant beauty of a stand of trees on a hillside, and tell myself not to be surprised when next morning I’m barely muster the strength and resolve to get out of bed. I’m trusting that the Spirit, Life, and the Lord Jesus are in both the radiance and the weariness.

Three books have made a difference to me, and each, in its way, was a gift. Some months before dad’s death my wife Ellen was reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Mother had given it to Ellen because Didion’s account of the year following the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, touched her so deeply. Sometimes as Ellen read herself to sleep she wept and sometimes wanted to be held because Joan Didion spoke so plainly and uncompromisingly of loss.

As soon as Ellen had finished the book I read it. Joan Didion is an agnostic Episcopalian, someone who counts on a Prayer Book funeral at New York’s Cathedral St. John the Divine and Sunday liturgy to order her chaos and darkness, but who also firmly insists that there’s no eye on the sparrow. What she called ‘magical thinking’ in her title was another kind of ritual, her carefully avoiding markers of loss – not reading the obituary, not giving away her husband’s clothes and shoes as though he could come back to wear them. She watched herself hoping (against her own reason) that avoiding these markers would stop her loss.

Re-reading one of Dunne’s novels after his death, she wondered whether in his sudden massive heart attack, he himself felt what he’d written for a character - ‘a moment of terror’ and ‘eternal dark.’ Oddly I found these stark words another gift. And I was grateful she also told of the unseasonal fear as their daughter Quintana moved in and out of coma for months after her Dunne’s death. I thought of Didion’s book when I got the phone call that my dad had died.

On my flight home to California, my physician seat companion told me about his cousin’s new book about faith. His cousin the rabbi had debated Christopher Hitchins and the book took on the new atheists, but there was more to it. My seatmate would be seeing his cousin this trip, so he’d gotten himself a copy of the book. When he learned I was a priest, he asked if I’d read the author’s preface and tell him what I thought of it.

The book was Rabbi David Wolpe’s Why Faith Matters. I read the preface and three more chapters as we flew west, and I felt grateful to read the rabbi’s words the day my father had died. I wanted to remember why faith matters and he could tell me. My seatmate asked me to write his cousin a note about it, and then he gave me the book. I finished it the next day.

David Wolpe nearly lost his wife to cancer after their child was born, and then he suffered a brain tumor (benign) and a bout of melanoma (in remission after chemotherapy). Rabbi Wolpe tells his congregation, ‘Actually, we’re all in remission. Some of us just know it more clearly than others.’

David Wolpe writes reasonably and intelligently about faith – not specifically Christian faith (though he writes of our faith appreciatively) but a more generic monotheism that continues to trust some larger good than ourselves even when it refuses to prove it’s there. My busy pastor’s mind thought, ‘This would be a really good book for an inquirer’s group,’ but my heart was moved by it and touched unexpectedly. I took courage from David Wolpe’s courage in continuing to love and serve a God of compassion. Sometimes ‘my faith’ isn’t good enough to carry me through, but our faith is.

Each weekday morning Ellen and I read Morning Prayer together. I bring her tea in bed and we read (and talk about) the appointed readings. For our Psalter we’ve using Robert Alter’s stark, meticulous The Book of Psalms, a Translation with Commentary. Often we read Alter’s notes. He observes repeatedly that when a psalm says, ‘the dead do not praise you,’ that the writer means that is an abyss, a darkness. Writers of the psalms asserted that there was nothing or barely anything left of the person after death. Just silence and darkness without any lively intention to praise God.

One morning after my dad’s death, Ellen said that she was grateful that psalms said so plainly that death was death. It matched her experience of seeing my dad laid out on the floor after the paramedics had stopped CPR. He was gone. There was his body, but the life we’d known in that body, the man we’d loved was gone.

Now we’ve got his ashes in a closet in our house waiting the building of a memorial garden in my parents’ church. And dad’s not in our closet. It’s his ashes.

I was trying to understand (for whatever understanding is worth) why Didion, Alter, and Wolpe’s stark courage touched me, why ‘he suffered death and was buried’ is the part of the Nicene Creed that’s touching me most deeply righty now, and why, missing my dad as I do and appreciating in a thousand new ways how much he gave me through my lifetime, I’m determined to say that he’s gone. When people say, ‘Harold’s gone to a better place,’ I welcome their intended kindness, but also feel myself shut down at this vague ‘better place.’

Just last week talking to an old friend about my hunger to spend time with family, to be in the room with living, breathing with flesh descended from dad, to hear our stories and eat together. She said, ‘One dancer’s gone and you all are having to make a new choreography.’ Her words rang true. That image fit what we were doing and feeling.

How do we this ‘faith’ thing? That question is part of what keeps distracting me.

My wife is the real theologian in our family. I read and think about this stuff; she just gets it and tells it to me when I need to hear. Ellen was telling a much-loved priest friend of ours her satisfaction at the finality of death in the psalms, and he said, “Frederick Buechner says, ‘…dead as a doornail,’ and he’s right. Harold’s as dead as a doornail. That’s why we believe in the resurrection of the dead, not the immortality of the soul.”

My beloved theologian was on our friend’s argument like a hound after a rabbit. “’Dead as a doornail’ is just what he was,” she said adamantly. “so tell me about immortality and resurrection.” I needed to hear it too.

Our friend said he’d learned it from Charles Price, his old mentor from Virginia Seminary, and recently it had come up again in a book by John Garvey, Death and the Rest of our Life. As I listened, I wrote down the book title and within two days had gotten Garvey’s book and read it through. Charley Price and John Garvey agree, our hope that we’ve got an ‘immortal soul’ is a power move, claiming something about ourselves, something within us, that we desperately hope the abyss and darkness can’t destroy. A long shot, but a power within us. But Resurrection – Jesus’ and ours – is faith, our trust in God’s unfailing love.

It’s not some irreducible, barely glimpsed idealized essence of my dad that escaped and flew free from the fires of the crematorium. He’s gone, what remains is ash, is dead as a doornail. And the whole of him, the hands I marveled at as a kid when he played Rachmaninoff’s B minor prelude, the face that looked so much like mine and which, in the pictures I’ve got still teaches me to smile, the courageous heart that managed to squeeze almost eighty-seven years of living from a terrifying beginning as a preemie in 1921 and scarlet fever a few years later, the whole of that good man was, is, and will be held in God’s love. I don’t know what it means or looks like but I trust it - God’s initiative, God’s creative embrace that won’t let one vibration of one atom that was him out of the old/new whole of God’s making.

The Gospel writers are so determined that it’s God’s initiative that their preferred language for Jesus’ resurrection is that the Father “raised him up.”

The darkness, the abandonment, the devastation and decay and knowledge that we’re all just in remission and each of us alone faces a ‘moment of terror’ and ‘eternal dark’ must sink in, take hold, and be bitterly true. We’re none of us going to make out of this alive. None of us and nothing in us is any match for death. Nothing except the love of God.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company. He wrote My Father, My Daughter: Pilgrims on the Road to Santiago, and contributed to Music By Heart, (a collaboration of Church Publishing with All Saints Company's New Music Project), "What Would Jesus Sing", and "Searching for Sacred Space."

Lost in the supermarket

By Lauren R. Stanley

SPRINGFIELD, Va. – Grocery stores in this country are incredibly amazing places; really, they are. They’re light and airy and spacious and have literally tens of thousands of items for sale.

But they’re also incredibly scary places. They’re light and airy and spacious and have literally tens of thousands of items for sale. Which makes them very scary indeed for those of us who don’t have regular access to them.

So I have this love-fear relationship with grocery stores. I love to go to them and see all the wondrous items they have: fresh meat, fruit, vegetables, cereal, teas, coffees (oh, the smell of the coffee aisle!). But I fear going there, too, because they overwhelm me: Why do we need all those varieties of cereal? Where, pray tell, is the tea? And how can I possibly choose from all the varieties of apples?

I’ve just come back from three months in Sudan, living in a small town called Renk. It’s growing rapidly, with the return of thousands of Internally Displaced Persons, but it has very little in the way of food, especially fresh vegetables and fruits. There’s running water on a sporadic basis only, and it’s not clean. Electricity generally comes from generators for a few hours at a time. The roads are dirt, most homes are mud huts, most roofs are thatch. Life there is very, very basic.

So whenever I return to the United States, I find American grocery stores pretty overwhelming. There are simply too many choices and it takes time for me to adjust. I waited five days after my return before going to the store. I used up the last of my travel toiletries: toothpaste, shampoo, soap, baby oil, ear swabs. Much as I wanted to resupply, I couldn’t bring myself to face the complete overload that I knew awaited me there.

But then my little tube of toothpaste, which was turning a tad bit … um … yucky from all the heat in Sudan … began to flatten ominously. So I finally had to give in and face the great boogieman, the American grocery store.

The store I went to recently underwent a renovation, making it even bigger, even brighter, even more spacious. And it had even more items to sell than before. Just looking at all the fresh produce made my head swim. Apples! Oh, my, nice crisp apples, such a difference from the mushy ones in Renk. Bananas! Look how big they are! Five, six, seven kinds of lettuce … what a change from jejeer, the bitter greens we eat. Only the tomatoes didn’t faze me; we have a tomato farm on an island in the White Nile, so fresh, beautiful tomatoes, up to six per day, are a norm in my life.

Then I saw the cereal aisle … how in God’s name can we have so many varieties? Why? (Note: All those choices didn’t stop me from buying a box …)

And on and on, up some aisles, skipping others. Buying only those things I thought I needed, trying not looking at all the options. Every once in a while, I’d forget to keep my eyes averted and would see rows upon rows of pastas, or canned soups, or soaps, and I’d feel a moment of almost panic. Then I’d remember my list, pick one item, go find it, and move on.

Whenever I try to explain American grocery stores to my friends in Sudan, they don’t understand. They think I’m making it up. I’ve shown them pictures, even, but still, they can’t believe that Americans would have so much food in just one place, with so many choices to make. I have this dream of bringing a bunch of my friends to America just so I can take them on a tour of our grocery stores. It would be great fun to see their reactions, but then again, I’m worried that even one quick trip to the store might overwhelm them completely.

We are blessed in this country with an abundance, an overabundance, of goods. We have more choices than we can possibly need, more than we even can handle. In reality, we have too much. I know that by the end of my three months here, I’ll be fully adapted to all this abundance. Then I’ll go back to Sudan for another three months, and when I return next summer, I’ll have to work out this whole love-fear relationship all over again.

My prayer is that one day, I won’t have to do through this anymore, not because we have any less here, but because one day, there will be at least a modicum of abundance in Sudan as well.

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an Appointed Missionary of the Episcopal Church serving in the Diocese of Renk, Sudan. She is a lecturer at the Renk Theological College, teaching Theology, Greek, Old Testament and English, and serves as chaplain for the students.

"My dad died"

By Donald Schell

Wednesday, Day 1: hearing and telling, “My dad died”

5:30 a.m. New York time, my phone wakened me. It was my wife, Ellen, calling from San Francisco. 2:30 a.m. there. She said it simply, ‘Donald, your dad has died.’ I heard it but had no idea what to do next. Ellen spoke to my stammering silence, ‘Come home now, your mother needs you.’ Clarity.

Downstairs in the lobby, I told the night clerk I was leaving - “I have two more nights, but I’m leaving now. My dad died.” More than check-out: I needed to tell someone.

When I caught a cab, I told the cabbie, “JFK,” and as he pulled out added that I was grateful for his service because my dad had died. At the terminal I thanked him again and tipped extra, a thank you? Or penance for beginning his day with a death? Maybe both.

At the airport time dragged (or seemed to stop) until we got called for boarding. Soon we’d be airborne and I could sleep and maybe wake up closer to knowing dad had died. My quick silent prayer on the jetway surprised me – “Dad’s death is enough for the family to deal with just now,” I explained to God. Then stumbling over which of the children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews would be flying to California on other flights, simply added, “Keep us all safe.”

I leaned my seat back, closed my eyes and welcomed merciful sleep, but an hour and half later, much too soon, I woke up thinking, “I’m flying home because my dad died this morning,” and wondering whether any of the other passengers were flying home for a funeral.

The man next to me began light chat that eventually went to his work, and when I learned he was a physician like my dad, I wanted to tell him. I must have been looking for the opening. “My Dad was a doctor too. I’m flying home because he died this morning.” My voice didn’t break.

He asked how my dad had died and invited me to talk about him.

For some months Dad had been worrying about a cluster of small physical ailments and mental lapses. Ever the physician, he was putting pieces together and wondering if he’d begun a decline (and what it would mean for him and for my mother).

My new friend wanted more diagnosis. I told him about Dad’s heart history, his childhood rheumatic fever, the damaged heart valve that had to be replaced twice, and his bypass. Combining his history and his dying in his sleep, my companion said it sounded like a heart attack. We agreed it seemed like a quick, easy end to a long good life.

I told him how dad’s flying a B-17 in World War II made him want to become a doctor and spend the rest of his life saving lives if he could. Then we landed.

I drove the hour south to San Jose repeating aloud, “My dad died.” I stopped the dark mantra when I left the freeway, then started it again when I pulled into the driveway of my parents’ house, now “Mother’s house.”

Mother welcomed me with a hug and tears. Ellen too. Dad’s absence was a silence in the house. Ellen told again how she and our daughter had driven down at 3 a.m. and what a good job my brother had done. He’d been down visiting mom and dad for dinner and had stayed overnight in their guestroom, so he was there for mother when she woke to find dad not breathing.

When Ellen arrived Dad’s body was still on the floor where my brother had done CPR until the paramedics took over and then stopped it. Ellen had pulled back the sheet to see Dad’s face. She told me he’d looked like himself, surprisingly peaceful after the CPR, very still, but with a little color left in his cheeks and not yet cold. Now his body was downtown at the funeral home. It would be cold. He’d been dead for just over twelve hours.

I wanted to see Dad’s body. The funeral home insisted they needed two days to ‘arrange the features’ and ‘prepare for a viewing.’ I was frustrated. It had seemed simpler with Ellen’s dad.

Ellen and I stayed over at mother’s house. We slept in the guest room under the Monet prints Dad had found so fascinating. “I think the impressionists understood how the optic nerve and the brain work together to see,” he’d said. At dinner that night we’d been seven. We’d set the funeral for the following Friday. Drifting toward sleep, I thought, “It was our first dinner here without Dad.”

Thursday, Day 2: remembering

I spent the morning writing an obituary. Harold Newton Schell, October 30, 1921-October 15, 2008. Remembering felt good. After lunch Ellen and I drove back to San Francisco.

Friday, Day 3: tears

I woke in the dark – Ellen wasn’t in bed. I listened. She was writing on the computer in the next room – keyboard sound…then sobs. She caught her breath and was back. She’d wakened and decided to write something about dad –

‘Harold was my father-in-law for 33 years. My own father died when I was 29…my father-in-law’s heart had dodged a lot of bullets, as a premature infant taken by Caesarean section from his mother who was dying of brain tumor, from rheumatic fever that damaged his heart valve as a child, from two heart surgeries to replace the damaged valve and then replace the worn-out replacement fifteen years later. That good, faithful, wise heart loved so much and endured…that good heart. Shakespeare came to mind, Horatio’s words at Hamlet’s death: ‘now cracks a noble heart.’ I cannot think of a human being of whom the word ‘noble’ is more appropriate than Harold Schell. ‘Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’

Horatio’s ‘noble heart,’ she told me, loosed her tears, imagining what courage had kept dad going and living well for so long, before ‘it cracked.’ Heartbreak. She’d lost her second father.

My older daughter and her partner arrived from England. Driving down to San Jose again, we each told our stories of the last two days, how we each heard of Dad’s death, our travels now converging, and more tentatively stories of him.

At the viewing an attendant showed us into a hushed, windowless room. Dad’s body lay in a draped cremation casket covered with a colored satin sheet up to his neck. When we scheduled this, they’d offered to dress him, but mother said, ‘No, please don’t. He’s dead.’ Dad would have enjoyed the Monet print they’d hung on the wall above him, but his “arranged” features look like someone else pretending to be him. This face they’d made from his flesh had lips pursed in a tight thin line. Even in sorrow or deep thought, his living face seemed ready to smile.

I wanted to speak to a body I knew. What here was familiar? I studied his chin. It looked right, despite the face above it. Then I lay my hand on his forehead and knew this is what I was looking for. I must have done this when I sat on his lap as a child. I knew every contour of the skull beneath the cold skin. I closed my eyes and spoke it silently to myself, “It’s him. No – his body, not him. He’d dead.”

Another crowd at mother’s house for dinner. Fortunately the church kept delivering food.

Saturday, Day 4: space

The flood of sympathy notes amazed me with vivid descriptions of his character, some from people who had only met him a time or two. More friends than I’d realized knew the man I loved.

Sunday, Day 5: Church and Mother’s birthday

Too soon after Dad’s death, it was Mother’s birthday.

My mother still works half-time as a Presbyterian minister, but this first Sunday after Dad’s death she wanted to go to a church where no one would know her. We went to a colleague’s church. Tears.

After church fourteen family members gathered in a hotel downtown to eat and celebrate mother’s birthday. We did actually celebrate with plenty of food and more talk. She welcomed the feasting, though with some tears.

My dad died and we can’t get enough of one another’s company. He would have enjoyed these gatherings, though at recent dinner gatherings he’d spoken less and watched more. But we felt his steady affection and, if he missed a joke, he’d ask to hear it again.

Day 6, Monday: the orphans’ club

Home again in San Francisco. I’d asked my oldest friend from college, K. to spend the day with us. Forty years ago, my first year of seminary, he was visiting when his father died five thousand miles away – I remember the distance. Mine died when I was three thousand miles away.

We gathered in our kitchen, my old friend, my daughter and her partner, Ellen, and me. One by one I ask for the stories of lost parents, stories I already know. K. talked about his father’s death and why his father hadn’t told him he was dying, and about his mother’s death, and about the feelings that linger. Ellen told of hearing about her father’s heart attack, how he collapsed on the dance floor at a wedding rehearsal party, when she was also three thousand miles distant. My daughter’s partner talked of the slow disease that had wasted his father’s mind and body in a death that gathered family and began the grieving before the dying that made the death sadder because it was such a relief. Ellen told the story of my dad’s death again. Phone call from my brother. Drive down.

Paramedics. My daughter said she was not part of this orphans’ club and didn’t want to be soon. I promised to do my best to keep her ineligible for membership. Ellen’s dinner is a little feast, chicken and a Mediterranean rice with nuts and dried fruit bits.

For the last few days of his life Dad hardly ate anything, but he’d been losing his appetite for a year. My rock of strength who’d taught me tenderness grew thin and frail. Until I was thirty, this man whose love I knew so well never said the words, ‘I love you,’ or hugged a greeting or a good-bye. The love was evident in every way, and when I began greeting him with a hug, he seemed to welcome it, and with good-bye hugs, even began to reply in kind to my, ‘I love you, dad.’

So it was thirty years ago, that I began drawing strength from holding his muscular back in a hug. Then for the last few years, I’d felt the bony ridge of his spine and the plane of his shoulder blades beneath his sweater and wished I could pour strength back into him.

Day 7, Tuesday: weary

No energy. It was early as usual when the alarm went off, but up? Slowly. Wearily. That afternoon, like several others, I took a nap because I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

Day 8 and 9, Wednesday and Thursday: the banquet

Each day we drove to San Jose, the dinner gathering was larger. My father’s sister and her husband had arrived. More nieces and nephews too. More grandchildren – our next generation’s two priests, my son and his wife from D.C. We crowded ourselves in tight to eat. Food just kept coming.

“On this mountain, I will make a feast for all peoples, and take away the mourning veil that covers the nations.”

My dad died and we talked, told stories, and laughed. Sometimes someone cried. We talked of dad’s medical practice, family vacations, old history a generation or two back, and we pieced together our few tiny glimpses of his B-17 bomber missions in World War II. Questions we’d like to ask him sneaked up on us, and his stillness, the answers he couldn’t offer silenced us for a moment.

Day 10, Friday: the funeral

Our youngest son, my brother-in-law, and my sister-in-law made our gathering complete. Mother had asked Judy, her Presbyterian pastor colleague, to preach. I was on the platform to lead family rememberings, one of three Episcopal clergy (my son and his wife, also vested, sat by me to lead prayers). I looked out on the church where I’d grown up, where my parents and grandparents had grown up, and surveyed the faces. My Jewish son-in-law and his parents, friends from our Episcopal church in San Francisco, second cousins I hadn’t seen for thirty or forty years. Faces I didn’t know - people who would tell us afterwards that they’d been dad’s patients, ministry colleagues of mother’s.

It really was the promised mountaintop gathering in Isaiah, all peoples. This healing work was holy and deeply human.

We gathered a lot of people to remember and give thanks for Dad’s life, worked to say what we believe and see how true it rang, we cried and took the time to feel our loss. Then after a long and noisy reception (in which we just avoided reciting ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee,” which would have delighted my dad) family adjourned to mother’s house…for half a dozen large pizzas, another feast.

Day 11 Saturday: good-byes

Saturday began the good-byes. Our two sons and a daughter-in-law, two cousins, my aunt and uncle soon to follow. No one wanted to break the group, but beyond that, good-byes felt plain risky. We knew more clearly than we’d like to that every one of us was mortal.

Day 12, Sunday: my friend’s church again, more Gospel, more tears

The Gospel reading – Jesus choosing two commandments to summarize the whole of God’s law – to love God heart and soul and mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. That’s what church is for. My dad joked that no one ever truly became a doctor, and that he was just “practicing” medicine. We’re glad to be back here just practicing Christian life with our little bits and pieces of loving our neighbors and accepting their love. We drove back to Mother’s for another big family dinner.

Day 13, Monday: more good-byes

Driving my older daughter and her partner to the airport, I told them about the end of Mom’s, Dad’s and my visit with them in the U.K. eighteen months before. I told them how we’d gotten lost driving from their place down to London. The M-1 was closed and detours sent us off the main road without further directions. I was driving and Dad was navigating. We had good maps, but the old pilot for all his pride in reading them kept losing his place. At a rest stop I quietly asked mother to take over. “I can’t do that to him,” she’d said.

Our last afternoon in England, I took them to see Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe. At lunch before the play, mother wasn’t at the table when Dad said, “I was afraid one of us might die on this trip.” He was already thinking about it, watching his health, knowing he needed to make his peace. After the play he said, “Shylock was right. The Christians weren’t acting much like Christians.” It concerned him.

Day 18, Saturday: All Saints Day

A week and a day after the funeral Ellen and I drove down for an intimate All Saints Day celebration at mother’s church. Judy, mother’s clergy friend presided and Mother preached. We sang “For All the Saints” with a young M.D. colleague of Dad’s accompanying us on piano.

After the service he gave me a flu shot from the store of vaccine that the Medical Society had asked Dad to dispense, and then he told a story he said would have made my Dad smile and laugh. Only an hour before Dad’s funeral, this friend was seeing patients in clinic, and one had a cardiac arrest. The young doctor had gotten the man’s heart going again, turned him over to the paramedics, and made it to the funeral just as it began, and yes, the patient had made it.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company. He contributed "What Would Jesus Sing", and "Searching for Sacred Space" to Music By Heart, (a collaboration of Church Publishing with All Saints Company's New Music Project).

Status update: Heidi Shott is writing a column about Status updates

By Heidi Shott

A few days ago my 14 year-old son Colin and I were walking down Main Street past Reny’s Department Store when a woman I’ve known for years flagged us down. I’ll call her Jenny. I’ll call her Jenny because Jenny is – well -- her name. That’s the kind of town Damariscotta, Maine, is. It’s a town where you call people by their real names because sooner or later everyone’s real name will end up in the police blotter of The Lincoln County News. As in “Heidi Shott, 45, of Newcastle, dog-at-large, $100 fine.” I don’t have a dog, but I was once busted for having improper life vests in my dingy and, boy, did I hear about it.

But back to Jenny.

“I have a funny story to tell you,” she said, walking up to us on the sidewalk. “Last year at the hospital league rummage sale, I bought a little roller L.L. Bean suitcase for Sarah for 50 cents to take to Camp Bishopswood. As I was packing, I realized I didn’t have the ‘what to bring’ checklist. Where could I find the ‘what to bring’ checklist at the last minute?”

Perhaps at www.bishopswood.org? the diocesan communicator in me wanted to suggest, but I realized it would impede the flow of her funny story which she was telling me solely because of our Episcopal Church connection.

“So,” she continued, “I was cleaning out the suitcase and found a Bishopswood ‘what to bring’ checklist inside one of the pockets with ‘Colin’ written on it.”

That got my attention. “Was the suitcase green and maroon?” I asked.


“That was Colin’s suitcase we donated to the rummage sale,” I said, letting a loud Hillary-laugh escape me to the stares of passers-by.

“And it had the ‘what to bring” checklist at the very moment I needed it!” Jenny repeated, still in wonder.

“That’s crazy!”

“It’s great!” Jenny said as she waved and ducked into Reny’s.

“That is crazy, Mom,” said Colin, my loving little Deist, walking along to the coffee place. “But don’t get any ideas, it’s not a God thing. It’s just a coincidence.”

Frankly, I’m with Colin on that. While I don’t want to put God in a box, surely the God of the Universe has better things to attend to than orchestrating the whereabouts of camp packing lists. But something is at work in my encounter with Jenny, and I think it has something to with Facebook.

I’ve been wondering for a few months about why the people I’ve become friends with on the social networking site Facebook are the types of people who faithfully post status updates. For non-Facebook people, status updates are one sentence descriptions of what you’re doing, thinking, feeling at the moment you post them. When you sign-on to Facebook and click “Friends,” you instantly see what your friends have posted.
Here are the five latest postings by my friends.

V is wondering where the photos I uploaded have disappeared to....radda radda radda.

W immediately needs a sharp stick.

X is writing on his back porch under a perfect blue Maine fall sky.

Y says "buy, baby, buy!"

Z is, arrrghhh....anxiously awaitin' for Talk Like a Pirate Day, ye scurvy dog!

Thirty-five of my 100 or so friends have posted a status update in the past 24 hours. They hail from 20 states and represent a broad definition of the word friend. There’s Nora, a Silicon Valley mega-executive who sat next to me in seventh grade homeroom and math class. She was paying attention in math while I daydreamed. There’s a very interesting grad student from Chicago, Agnieszka, introduced to me by an acquaintance who thought we’d like each other because we both have pet rabbits and a sense of humor. And he was right, at least that we’d like each other.

While there’s a disproportionate number of Episcopalians, there’s also my niece Mary, a special ed. teacher in California whom I hardly ever get to see. The beauty of the Facebook status updates is when I fire up my laptop and check, I suddenly know that “Mary is sitting on her deck in the sunshine eating cold pizza.” How else would I know that? What a lovely mental picture of my delightful niece and how I wish I were with her at that moment!

A few weeks ago I posted this status update: “Heidi finds it curious that when she visits other people's profiles not as many of their friends post status updates. Is she a SU magnet? Theories welcome.” Here’s another interesting component to status updates: You can comment on your friends’ updates.

Peter, a high school chaplain from Richmond whom I’ve never met, replied that high school kids think status updating is uncool.

Susie, an editor friend from New York, added, “I think we update our statuses (statii?) more often because we have the kind of friendships that -- even though our work lives make it hard to physically get together often enough, or even have time to pick up the phone or write a mid-length e-mail (much less a LETTER!) -- we want to be able to keep in touch and up-to-date in microbursts.”

Scott, an association executive and college friend, wrote from Columbus, “high school kids don't need to update their status. Their worlds are small enough that they see each other all the time!”

Jim, an interesting diocesan communicator from Florida who doesn’t do status updates commented, “I’m just not that interesting.”

To which Phil, a photographer from Georgia who was my much beloved partner at a newspaper 20 years ago, responded, “I’m sorry, what was the question?”

Jim and Phil would really get along, but they’ll probably never meet. And with Facebook that’s okay.

Seven or eight years ago I wrote a column titled, “The Kingdom of Heaven is where the Fed-Ex lady tracks you down.” It was about how when our local Fed-Ex lady, Sue, couldn’t find my husband at his office, she would look for his car downtown then stop in where he was eating lunch to deliver the package. That’s the kind of town Damariscotta, Maine, is. That’s the kind of connection people thirst for in the world. What I’m observing as a member of Facebook is that with people from all points of my life’s compass there is an intersection of knowing and being known that is delicious, addictive and immediate.

For all the anonymity of the big box stores and sprawling suburbs, we yearn for connection, to be recognized, to delight and be delighted in. Just yesterday afternoon, Susan, a friend and colleague from Washington, D.C., called to say she and her husband Lance were in Maine staying with a couple who, just last spring, moved from D.C. to our little town. I invited the four of them over for drinks, and we had a short but lovely visit. This morning, I stopped for coffee downtown and was heading back to my car when I bumped into Susan’s friend who’s new to the community. We stopped in the parking lot and chatted for a few minutes. We wouldn’t have recognized one another had she not been to my house the previous evening, but now, suddenly, instead of passing one another by in our busyness, there’s a new connection, a new friend.

I wonder about the role of the Church in this. What Facebookian structures could we create in our institutions to give us permission to befriend one another in our daily real lives? On the road from Emmaus, Jesus struck up a conversation with his fellow travelers that was life-transforming. Of course, Jesus was kind of exceptional, but doesn’t Paul remind us of the “Christ in you, the hope of glory?” Isn’t the ability to reach out hardwired into us by the Spirit, available to us through Him, our friend, who loves us? Isn’t knowing and being known rather glorious?

One last story: A year ago, on our way to pick up our sons from Camp Bishopswood, my husband Scott and I stopped for breakfast at Moody’s Diner, a Maine institution. It was crowded and the only two seats were at the counter. I struck up a conversation with an older gentleman to my left whose wife, it turned out, was sitting four places down from us. Over the course of the conversation we discovered two astounding things from this couple visiting Maine from Tampa: first that their daughter-in-law went to high school with Scott in Bluefield, West Virginia, and her father played golf with Scott’s father for 30 years, and second that their daughter and I had gone to college together and were in the same German class for two years.

“That’s crazy!” Scott and I said to each other, walking out of Moody’s on our way to gather our sons from Bishopswood – where at that very moment a crumpled “what to bring” list was getting stuffed deep into a suitcase pocket.

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

Stress and the striving Christian

By Marshall Scott

Well, the summer is over, and with it another summer unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), as well as another year-long CPE residency. One set of students has left, and another is arriving, beginning, in this case, another year-long commitment. (Students with shorter commitments will come in their appropriate times.)

I know my colleagues, the Supervisors (teaching chaplains) of the program, are hopeful that the new students will do well. That means in part providing good care for patients, as well as interacting well with one another. It means being attentive to their learning opportunities, whether through clinical experiences or more academic activities. It also means the Supervisors hope they will have the expected work ethic.

Any of us who has had even the basic experience of chaplaincy provided by that one CPE unit required in seminary will know that chaplaincy isn't a 40-hour job. And any of us with experience in any other professional ministry will know the same thing. The work of ministry doesn't really settle down into five eight-hour days, whether in the parish or in clinical settings. We know that longer days, longer weeks, are just part of the profession; it goes with the territory.

So, I hear periodically from my colleagues, "What are we going to do with these students? They just disappear at 4:30." Granted, in some ways it's easier for our students than, say, for me. The students get most of their experience in a large hospital as part of a large staff. With lots of people around, it's easier to get the work done and to get home. Too, students don't have administrative responsibilities that many staff chaplains have. Some of the things that bring me in early and keep me late just aren't part of their job description. And I've always thought myself we need to keep in mind that they are students, here for their learning and growth, and not just cheap labor.

Still, I hear the question about work ethic, and I hear it from colleagues in both clinical and parochial ministries. "What are we going to do with these young clergy, these interns, these new folks?"

Long ago, in a church far, far away, when I was a seminarian, our faculty spoke to us of balance and managing stress. They spoke to us of setting appropriate limits, both on our time and our energy. They spoke of protecting our family life. They spoke of protecting our emotional and spiritual resources, with good support and a healthy spiritual life. They encouraged us not to work ourselves to burnout, much less to death. And they encouraged us to model such good emotional and spiritual balance for our parishioners.

Not that we took them all that seriously. We knew the score. We knew that it wasn't that simple. We knew, if only we'd been paying attention to our own clergy before we entered seminary, that this, like any other profession, called for long hours and long days. I remember asking my own rector what day of the week he found best to take off. He said, "Well, I don't have one regular day off. Enough happens in the parish that it's hard to take the same day each week. But, I do try to take one whole day each week." I knew then that he didn't get a day off each week, and that if I could manage only that I'd be making progress.

Still, we did hear what our faculty told us, and I think many of us did try to convey that to parishioners. Some of them even heard it, at least for themselves. On the other hand, many of us found that, whatever they might hear from us about their lives, their expectations for our lives were still the same: long hours and constant availability. Getting them to change their expectations of themselves, to allow for more grace in their own lives, was hard enough. Getting them to change their expectations of us--well, some days, some places, that seemed beyond us.

So what, then, can we do with these new residents, these new clergy? They seem to be setting appropriate limits, both on their time and their energy. They seem to be protecting family life, to be protecting emotional and spiritual resources, with good support and a healthy spiritual life. They seem committed to not working themselves to burnout, much less to death. And they seem to be modeling good emotional and spiritual balance.

Maybe we ought to learn from them. Perhaps I'm a bit more conscious of this these days. I'm getting ready to experience Episcopal CREDO, a retreat/renewal/vocational experience for Episcopal clergy offered by the clergy wellness folks at the Church Pension Group. Suddenly, the level of stress that seems normal to me seems a matter of concern to someone else. There are questions about stress in the health screening that's part of the process. I identified my stress level as "Moderate," thinking I was doing pretty well. Thinking I was doing pretty well, when asked whether I had any plans to address my stress, I said, "No." Lo and behold, when the results came back, stress was for me a risk factor!

And I hardly think I'm all that unique. I'm certain I'm not unique among clergy, but in fact I'm not unique among Christians. We have been encouraged to seek "the peace which passes all understanding." We have been called by Christ to "Come, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." And yet, we seem more driven by one old adage or another like, "Jesus is coming. Look busy;" or, "Pray like it all depended on God, but work like it all depended on you." In our desire to control our environment, including to "work out our own salvation," we fall again and again into works righteousness, implicitly denying God's grace and our own limitations.

So, what will we do with these new residents, these new clergy, these new people, when they set good limits, and care for themselves, and trust God to take care of those things they can't? Perhaps we should pay attention. Perhaps, as both Paul and Benedict suggested, they have something to teach, and we have something to learn. If we can learn, even at long last, that balance we in our own time were called to, we will be better persons; and those of us in orders will be better clergy. We will model for our own people and for the world healthier lives. We will lead those we serve toward a healthier community. Most important, we will demonstrate what we have long proclaimed: that all of life is God's, and that in all of life--even in those most pedestrian activities of life--we are saved, not by our own efforts, but by God's grace.

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.


(Through Labor Day, the Daily Episcopalian will be the every-other-daily Episcopalian.)

By Deirdre Good

When we want to identify something, we look at it closely.

When we see someone we think we know in a crowded place, we concentrate on seeing particularities--that distinctive walk or hair or face.

To identify birds, people look at their markings. How big is the bird? Is it as big as a sparrow, a robin, a pigeon, a chicken or an ostrich? Is the bird fat or skinny, long or short? We look at each part of the bird. Is its bill short or long, thick or thin, curved or straight? How about the tail? What shape is it? Is it long or forked? Are the bird's wings pointed or curved, long or short? You have to train your brain to focus on distinctive traits. Expert birders can identify birds by a single glance that takes in all these details at once. This is called the "giss" or general impression of size and shape of the bird. Similarly, experts recognize a bird just by hearing a few notes of a birdcall. If you start by recognizing the giss of birds that you see regularly, you can take in differences of more unusual birds at a glance. All of this takes time and persistence.

For several weeks one Spring I joined a group that went birding in Central Park with an expert from the American Museum of Natural History. At the end of the time, I could tell a white-throated sparrow from a chipping sparrow. And when I saw the difference between a female pine warbler and a female ruby-crowned kinglet (the female isn't ruby-crowned), I thought I might be getting somewhere. The next year I joined a group looking at migrating warblers. This summer, I've seen a common yellowthroat warbler residing in a nearby field down the road from where we live in Maine. However, I'm still not very good at identifying warblers in general.

Enthusiastic birdwatchers (birders) in the UK and Europe are known as twitchers because they will drop everything and travel long distances to make an unusual bird sighting. Twitchers often compile lists of birds they have seen. I belong to a list that announces unusual bird sightings in New York City. Postings identify sightings and location of rare species. It's often very exciting to see an unusual bird and to be in the company of other enthusiasts.

But in my heart of hearts I must confess that I've become skeptical about this approach to bird watching, which is just about universal, for the reason that someone once pointed out to me--it fails to take into account the individuality of each bird.

To be sure, observing distinctions within the same species is going to take me much more time. I won't be able to put away my binoculars (as everyone else does) after saying emphatically, "that was a palm warbler!" and move on to the next bird. I'll need to be settled in one place for longer. I'll need to pay much more attention to the particular curve of a beak or feather markings or some detail I have yet to learn.

This summer, an injured female purple finch has been showing up at our bird feeders. Her left wing and leg is damaged so her balance on the feeders is precarious but she still flies. I've no idea how she was injured but she survived the injury although it is visible. She comes to the feeders by herself and with a male purple finch, presumably her mate. I suppose its not often that we see injured birds probably because they don't survive long. I find myself thinking often about this female purple finch and her well-being. I'm thrilled to see her when she shows up and am concerned when she doesn't. But because bird watching is a passive activity, I can only observe her when she does visit and try to compare one visit with another by memories or photographs to assess whether her health improves at all.

The funny thing is that because of her injuries she has become a distinctive bird to me. Until she arrived, I'd been working at singling out one male-rose breasted grosbeak from another. But observing her is effortless. So what's the payoff for seeing individual birds rather than bird species? Isn't this the way God sees birds? Isn't it the way God sees us?

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. 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.

The Cathedral and the Compass Rose

(Through Labor Day, the Daily Episcopalian will be the every-other-daily Episcopalian.)

By Richard Helmer

Several weeks ago, with a group of youth pilgrims from my parish, I visited The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City for their Nightwatch program. The time there became for me a spiritual journey through the heart of what it means to be a musician, a priest, an Anglican, and a Christian -- all writ large in the great hand-hewn stones of the partially completed Cathedral.

The nave was still blocked off, the organ pipe framework still empty as the clean-up continued from the fire that devastated the Cathedral in 2001 shortly after the attack on the World Trade Center. The state of things seemed to me a metaphor for the great fires in the world and the Communion since that time: the blow-ups between bishops and archbishops, the painful breaks and terrible rhetoric. And all the while the globe saw another war, genocide in new places, and fear rose again to prominence in the hearts and rhetoric of many. But somehow, life at St. John the Divine had continued like it had for so many of us in the Church, despite the mess around them, they reached out locally with the Gospel and plumbed the depths of the Spirit in an age of almost frenetic uncertainty.

The unfinished nature of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine to me was breathtaking. The great central tower is missing, never undertaken. The pseudo-Byzantine dome is unadorned, linking a recovering transept to its invisible counterpart; connecting one of the longest Gothic naves in the world to a great choir with empty alcoves for un-hewn saints. The limestone finishing stones stop abruptly in the crossing like the edges of an abandoned jigsaw. The bell tower is unfinished; its twin hasn't even been started. Meanwhile, the water flows in occasionally through leaky rooflines, staining chapel walls and reminding all who look that the elements work tirelessly to drive the whole edifice back to earth.

At a number of points during the evening of Nightwatch, I was nearly overcome with the irrepressible urge to quit my "day job," and set off on the quest of high finance to raise the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to complete the grand scheme of the Cathedral. As if I could. But the irrational desire was akin to the desire to finish all unfinished projects, to attain perfection, to complete the incomplete.

I also found in myself a strange sense of loss to history. Time was continuing forward inexorably. It was uncanny during the vertical tour to climb up the winding stone staircase into the triforium where artists like Madeline L'Engle had escaped for the solitude necessary to forge their craft. We gazed down a tunnel of carved rosettes to the stained glass at the far end of the nave. The rosettes are virtually invisible from the floor below, but offered to the glory of God, just the same. Stone masons, many now long gone, had left their unique impressions on each ornamental flower adorning a column in the triforium, knowing that few people would ever see the work up close or gaze for long at the details of a carving unique in all of cosmic history. And to know that even the stones themselves would not last forever, but would ultimately crumble into something other. Madeline L'Engle, a favorite childhood author of mine, had now passed away. All remains in motion. Anglicanism, and even The Episcopal Church as I once knew it was no more but was becoming something else again.

As we explored the Great Choir, we were asked what the Greek said in the Anglican Compass rose in the tile work on the floor. I was taken aback by the realization that I had never looked at the Greek in the Anglican Compass Rose before, lifelong Anglican that I am. "The Truth will set you free," it reads in that inviting quote from John's Gospel. The Compass Rose seems to suggest that the Truth sends us off in all directions, and not just for mission, but for discovering God in Christ already at work in our midst, in our world, in our torn hearts. For the rest of the night, the Compass Rose kept appearing in my meditations and prayers.

GAFCON was concluding their statement from Jerusalem as we were in the Cathedral that Saturday evening – a new condemnation for The Episcopal Church and other parts of the Communion was in circulation. Lambeth was shortly set to meet, the media were gathering a storm already, and the boycotts were being announced. There was something significant in the Compass Rose in St. John the Divine needing to be taped down in one spot, where it had sprung up from the floor. The Communion was in need of some repair, the tensions had finally reached a breaking point.

It began to dawn on me that my overwhelming desire to finish or at least "fix" the Cathedral was akin to the quest of some to fix the present crisis in the Anglican Communion through any number of means, as though the Anglican Communion can be fixed or cleansed by sand-blasting, the empty porticoes filled in with saints hewn from stone who will guard us from all that is heretical and undesirable.

Around Midnight, an old college friend of mine, David, called us with his mandolin to the high altar, beyond the Compass Rose, for Eucharist. A deeper truth began to emerge before my eyes as our youth gathered, and my associate led us and another youth group from Florida in the hallowed words of sursum corda under the watchful gaze of the Christus Rex. We were dwarfed by the great polished pillars of the apse, reminded of our insignificance by the sheer scale of tireless human labor. And yet we were offering glory to God, whose work in the ordinary bread and wine that we shared was infinitely greater.

There's a name for the old heresy of the Church and Christians in our collective quest to be perfect before God, to be "fixed," to be complete: Pelagianism. But there were greater reasons than that for my feeling ashamed for being overcome with such desires to complete the great Cathedral, to fix it for all eternity. To think of raising millions for a great Gothic tower when tens of thousands struggle for basics like food and shelter and medical attention in one of the world's wealthiest cities. . . To conclude the never-concluded architecture of a Cathedral and to try to erase the awesome question mark that is at the heart of the Revelation to John while countless multitudes around the world who suffer from skyrocketing food prices: now these were heretical thoughts.

The heart of Anglicanism, and indeed the heart of Christianity, along with the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-reformation, and the Settlements and Creeds and theological arts. . .these are all manifestations, like The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, of the unfinished business that Christ began. They are manifestations of the unfinished work of God's Reign, the in-breaking Kingdom that lives on like the uncut diamonds of hope planted in our hearts, the fragile seedlings nurtured by a Maker who is not finished creating us yet.

The Anglican Compass Rose, I realized, is not the destination in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. It is only a waypoint, a mark of where we are in the journey towards the great altar of God. It is at the great altar where all that is holy and all that is mixed up like the world comes together to worship the Lamb in simple gifts and the love of Christ working in the human community there gathered. There we are clothed not by our own achievements or monuments, but by the glowing white garments of grace given us beyond time.

My visit to St. John the Divine and the meditation I found there in the Anglican Compass Rose have now become a parable to carry with me at this time, when the future direction of the Communion, The Episcopal Church, and the world still remains messy and uncertain. Questions remain unresolved. The tensions are left in place for another season.

Perhaps that is precisely as it ought to be. After all, God is still at work, and we are not in charge.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer, a priest, pianist, and writer, serves as rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons have been published at Sermons that Work, and he blogs regularly about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, and church politics at Caught by the Light.

Lessons of the Olympics

(Through Labor Day, the Daily Episcopalian will be the every-other-daily Episcopalian.)

By Jean Fitzpatrick

What can we learn from the Olympics? Like their predecessors on Mount Olympus, the athletes offer us a larger-than-life narrative that reflects our own struggles. There's are the inspiring stories: Michael Phelps winning his 14th Olympic gold medal, breaking one world record after another. Not bad for a young man with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The women basketball players from Mali, marching in flowing white robes in the opening ceremonies. Yes, they lost to New Zealand hours later, but -- coming as they do from a country where women are subject to genital cutting, poor access to education, and domestic violence -- their presence alone is amazing.

And then there are those who try too hard: the supposedly teenage tiny Chinese gymnasts who, as the famed former coach Bela Karolyi put it, "look like they are seven and may be still in diapers." Gary Russel Jr., the 20-year-old bantamweight boxer from Maryland, who collapsed in an effort to weigh in at 119 pounds. And all those cyclists on steroids.

So much focus on striving to win always leaves me uneasy. If the last shall be first, I find myself wondering, how do you defend years of training to go for the gold? Most of us know what it means to want to be the best at school or in the office, or to get our way in relationships. These yearnings don't generally bring out our most loving or generous selves. And yet there's something in us that wants to grow, to discover the limits of our talents and sensibilities. How do we tell whether our desires are greedy or life-giving?

In the church we aren't always as helpful as we might be. Often I wonder why the most "spiritual" people -- especially women -- who come seeking my help have the worst lives. I don't mean that they are the poorest in material terms. Instead, often they seem to believe that being a good Christian means losing in life, especially in relationships. They don't voice their needs and wants. They don't speak their truth.

If I suggest that it's time to focus on themselves, I see them wince. "That sounds...proud," they say. Or "That's not very Christian."

"'Jesus said, 'Love thy neighbor as thyself,' I often tell them. 'You're forgetting about the self part."

When we try to manipulate or muscle others out of our way in order to have power over them, then we're like Olympic athletes on steroids. But reaching out to others in love isn't for anyone who's afraid to dive right in and try their best. It demands the strength and courage and passion to struggle, to stick with a situation and seek understanding, and to speak up for justice and truth. As Ram Dass famously put it, "We must first be a somebody before we are ready to be a nobody." I'm thinking of that as getting in touch with your inner Olympian.

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., is a 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 on the spirituality of relationships, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth and has a website at www.pastoralcounseling.net.

Looking to Heaven

By Kit Carlson

On August 12, the Perseid meteor shower will reach its peak. For those who can find a dark enough spot, who are willing to sit up throughout the long night, the reward is awesome. Up to 60 shooting stars an hour fly through the sky, blazing with a sudden and glorious streak of light.

But most Americans, even if they are willing to stay up to see the show, will not be able to see it in its glory. Creeping light pollution is taking the night sky away from us. Where in a purely dark sky, almost 2,500 stars are visible to the naked eye, in most inhabited areas that number shrinks quickly, to 200 in outlying suburbs, 75 or so on the edges of a city and in downtown Manhattan, one might be lucky to count 15 stars in total. And a couple of those are likely to be the brighter planets, not stars at all.

Humanity is shutting out the stars. More and more people, more and more badly shielded and energy-wasteful lights, more and more lumens, and slowly but surely, the stars are fading away. Astronomers in some of the world’s most noted observatories are having difficulty seeing stars, even with their high-powered telescopes, because of light pollution. Amateur star-gazers are learning not even to bother.

This is not simply an ecological or even a scientific issue. It is also a theological issue. Without the immensity of heaven overhead, we lose some of the greatest images of God’s creativity and glory. We lose some of the most wonderful images in the Bible.

For instance, the prophet Amos writes: Seek him who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night; who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out upon the surface of the earth: The Lord is his name. But who can see the Pleiades anymore (much less count all seven of the stars in that cluster)? And Orion has been erased until only the three stars of his belt remain.

And when God promises Abraham that his descendents will be as numerous as the stars in the sky, what does that mean to those of us who live in semi-darkness, who can count the stars overhead and find them few in number? Maybe the promise to Abraham isn’t as bountiful as one might think, when one can only see a dozen stars.

Most of all we lose the sense of our place in the universe, camped out as we are on a tiny blue rock here on the outer fringes of one middling galaxy in all the infinity of space. How can we sing along with the psalmist, When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

We forget ourselves. We forget our place. We forget the immensity of the creation we inhabit and the commensurate immensity of the One who created it all. Yet that is how, for millennia, human beings became aware of the transcendence of the world, the vastness of the universe, and the presence of God. By looking at the stars.

Madeline L’Engle liked to tell the story of her first awareness of God. She was only two, and her family was staying at a beach cottage in what was then a remote corner of Florida. And someone said, “Let’s wake the baby up and show her the stars.” Wrapped in a blanket, held in her mother’s arms, young Madeline looked up into the black and star-spangled sky and recognized her Maker.

Will any of us ever be able to share that experience?

(For more information on how to protect the night sky, visit the International Dark Sky Association website at www.darksky.org)

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

Point of view

By Ann Fontaine

Walking to practice baseball early in the day to avoid the soon to be 95 degree day, our grandson and I cross the bridge over the Popo Agie and into the City Park. It is only a short walk from our house down the pathway, across the river and to the ball field but each step is filled with wonders as only a 9 year old can find.

Here is a shiny split ring washer that must be pocketed for addition to the treasure box, there is an old nail from a long past fencing project. As we walk, with a grandpa-purchased regulation equipment bag, carried by grandma, we examine cracks in the sidewalk. Small green shoots are relentlessly breaking up whatever pavement humans try to keep in place. Life cannot be stopped by a layer of cement or asphalt. It finds the smallest opening and sends up a leaf of weed, a blade of grass.

There is something about spending days with children that slows one down and opens the eyes. Many have remarked on the wonder of seeing things only noticed by the under 10 set or those who see the world through the openness of a child or an artist.

Last week a group of adults were examining two photos. We examined the first one without seeing the second one.


The question was asked – What do you see? What is it like in the world of this photo? The small bits of shell embedded in the stone or is it concrete? The green bits in the open spaces, the leaves on the surface. As I look at the lines between the blocks - what could be negative or separating in this world? What disturbs you? It is such a close up shot – does it make you want to see more? Or are you content to examine what is put before you? As we looked at the photograph and reflected on it we drew parallels to how we see things in our lives. One person said – oh I am used to seeing partially as I am very short and usually cannot see over or around the people nearby. Others felt constrained by being so close to the subject that they could not tell what is was. We realized that because it was a close up and we were all looking at it on a computer screen where we had to scroll to see the parts – we did not even know if everyone was looking at the same part of the whole. The points of view were so different even though we were looking at the same photo and we are a fairly compatible group on most issues.

The differences in our perceptions were all due to our life experiences not due to the object in our vision. It was a simple lesson in the truth that without listening to and sharing with one another we never know how the other perceives our words, our actions, even concrete objects. It is a wonder we can understand each other at all in the simplest of exchanges and how much less we can know about abstract concepts in our minds and hearts.

When we saw the next photo that was the full picture on our screens – we were surprised by what it showed.


Backing off from the close-up it was clearly a piece of sidewalk made of blocks of concrete. The little shells and stones were part of the aggregate. The cracks were partially intentional and partially from weathering. Most immediately saw a crucifix in the spaces. The group is a Christian study group and the icon of cross is embedded in most of us. Still the points of view on the meaning of cross varied wildly- from an image of death to an image of life. In this photo the green new life and marks of water and wind turned a dead piece of concrete into a sign of new life. One saw the cross as only bringing death to those of other faiths; it was impossible for her to see any life in it until seeing it in the photo. Another saw all the people who had died by those who carried the cross as a symbol of exclusion. While others saw the cross as the death of many who were followers of Christ.

Seeing the cross in the divisions in a sidewalk caused by human hands and natural forces brought out the way the cross can bring forth life and join seemingly divided things and people together.

And what does this have to do with walking to the park with a 9 year old? Somehow when I slow down and really look, take time to listen and really hear – I find the moments of God breaking into my concrete mind and heart of stone. The world rushes by, I think I understand with a quick scan of life – with a nine year old I can taste and see the holiness of each moment.

Photographs Lynn Ronkainen ©2008

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