Why I Believe in God and Not in Santa Claus

by Kathleen Staudt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The problem with the Bible

by Sara Miles

Here is the problem I have with the Bible. Mostly, I spend my life lurching back and forth between the reasonable hope that I’m basically OK and things are going pretty well; and the sickening conviction that I’m a wicked, terribly mistaken lost cause and the whole world is on its way to hell in a handbasket. I can’t be sure which of my own impulses are genuinely good and which are sneakily greedy and conniving: how can I honestly sort out my tangled desires? Looking around, I notice generous, righteous people feeding the hungry and caring for the sick, but they’re surrounded by all kinds of evildoers---angry women screaming at refugee children in Texas, violent men kidnapping children in Israel and Palestine, ostensibly decent citizens like me who do nothing to stop the bad guys.

So I’d like the Holy Scriptures, which after all our tradition claims “containeth all things necessary for salvation,” to shed just a little light on the subject of good and evil. I’d like the Bible to show me how to reliably judge other people, recognize devil-followers, and teach me how to be a good person, and I’d like the Bible to offer instructive lessons about how things should be, in this miserably hard business of being a human trying to relate to other humans and to God. Is that too much to ask?

Well, apparently it is too much to ask. Because the Bible isn’t about showing how things should be, but about how things really are.

Let’s look at exemplary figures like Jacob. That little snake. Dishonest and tricky, Jacob is one of the least trustworthy characters in the Bible. First, he cheats his not-so-smart big brother Esau out of his birthright and gets away with it. Then he cheats him again, this time out of their father’s blessing, and gets away with that too. Finally Jacob lands in trouble, but his mom covers up for him and sends him off on a journey, and he winds up alone in the desert, on the outs with his people, and terribly afraid.

Jacob lies down on a pillow of stone, and God….does God set him straight? Punish him for his sleaziness? Teach him a lesson? No, God appears in a dream and announces that now Jacob is going to get vast tracts of valuable land, be blessed with family and honor and luck; God promises to stick with Jacob and his descendants forever and give them whatever they need.

Just like that. No retribution or wrath. No “aren’t you sorry for your bad behavior?” No, “Change your attitude and I’ll see about rescuing you from the pit you dug from yourself.” Just unconditional blessing. And Jacob has the sense, for a single second, to be afraid…. but then he acts tougher than he feels and reverts to his snake-like ways, receiving the blessing as if he deserves it. He even sets conditions on God. Gee, thanks, God, says Jacob. Well, I guess if you keep on like this, giving me help and clothes and food and fixing things with my family, I guess I’ll worship you, and hey, if you keep delivering even more goodies, I can give you back, um, ten percent of everything you give me.

What are we supposed to do with a God who insists on sticking with people like Jacob and his descendants, through all their lies and manipulations?

What are we supposed to learn from seeing blessings showered on those who never appreciate the goodness God shows them, never mend their ways, never get over their insecurities? This is the way things are, says the Bible: God doesn’t care if we fail to appreciate what he does for us––he’ll just keep appearing with beautiful visions in the middle of the night, keep faith in the loneliest deserts, keep offering frightened little snakes like you and me another chance to receive his promise, his love, his Word.

And then there are the parables. Even in a parable as apparently righteous as the story of the darnel and the wheat, Jesus, infuriatingly, won’t tell us how things should be. They’re not up to us, is all he says. God has nothing to say about how we’re supposed to judge, to sort out good and evil; God refuses to give directions about how we should reward the righteous and punish the wicked. God just gazes at the whole complicated mess-- enemies and friends, devils and angels, good guys and bad guys, weeds and wheat scrambled together--and blesses everything, biding his time, saying, Let it grow. Jesus explains, Shut up. That is: if you have ears, listen.

Do you feel me? Is this fair? No, it is not fair. But it is the word of God.

Last Friday was a rough day at our church food pantry. It had been a rough week. Two of our regular volunteers, Elena and Tatiana, had gone home to the Ukraine to help their families, a few days before pro-Russian separatists shot down a commercial airliner. Their friend, Valentina, a big, bossy Russian lady, marched up to me at the pantry, beside herself, weepy. “Sara,” she cried, grabbing my arm, “I don’t hear nothing from Elena and Tatiana, I am so worry. I feel so bad, I am shamed to be Russian.” Valentina is kind of an over-the-top drama queen, so I just nodded and tried not to get sucked in. Then I asked Leah, an older Jewish woman from New York, about her family in Israel. She told me she hadn’t slept for days. “They’re shooting rockets where my sister lives,” she said, “I’m going crazy watching the news. And then I see those pictures of Palestinian mothers with dead kids. My people, we did this? It makes me sick; I’m so ashamed.” I hugged Leah, but I was afraid to express solidarity with her crazy settler sister. It’s all too hard: Ukraine, Russia, Israel, Palestine, Valentina, Leah—and me, who doesn’t know how to decide which bad guys to be mad at. Me, who’s afraid I might love the wrong people. Me, who thinks God only loves some of us, and I better hedge my bets and be on the right side.

In the middle of the field, the world, Scripture says, all kinds of weeds are jammed up right next to the precious grain. The field, the world, is a total mess. And so often we believe we’re the ones chosen to clean it up. But if we think we can tell the weeds from the wheat, the purely good people from the purely wicked, we are kidding ourselves—about the shameful evil inside our own hearts, and the humanity inside our enemies. And if we try to root out what we think is evil by ourselves, we will also destroy everything that feeds us.

Anyone who has ears should listen to the good news: The life-giving wheat, the bread of life, is already in the field; the Kingdom of Heaven is already in the world, growing and growing: and the enemy cannot root it out. All the enemy can do is try to convince us to pull it up, trick us into being overzealous weeders who, in our eagerness to eradicate the bad guys, will step all over the tender green shoots of love.

In the middle of the heartbreak at the food pantry, Leah and I were in the kitchen, putting candles on a homemade cake that another volunteer had baked to celebrate someone’s birthday. “My friends here are liberals,” Leah said, “so they just want to blame Israel, like the Israelis are all evil and the Palestinians are all good.” I felt incredibly uncomfortable, but Leah went on. “Believe me,” she said, “I see how messed-up Israel is. But there’s plenty of blame to go around. Everyone is so convinced they’re right, it’s all someone else’s fault, and before you know it we’re killing each other’s kids.” She wiped some frosting off the platter. “Thanks for asking about my sister,” Leah said softly. “The worst thing is how my friends don’t even talk with me about it. Couldn’t somebody just say, how are you doing, how’s your family? Like instead of being so convinced we know who’s right and who’s wrong, couldn’t we just have a little kindness?”

The problem with the Bible is that it doesn’t tell us who to blame for the suffering we endure, or the suffering we cause to others. It just tells us that we are living among all the other plants in the field. We must trust God, turn away from darkness, toward the light, and grow. Because God, the only judge, is busy sowing himself into the heart of all mortals, and changing us into himself.

Sara Miles is Director of Ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, and the author of City of God: Faith in the Streets

Part 2: The Pearl

Donald Schell

Part 2 of 2 (Part 1 is here.)

Preparing to lead children enacting Jesus’ parable of the Pearl Merchant, I struggled to find a dramatic entrée. The parable is very compressed, just barely a story. It seems to hang entirely on a moment of purchase and taking possession of a pearl. What gestures and movements could our actors offer to show what’s happening? Paying out a price and having something in hand didn’t offer us much for a specific, wholly embodied improvisational scene.

Looking back, I realize I was struggling with an interpretation of the text I’d heard repeatedly, a formula for what we must do to possess the kingdom of God. The day before we’d be working with the Pearl Merchant, our Godly Play teacher for Friends of God Day Camp told me, “tomorrow I’ve got to tell a parable that has never made any sense to me. The man ends up with the pearl. Then what? Does he retire to look at it? Does he starve?”

I agreed with her. Over the years I’d heard fundamentalist and liberals preachers alike stick to a literalism that killed the story by preaching this parable was about “paying the price” to gain and possess God’s Kingdom as our own. And is the kingdom of God something we possess or a context for action, for living?

That evening, reading and re-reading the text, my mind kept drifting away to scenes from January, 2007, when I was with a Episcopal church lay and clergy leaders in the Mercato in Addis Ababa. The Mercato is Africa’s largest open-air market occupying many, many blocks and streets of Addis Ababa. I was trying to find a way to enact possession of the pearl, which, I assumed was the point of Jesus’ parable, and felt frustrated that my mind kept going to rich, sensory memories of the Mercato.

The Mercato wouldn’t let go. It had seized my imagination - its push of people, the noise, the smells of people, goats, donkeys, and diesel exhaust, savored whiffs of fresh roasted coffee beans and the incense vendors bins of resin. When I finally let myself enter the scene my imagination was making, a pearl buyer presented himself, pushing through the modern Mercato to find a stall where he’d heard someone new to Addis was selling precious gems and pearls.

I followed my imagined merchant down a narrow alley lined with coffee sellers. A donkey train laden with sacks of coffee pushed into the alley, swaying to its own complex music of clattering small hooves and jangling warning bells, it crushed us into coffee stalls. When they’d passed, the merchant rushed on As the alley opened out into a wider street of the Mercato, a blunt-nosed diesel produce truck beeped and just avoided him in a slow motion swerve. The crowd parted and when it came back together the merchant stopped to greet a someone pushing a wheelbarrow mounded with big sacks of tef flour (for making injira flatbread); behind his friend two women waited stock still with produce purchases balanced on their heads. The cook at some cafe is expecting those three, I thought.

As the merchant hurried on, I realized this was return visit to the stall where he’d already found the pearl and where the seller had quoted a high price. I was following him as he returned with more in his purse. After he’d bargained to the limit of the money he had in hand, realizing as he bargained that, even with the high price, he saw the value of the seller’s treasure more clearly than the seller.

I realized that, although Jesus only tells of the merchant seeking and finding the pearl, gathering more resources and then returning to buy it, first century listeners would certainly have supplied a first scene of lengthy and even heated bargaining and a second scene of renewed bargaining when the buyer returns to the stall.

And would he return and pay the last price the seller had asked? Of course not. He might even make a lower offer than the last one he’d made before! He’ll continue bargaining carefully and strategically hoping to bring the seller’s last price down further.

Real, impassioned Mediterranean/Middle Eastern bargaining means strategy, drama, and dynamic relationship. Jesus’ listeners would know the buyer’s bargaining moves, how ever they imagined them. Their experience would supply bargaining and a buyer’s eye for pricing pearls to complete this brief parable. I smiled to think that Jesus’ listeners would be as baffled by a store with non-negotiable marked prices as some of us American Episcopalians in Addis Ababa were at bargaining in the Mercato.

Our group’s Ethiopian guide (who had visited the U.S. more than once) was well aware of this cultural difference and asked us to leave our sense of “price” behind. She told us “price” in Ethiopia meant something quite different than the display place in a U.S. store. Neither buyer nor seller thought the opening offer should name an actual market value. The first asking price began a game and initiated a relationship. “The merchants feel disrespected when you don’t bargain. If you pay the first asking, the seller feels offended that you think he actually believes his inflated asking is a real value. The seller’s first price is only supposed to start a conversation. When you don’t take it that way, they feel personally rejected, as if you were saying, ‘I’ll pay you more than both of us know this is worth so I can avoid having to really deal with you.’”

At the beginning of our trip, she’d bargained for us so we could learn to bargain ourselves. When we saw something we wanted to buy, she explained, “Note it carefully with cautious glances, act you might be interested in something else. Then be a little disappointed or distracted as you walk away. Come and find me. Point out what you’re interested in discreetly, and then watch carefully while I get you a proper Ethiopian price.”

A good-hearted artist in our group protested, “I’m happy to pay the first price they ask because I know their prices are absurdly low. Even paying their full asking price, I feel bad because I’m paying so little. Bargaining just seems rude to me.”

Our guide shook her head “no.” She was a fierce bargainer, proud of what she could do bargaining on our behalf even with sellers who were old friends of hers. Rudeness would be seeming not to care about the price and buying casually.

That last day in Addis, when one of us showed her a lot of crosses and small icons he’d just purchased from one stall, she asked what he’d paid. She was outraged at what she heard and said, “NO!” and took our American friend back to the stall shouting at the merchant in Amharic. For a while the seller shouted back, but eventually he got quieter and just listened. Finally he gave her a handful of cash that she took with a nod of acknowledgment and handed to our friend.

Later, when I asked what she’d said, she replied,

“I called him a thief. I said that if he charges prices like that, I’d never bring my guests to his stall again. I said that when our friend compared what he’d bought with what his friends had bought, he would learn he’d been cheated. I told him that hurts me and shames Ethiopia. I named him a fair price, and told him if he didn’t pay back the difference, I’d tell all the other guides what he’d done.”

Remembering her teaching and how she enforced traditional market values of respect and relationship (our relationship with the merchant and the merchant’s with our group and guide) began to open up the Parable of the Pearl Merchant for me.

I started to wonder -

When there are no price tags, who decides what’s a fair and legitimate price?

What’s the bedrock of relationship between seller and buyer?

And what does the buyer do when the seller doesn’t seem to realize the full value of what he’s selling?

Next day at Friends of God Day Camp, before making ourselves pearl merchants and pearl sellers, I talked asked the children whether they’d seen their parents bargain in flea markets or antique markets, the remnant of ancient practice in our country. They had seen how different those markets were from regular stores. From experience of flea markets, the children explained offers and counter offers to me. They knew your opening offer should be much less than you were willing to pay. Then we wondered whether in the parable, the merchant would literally sell everything to buy just one pearl - did he sell his house? his furniture? his clothing? everything? really everything? Just what has he gained?

The Pearl isn’t the kingdom of God. The kingdom is like a merchant who has learned to live in the wisdom and freedom of graced moments of chance and choice. The pearl merchant enters, lives into, the kingdom as he seizes the moment of grace. Being able to buy that pearl and knowing how to buy it changes his life completely - that’s the kingdom.

Of course he’ll sell the pearl a few days after he’s bought it. He probably knows who he’ll offer it to when he’s buying it. Someone who will see its enormous value, is passionate about pearls, and has the money to pay for this one and more. The day of his purchase, our merchant has bought the winning lottery ticket, he has become an important person, suddenly he has wealth enough to see to the needs of family and friends, and his work as a pearl merchant will be changed for ever with this huge boost in his own net worth. His word will have real weight. People will send new pearl lovers to buy from him because people will know that he’s an astute buyer and seller of pearls.

When we got to playing the market scene and the children imagined they’d sold nearly
everything they owned to make a better offer on the pearl, I asked them if they offered everything they now had available for purchase. “No way,” they responded. I know I’ll pay it if I have to, but I’ll start out offering less.”

Wise as serpents, innocent as doves, the kids were becoming pearl merchants in the kingdom.

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

Part 1: The Joys of F.O.G.

by Donald Schell

Part 1 of 2

Last month my congregation offered a free week-long day camp called F.O.G, an apt name for a summer gathering in San Francisco with perennial summer weather report, “Foggy near the coast, clearing by noon.” I think the joke is deliberate, but as an acronym it also refers to the teaching of Gregory of Nyssa that Christian life in community makes us “Friends Of God.” To the fourth year of our summer F.O.G, Sylvia Miller-Mutia, St. Gregory’s associate rector and the founder of F.O.G. asked me to lead daily Bible drama workshops for the children, each day exploring a different Gospel parable through improvised dramatic enactment of that day’s Godly Play story.

Until F.O.G. my only experience of Vacation Bible School had been summers growing up in a fundamentalist church. I still treasure that first learning of Bible stories, and am also grateful for good support in conversations with my parents for shrugging off the creationism, anti-Semitism, and horrifying interpretations of the atonement some of the teachers offered. What caught my heart, even in that fundamentalist setting was the offering generous-hearted teachers made when they really gave us the stories with room to ask questions and make our own interpretative discoveries. And as we come back to the stories, the discoveries seem to on through a lifetime.

Over the years between that long ago Vacation Bible School and my happy experience with F.O.G., I’d begun doing drama work with Bible stories, starting in summer camp chaplaincies – Family Camp summers in Idaho when I did my first parish work there, and then a couple of decades of summers of both Family Camp and Kids’ Camps in the Diocese of California.

Improvising theater to encounter and interpret Bible stories uses imagination something like Ignatius Loyola’s method of using imagination and the senses to read ourselves into familiar stories to feel how the stories live for us when we’re in them. For my drama workshop version of Ignatius Bible study I’ve worked with stories about Jesus and with the stories Jesus offered as a story teller, the parables.

As preacher/teacher/theater director I learned to spend time ahead with the text, reading it over and over slowly and looking for ways to guide actors recruited from the congregation or gathering to make simple, wholly embodied, interpretative gestures and actions to flesh out the stories.

Sometimes the Gospel story gives specific gestures, for example, in Matthew’s version of the Syrophonecian woman,“…a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’”

The Gospel says she “came and knelt,” two simple gestures to offer our actors in an improvisation. But each gesture contains more choices - HOW does the woman come and HOW does she kneel?

Does she approach very respectfully and kneel as if in church?

Or does she run to Jesus and throw herself at his feet?

And if she throws herself at Jesus’ feet, does she touch him?

Acting gestures need to be energetic and, as actors say, “specific.” How ever the preacher/director, actor or congregation decides the gestures should be enacted, “kind of walking” toward Jesus and “sort of kneeling” won’t give life to an improvisation.
Sometimes specific choices aren’t just the “how” of a gesture in the story, but discovering spatial arrangement and response of one character to another that aren’t given, but still have to be specific. As in Ignatian Bible study, we mae choices about gestures and movements that the Gospel story omits.

For example, in the story of the resurrection appearance to Thomas in John’s Gospel, does Thomas take Jesus’ invitation to touch the wounds in his hands and put his hand in the wound in his side? When I’ve worked with this text and asked the congregation, we discover that some people feel strongly the text assumes that he did reach out and touch Jesus’ hands and side. Others feel equally strongly that for Thomas hearing Jesus’ invitation and seeing the wounds was enough – often those people feel the writer of John wants us to picture Thomas dropping his skepticism and doubts in a moment of overwhelmed worship.

Some questions of “how” only show up when we’re planning or even guiding the congregational volunteers creating an improvisation. In this same resurrection appearance, it simply says that eight days later Thomas and the other disciples were gathered again in the upper room. And then, “Jesus appeared.” Embodied enactment demands more specifics. Different, specific blocking (the placement and movement of our actors) shapes the story differently. If the actor playing Jesus “appears” by slipping in to stand between or among disciples facing our Thomas, Thomas may see Jesus’ first. The actor can use his face and body to show his startled transition from not seeing Jesus to seeing Jesus. The other disciples might see Thomas experiencing something before they see Jesus. But if our Jesus actor comes and stands directly behind Thomas --where other disciples see him before Thomas, perhaps Thomas seeing his friends’ faces makes him turn to face Jesus, even before Jesus speaks. Neither is the “right” answer of how to enact it, but we do experience something different either way.

In the first instance, perhaps we’d find ourselves wondering how the other disciples might see Jesus’ presence through Thomas’s revelatory moment, while in the second instance, we might sense how the other disciples’ faces and faith move Thomas to a very literal turnaround conversion.

GP1.JPGOne of our stories this year was Jesus’ parable of the pearl merchant. I’d never worked with that story before, in my difficulty preparing to work with that particular parable made some unexpected interpretative discoveries. The essay that follows this describes my difficulty, the process of discovery and what I and we learned about the parable from enacting it. But to conclude this first essay, I’d like to encourage readers to visit the F.O.G. website to learn more about embodiment in prayer and teaching. Sylvia Miller-Mutia has been developing Friends of God Day Camp for the children of St. Gregory’s and other children in the church’s neighborhood. Sylvia’s approach to inter-generational liturgy and storytelling, like mine guides a congregation to embody text and song together. You can see additional ways of praying with our bodies and our senses Sylvia has developed at the resource website she’s made for F.O.G. leaders and parents.

Seeing what she’s creating for children and adults, you won’t be surprised to learn that before becoming a priest, Sylvia danced professionally with the Utah Ballet and then in modern dance was a member of Carla de Sola’s Omega West Dance Company. Improvisational interpretation of Bible stories and Sylvia’s embodying prayer in movement invite experience and questions, like a Godly play “I wonder.” Rooting interpretation and reflection in imagination, feeling and intuition leads us to discover new possibilities in familiar readings.

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

Stories and truth

by Derek Olsen

I appreciated Linda McMillan’s recent piece in Daily Episcopalian on the movie Noah. In particular, I like the way she talked about stories. In that piece, she compared different interpretive approaches to Genesis under the rubric of stories. She spoke of how her story was confirmed and challenged and stretched by the story portrayed in the movie. I find this a very helpful way to speak of what we encounter in the biblical text.

As a biblical scholar, one of my main fields of research is the history of interpretation. How have faithful people read, understood, and made sense of the text over time? Stories are one of the key lenses, particularly when dealing with narrative material like the events of the flood.

Where I begin to grow cautious, though, is when we see an assertion that all stories are equally true. Don't get me wrong, I could agree with the statement that all stories are bearers of truth – but that's not the same as saying all stories are true. I think we do better if we suggest that all stories are on a sliding scale; some contain more truth than others. Why does this matter? Because stories are important. Stories shape the way that we understand ourselves, understand the world around us, and the relationships, how we understand God, and the relationships between all of these things. Stories matter because stories shape actions. The way in which stories shape our actions requires us to value and weigh our stories.

In reading Linda’s thoughts about the movie Noah, I was reminded of one of my favorite stories of the interpretive past. It's a reading of the Garden of Eden story from a text called “The Apocryphon [Hidden Book] of John.” It's a delightful story that challenges our received readings, and helps us look at the text with new eyes.

Eve.jpgYou see, most of us come to the Garden of Eden story bringing with it several other stories. In fact, when most of us open the second and third chapters of Genesis, we’re not so much reading the Bible as we are inserting our own abridgment of John Milton's Paradise Lost. It's hard to overstate the influence that Paradise Lost has had on how we understand this text. Ask anybody who the snake in the garden it was – they'll tell you straight off that it's the devil. And yet, that's not what the text says! Rather, there is nothing in the vocabulary, grammar, or syntax of the original story that suggests that the snake is a supernatural being at all – except for the fact that it talks. The only real descriptor that we get of the snake, is that it was wiser than all of the other creatures. Certainly the received interpretation isn’t unique to Milton—the Book of Revelation alludes to it—but the version that most of us carry around in our heads owe more to Milton than anyone else.

“The Apocryphon of John” turns this received wisdom completely on its head by means of noticing and interpreting bits of the story that we normally skip over. It carefully notes that the snake is the wisest of the creatures, that it offers to share wisdom with humanity, and, indeed, enables humanity to become like God—a process like theosis where humanity puts on divinity. With these observations in hand, it confidently identifies as the snake as a different supernatural being: Jesus!

Yes—in this text, the snake in the garden is Jesus! You have to admit, it does give a transgressive thrill to read this text the opposite of the way that we usually hear it. Too, from this direction, Eve is a much more sympathetic character, and can be seen as a real person exhibiting real agency rather than the serpent’s gullible pawn. Shaking us out of our usual patterns, this interpretation helps us hear the text anew, from a radically different angle, and to see elements in it that we’d likely never noticed before.

All in all, it’s an interpretive win—right?

Well, maybe not…

There is one problem here. If you respect the narrative structure at all, there is one essential pattern coded into the story’s dramatic fabric that cannot be altered: the snake-character and the God-character are diametrically opposed. If the God-character is “good,” the snake-character has to be “bad.” If the snake-character is “good”—the God-character has to be the villain. And that’s precisely how “The Apocryphon of John” reads it. While the snake is Jesus, the “god” referred to in Genesis is the evil (or at least thoroughly ignorant) creating demiurge, the sub-divine maker of the material world. In this interpretation, the demiurge is so threatened and challenged by humans “becoming like one of us” (Gen 3:22) that it punishes them by enclosing them in “garments of skin” (Gen 3:21). Thus, it takes the incorruptible souls who are Adam and Eve and encases them within decaying flesh, corruptible matter, by giving them physical bodies. This, then, sets up the religious problem to solve: humans need the wisdom from Jesus to realize the truth about their real spiritual nature, and to escape the corruptible material world for a purely spiritual existence.

If this sounds rather Gnostic to you, there’s a reason for that—it is. “The Apocryphon of John” is a heretical text. Its teachings were condemned by Irenaeus, writing around AD 185 or so, and those condemnations were reiterated for centuries after.

The problem with this kind of reading isn’t just the interpretation itself, it’s the beliefs and actions that are derived from it. Historically, the logic communicated by this text has tended to go in one of two directions. The first is a complete denigration of the physical world and materiality. This is the attitude that says that the world doesn’t matter, physically-based issues like hunger, poverty, and injustice don’t matter, and that the chief concern of the religious should be fleeing the material world for a purely spiritual existence. And, yes, strands of this thinking have been present in strands of Christian thinking through the centuries—and usually have received (and deserve) push-back for it either in their time or in our own. The second is the notion that since real reality is properly spiritual, anything that occurs on a material level is incapable of touching the soul, and therefore any kind of material excess is theologically fair game whether that’s gluttony, lust, or what have you. And, yes, male cult leaders have been laying this one on impressionable young women for literally millennia…

The stories that we tell matter. Stories shape identities and actions. Yes, stories bear truth—but not all stories bear the same kind, quality, and degree of truth. Humans are story-telling creatures and the stories we tell do profoundly shape what we believe and how we act. Cicero’s classic definition of rhetoric, borrowed by Augustine and transmitted hence is that it should “teach, delight, and persuade.” Stories often foreground the “delight,” to the point that we sometimes forget that in their pages and structures are tucked “teaching” and “persuading” as well.

I said above that “The Apocryphon of John” is one of my favorite stories. That’s not because I believe it. On the contrary, I think it’s flat wrong. The reason why it’s one of my favorites is because it dramatically illustrates the need for interpretive boundaries. It demonstrates that for a text to be read consistently and coherently by a given community, that community needs agreed-upon limits for what constitutes acceptable readings.

It’s not enough to declare a reading like this “heretical”—we have to be able to answer the question of why. What is it about the interpretation that makes it heretical? For Christianity as we have received it, there’s a very simple answer. We say “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.” That’s the Apostles’ Creed. In two phrases, it shuts down this line of interpretation in two different ways. First, it establishes that God, the one referred to by Jesus as “Father,” is the Creator of the material world. Second, it establishes that Jesus and God really are on the same team. Jesus is not opposed to the Creator, nor is the creator a sub-divine demonic entity. The interpretation put forward by “The Apocryphon of John” fails the creedal test at the outset. (And in quite a lot of other places too numerous to mention. I dramatically simplified the story. Eve isn’t just Eve; she’s actually Sophia in disguise who has been put to sleep and given amnesia by the evil archons who want to defile her. It’s like a complicated “Days of Our Lives” plot but with metaphysical allegories…)

Early on, the Church recognized that stories weren’t enough. Scripture by itself was not enough. Any text can be re-read, misread, and tortured to say something different given enough time and creativity. As a result, we developed a set of inter-related strategies to help keep this from happening: the threefold combination of canon, creed, and apostolic succession. The first is just this: we know which books we’re going to read together. The second: we know which direction we’re going to go on certain controversial points. The third, if we’re not sure about a reading, we have a living body of teachers who have an organic connection (demonstrated symbolically and liturgically by means of laying-on of hands) going back to the Apostles themselves. As Episcopalians, we reaffirmed our commitment to this threefold structure (with the addition of the two great sacraments) in the definition of Christian unity laid out in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral found on page 877 of your Book of Common Prayer.
The creeds are interpretive guides, not straight-jackets. My favorite image for them is the boundaries of a playing field. You can play anywhere you like within the field. Interpret however you like as long as you remain within them. You can go out of bounds, but there are consequences. If you do go outside, the readings you find out there aren’t going to be considered Christian readings. They might be interesting. They might even be instructive. But we won’t able to claim them as our own. The readings found inside the boundaries are the ones that must have the greater claim on what we teach, what we do and—ultimately—who we are.

We should—we must—interpret. We should tell stories and even tell stories about our stories. And we should do so with a spirit of play. But in doing so we need to mind the boundaries; the boundaries exist for a reason.

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.

Star of wonder, star of night

by Maria Evans

O star of wonder, star of night,
star with royal beauty bright;
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light!.--Refrain, "We Three Kings of Orient Are"

John Henry Hopkins, Jr., forever altered how we view Epiphany and the Magi when he wrote "We Three Kings" in 1857, because his carol created a theology to go with it.

What we understand about the Magi is pretty sketchy, at least in terms of guidance from the Gospels. We essentially know there were Magi, but really, we presume there were three because only three gifts are mentioned. There could have been many more. It's only by tradition that we know them as Balthazar, Melichor, and Caspar (or Gaspar, in some renditions)--derived from a Greek manuscript probably written in Alexandria around 500 A.D. But it was the then-Deacon Hopkins who gave them voice for the first time, and a theology to accompany their gifts..."Gold I bring to crown him again," (the ruler of Christ's Kingdom)..."Incense owns a deity nigh," (the Son of God)...and myrrh's "bitter perfume" symbolizing the Crucifixion. Thanks to Hopkins, we have connected Gaspar to gold, Melchior to frankincense, and Balthazar to myrrh.John_Henry_Hopkins_Jr_full_size.jpg

Likewise, parts of Hopkins' life seem shrouded in mystery. He was the son of the Bishop of Vermont. His father later became the 8th Presiding Bishop. In a time when the role of deacons was less uniformly understood, he chose to be a deacon for 22 years, only accepting Holy Orders to the priesthood upon the urging of his bishop. He composed music, taught music at the General Theological Seminary, wrote poetry, and designed stained glass windows. Two U.S. censuses show him living with the family of a friend. About the only in-depth view we have of him comes from a biography written shortly after his death by The Rev. Charles F. Sweet, "A champion of the cross, being the life of John Henry Hopkins, S.T.D." It reads in that rather flowery way that Victorian biographies tend to read, so it's hard to interpret. He never married; although we can never know for sure, one can't help but wonder if, in another time, he'd be considered or assumed part of God's Rainbow Tribe.

Yet this man that we only seem to know superficially, left a legacy by giving depth and breath and voice to the most important figures in the Epiphany story--through a song, that, in some ways sounds older than it is. Had we been asked to recite all we know about the Magi from rote, it would not have the attraction, nor the joy. Almost all of us can sing at least one verse of "We Three Kings" (and maybe even the childhood parody, "We three kings of Orient are, tryin' to smoke a rubber cigar. It was loaded and it exploded, that's how we got this far.") I've never seen a person sing "We Three Kings," who didn't start moving their head from side to side, or a smile not cross their face. It seems that even singing the hymn creates a mini-Epiphany in itself.

Epiphany is a season of wonder and discovery--to travel in search of something or someone we're looking for, and our only way of recognizing Christ in it is, "We'll know it when we see it." It's a pretty inefficient and sometimes confusing and tiring way to go about things--sometimes it even comes with danger should our search be fruitful, choosing to go home another way--but when we discover Christ in it, our weariness almost instantly turns to joy. What are the songs that give depth and breath and voice to your own journeys to discover Christ, when the road is not well-mapped?

More on Hopkins and drawing from Trinity Wall Street

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 authority of the Bible

by Patricia Millard

In Education for Ministry Online (EfM) one of the exercises is about the nature and experience of the Bible for each participant using the following questions:

What are your beliefs about the Bible?
How do you interpret Scripture?
What is the authority of the Bible for you?

On Friday, January 3, 2014 there was a discussion in the news about the use of an Bible app on an iPad for a swearing in ceremony and whether that was a “real Bible”?

This is turning out to be a most interesting question for me. I surprised myself this evening, driving home from a hike on the beach, when I found myself mulling it over in more depth and coming to some rather new thoughts about the whole question:

The short version is that it suddenly occurred to me that the "Bible", per se, doesn't even exist. "Scripture" is NOT a book, or even a collection of books. What exists, in actuality, is a series of narratives that is preserved in all sorts of different formats via oral and written word games. By word games I mean just that, words arranged in various ways to which we can ascribe meaning. These arrangements of words might actually look very different from each other, and yet we still call them "The Bible". Consider, for example, the differences and similarities between different versions and paraphrases in English, a "Children's Bible", the various texts from which modern versions are being translated, and the fact that the Bible is continually translated and retranslated into various languages.

What is authentic, what may be "revelatory," is not the text itself, but rather the process of engagement between a human psyche and the narrative contained within the text. It is only as it is read, wrestled with, "inwardly digested," that the narrative takes on reality, life and meaning.

The "authority" of scripture is profoundly more complex than we would like it to be. And the need to hold SOMETHING authoritative in this changing world is huge. There is a tendency to be rather reductionist or perhaps simplistic in speaking about "the authority of the Bible" even in the face of obvious difficulties. But, rather than simply say that the text is authoritative, what I would say today is that a variety of factors may contribute towards how "authentically" the process of engagement with the inherited narrative actually connects us with the Divine Mind, and the various ways in which these factors interact may determine the level at which the narrative is both authoritative and revelatory. A few factors I am mulling over:

1) The narrative is probably read more accurately when it is read within a community. This is not only the local liturgical assembly, but also includes the broader ecumenical community (to various degrees), popular culture (since sometimes the most prophetic interpretations of the activity of God actually happen OUTSIDE of the "community of the faithful"), and various forms representing the "academic" community.

2) Since I continue to assert that the source of revelation is God, meaning that God's capacity and willingness to self-disclose is what makes authentic revelation even possible, I continue to assert that it is the activity of the Spirit that gives life and meaning to the narrative. This said, it could be that the activity of the Spirit manifests precisely at the moment the narrative is being engaged.

3) An additional factor, and one seldom talked about, is adding an ontological level to the process of interpreting the text. By this I mean that the narrative will speak differently to people, not only depending on their "context", but along a continuum that reflects a person's being. There are huge implications to this, and for the most part I think this is a topic best left alone. But there it is. My thoughts for now.

The Rev. Patricia Millard is the Vicar at St. Catherine of Alexandria Episcopal Church and the Associate for Spanish Language Ministry at Kaleidoscope Institute.

For Our Learning: my adventures with scripture

By Kathy Staudt

At the beginning of this year’s long “green season” -- probably almost as long as the season after Pentecost can be with Easter so early-- I embarked on the Center for Biblical Studies’ “Bible in a Year” program; (more about this here) You read 3 chapters from the Old Testament, a Psalm, and one chapter of the New Testament every day. At this point I have finished through Ezra and Nehemiah and just moving into Esther and the Wisdom books, and I am just starting 2 Corinthians. I may take a break when Advent comes and move to the daily readings through the church year, picking up where I left off the Sunday after Trinity in 2014. I find myself inclined to do this because of what I have learned, especIally now that I have read through most of the main story of Israel's relationship with God from Creation.

What I’ve learned, more deeply though I thought I knew it, is how compelling the story of Israel’s relationship with God is, and how human and distressing and appalling in places. We are seeing God often through the lens of tribal patriarchal cultures and sometimes there is violence and even genocide done in the name of God and it seems to be approved. And there is this thread which can be dangerous if taken too far - but it’s there in Scripture: The “deuteronomist” story line that explains the exile into Babylon by showing how Israel keeps turning away from the Covenant with God -- how God keeps calling God’s people back, and they keep messing up and they try again. “Again and again you called us to return” we say in our Eucharistic prayer -- and that IS the rhythm of the big story of Scripture, even when there are terrible moments. It is the rhythm of God’s relationship with humanity, and this is a God that for some mysterious reason WANTS to be in relationship with God’s people -- “you will be my people and I will be your God” -- the temple is cast down and rebuilt with rejoicing, the people know who they are and they keep forgetting. I’ve read in theologians as diverse as Verna Dozier and Hans Urs von Balthasar about this dramatic shape of the story but it has really been fascinating to “dwell” in it through this practice and I want to continue. I of course read it all primarily through the lens of my training as a literary scholar and reader of stories -- following the threads of the big story more than the often objectionable cultural pieces of it (most annoyingly for me the dominant voice of tribal patriarchy) in the way the stories are told. But the story of exile and return, falling away and being called back, burns through it all and I am now hearing the Scriptures read at worship with fresh ears, knowing that much more about the context and the tradtition. So I find I am reading each part of the story of Scripture in light of the “whole story” in which I have been immersed.

Meanwhile, my young adults Bible study group this fall has been reading the “Song of Songs,” whose refrain is “My beloved is mine, and I am his” - or “I am for my Beloved and my Beloved is for me.”. A rabbi we had visiting as our guest the other night confirmed what I’ve been reading in commentaries, the Rabbinic understanding of this book as a Holy Book, the “Song of Songs” as in the “book of books”. For the Rabbis it is an allegory about the faithfulness of God and the hope of a truly intimate and mutual relationship between God and God’s people that is established at Sinai. Steeped in her own tradition, the rabbi radiated a joy in being people who have been given the Law as a way of living faithfully with God. It was beautiful to see. I had known about the Christian mystical readings of the Song of Songs as an allegory of Christ and the church, or of the mystical marriage between the. Soul and God, but I am really finding powerful the rabbinic understanding of the story of Israel being about the possibility of real, loving relationship between a human community and their God. And the poetry is powerful.

I am open to this insight partly because a favorite artst and poet of mine, David Jones, has also written that ‘in the end there is only one tale to tell: ego amor mihi et ego illi (my Beloved is mine and I am his)./". I see more than ever how this is the story of Scripture as a whole, including the New Testament narrative of "the gospel of Jesus Christ" , which we’ll soon enter again from the beginning in the church year to come. I’m looking forward to pondering all these stories again, in light of the “whole story.”

So in short, I have been (in the words of the collect) “Reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting” the story of Scripture. I commend this practice to all: It has been a rich, often challenging, but ultimately deep and and fruitful practice for me, and I look forward to pursuing it in fresh ways as we begin this new cycle of the Christian story, in this new church year.

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.

Last words

by Linda Ryan

Now these be the last words of David. David the son of Jesse said, and the man who was raised up on high, the anointed of the God of Jacob, and the sweet psalmist of Israel, said,

The Spirit of the Lord spake by me,
and his word was in my tongue.
The God of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spake to me,
He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.
And he shall be as the light of the morning,
when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds;
as the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain.
-- 2 Samuel 23:1-4 (KJV)

We are often intrigued by the last words of celebrities and people we know. What were the last words they uttered as they died? Not everybody gets the chance to utter last words, but to those around them at the time, they often have an impact, even if it poses a question.

Take, for instance, the last words of Giles Corey, a man who was tried in the Salem Witch Trials and condemned to death by crushing. His last words? "More weight." St Lawrence, tortured to death by being roasted on a grill is alleged to have said words to the effect of "Turn me over, I'm done on this side." I'm sure a lot of people have called on Jesus or God at their last breath, and some, like Steve Jobs, could simply say something like "Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow." Even Jesus' last words were remembered although differently by the gospelers. Matthew and Mark give his last words as "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?", a quotation from Psalm 22. Luke's gospel records the last words as "Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit." John states that he simply cried, "It is finished!"

The other day I heard a piece of music I hadn't heard in some time but which I have sung with various choirs since I was in high school. The tune, written by Randall Thompson, is haunting but the words, well, the words are some that maybe should be pronounced rather frequently, especially now with things in such a mess in this country and the world.

Looking at David's history with Uriah and others, his opening statement, "He that ruleth over men must be just" seems, in one light, a bit self-congratulatory. Or maybe he's being introspective and repentant for the times he messed things up by being unjust. The point is, though, that rulers must have a sense of justice that doesn't mean just pleasing themselves or their best buddies but also for the folks they don't particularly like or agree with on a lot of things but who, in that particular case, have the right end of the stick. I think some of our contemporary politicians have forgotten that.

"Ruling in the fear of God" is probably somewhat problematic for some, especially those who stoutly affirm that there is no God and that they don't believe in God anyway. I think the ones who need to hear that message are the ones who are so certain that they KNOW precisely what it is God wants and they're going to get it regardless of what happens to other people. It seems God in God's wisdom put a lot of "care for the widows and orphans" talk into the Bible so why do we get so much talk about God blessing the rich and claiming the blessing to acquire yet more stuff, including money, power and privilege? It isn't only atheists and believers in gods other than the Christian one who may have a problem with the statement. In fact, they could be following the tenets of God far closer than a lot who proudly announce themselves God's followers.

"And he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds" is such a beautiful image. It's an even better description of someone who deliberately follows the ways of God and who treats his brothers and sisters, even the adopted and unknown ones, with kindness, justice and compassion. In this age of instant communications, it's often more common to hear about the injustices done in the name of the people, the corporate sins of our commercial sector and even the abuses in our churches than to see bright examples of leadership done for the benefit of the people who don't have a voice of their own. There are some, though, and they are like campfires on the distant hills, a reminder that some really do have the best interests of the poor, the sick, the oppressed and the disadvantaged at heart. The lights may not light up the sky, but they testify that those lamps are lit and not just sitting there waiting for a match to light them.

"[A]s the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain" evokes the renewal of the earth that comes when rain falls and suddenly all sorts of things spring to life and bloom almost joyously. Living in the desert we see it nearly every time we have our infrequent rains. It doesn't even have to be a gully-washer for it to happen; even a half-hour shower will do. So can be with just one person, one ruler who is just and who looks to do good for the all the people and not just the cronies who finance his campaigns or promise him luxuries in return for favoritisms. Can I imagine what it could be like if there were a whole lot of those? I can stretch my imagination but I know God already has done that, stretched the imagination to include a whole world full of tender shoots of grass springing up after a shower of justice if the desire is there within them.
David may never have spoken those words but the poetry of them certainly reflects the imagery and cadence of the psalms attributed to him. I still wonder, though, were they said as advice or as contrition? As an ideal or as an unrealized potential? Or maybe they were a vision of the kingdom that could be if, in the words of Amos, we "...let justice roll on like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (5:24, NRSV).

I listened to the musical version of this reading again and this time I saw David in the prime of his life, dancing before the Lord, uniting the kingdom, treating the people with fairness and concern. Still, David, like all of us, probably went to the bosom of Abraham with regrets and repentance but trying to leave a map for those who succeeded him to follow to avoid some of the pitfalls into which he fell. David's sun rose on a young and promising life and new hope was born in Israel. On his deathbed the sun set on that life but his memory lived in his people, even down through a thousand generations. What a legacy. I wonder how many of our rulers will fare as well or for as long? Maybe we should play "The Last Words of David" for them and ask that they think about it?

Sometimes music will touch hearts that words alone simply can't reach.

The Last Words of David composed by Randall Thompson, performed by the Rutgers University Chorus.

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.

Prodigal cat

by Linda Ryan

One of my boys went walkabout for a bit this morning. I had held the door open for just a few seconds too long and out he went, tail straight up with enthusiasm and racing away as if celebrating a release from jail. He hadn't done this for a couple of years and I thought I had made his life pleasant enough that he wouldn't do it again but I was wrong. He exemplified carpé diem to the max.

Ok, I'm talking about one of my three boy cats (my little girl doesn't mind being lumped with them as long as she gets her share of attention and treats), the four of whom constitute my main reason for getting up in the morning. To them I am staff -- not mistress, not always mom, but always staff to wait on them, clean up after them, provide their meals and facilities, and give out frequent pats, scritches and occasional treats.

Back to Sama, the walkabout cat. He was out of sight before I could say "Boo" or even, "Here, Sama!" I got him within sight but he bounded off behind the neighbor's trailer. I went to the far side of her lot but no Sama. Calling gently so as not to upset the neighbors I walked around but still no Sama. I went back in the house for a few minutes and went out again. He was over by the rosebush by one of the sheds, eating grass. I called him again and was roundly ignored. I went back in the house. I came back out a few more minutes later to find no Sama so I walked back to the back and then over to the other side of my neighbor's house. No Sama -- until I looked at the rosemary bush next to the step up to the patio. There I saw big yellow eyes, a black face and a red collar. Unfortunately, he wasn't ready to be reasonable and come back in the house but instead he disappeared again. I went back in the house. A few more minutes and when I looked outside, there he was near the front stoop. Here's my chance, I thought. This time I wasn't going barehanded. I had a plan.

Treats for the boys are truly that -- very occasional special stuff that they have to take turns getting. I think of it as a feline form of communion. If a cat sits there and waits his/her turn, s/he gets a treat from the package. And they know the sound of that package being removed from the drawer next to my desk. Oh, yes. One little rustle of the package and I usually have four furry friends in the immediate vicinity. This morning I only had three when I opened the package but I still had a plan. Sama was out on the patio, near the door and so I opened it and rustled the package while saying softly, "Sama, treat!" There was a flicker of interest but not much. I put a couple in my hand so he could see they would be there and opened the door a bit wider. FAIL. Off he went back to the rosebush again.

Back in the house for a few more minutes. Look outside, no Sama. Wait a few more -- and there he was by the stoop again. This time I went out with the package and rustled it. Hmmm. A flicker of interest, it appeared. He seemed to be in the mood for petting so I stroked the end of his tail, the only part of him I could reach. Ok, we were back on more familiar ground. He presented his ears and then his back and then his ears again. This time I managed to get off the stoop, scoop him up and, with him purring mightily, back into the house. Needless to say, everybody got another round of treats, but this time in small piles here and there so that everybody got some, including Sama. Within a couple of minutes he was stretched out on my desk, no doubt contemplating the greater world outside vs. the comfort (and treats) inside. Now he's on the top cradle of the cat-tree, looking out the front window and no doubt planning his next foray which, I'm afraid, will be the next time I open the door to go in or out.

During this whole thing I thought about the story of the prodigal son and thought that perhaps it would do to pay a little attention to the story of the anxious father. We get most of the story from the POV of the prodigal, what he did while he was gone, his thought processes and his reflective journey back to what would probably be a sort of jail without bars. If he were lucky, he would be able to count on at least a job tending animals but he knew too that his father wouldn't let any of his workers go hungry or homeless. Meanwhile, though, what of the father? The story tells of the older brother who has been working hard, doing what he was supposed to do and not being very happy about having his inheritance diminished and one less hand around the place to help with the work. But the father? What of him?

I thought about my Sama outside in a world he really doesn't know anything about except that it is big and it has a lot of alluring things in it: grass to chew, other cats to chase, lots of different smells to sniff, places to rub, and things to investigate that never show up inside the house. The prodigal had a great time on his walkabout but I was a wreck. What if he got hit by a car? Even with a posted speed of 5 mph, cars zip by this house like it was a speedway or something sometimes. What if another cat attacked him for being an interloper? What if he got lost and couldn't find his way home? What if, what if, what if? I imagine the prodigal's father had those same kinds of thoughts and, I imagine, he probably went to the door a dozen times a day, hoping to see a familiar figure coming down the road. I know the frustration and fear he would have felt, hoping against hope but not seeing the one thing he most wanted to see.

Luckily, both stories have happy endings with the prodigals returning home and a celebration following. What I am left with is a contemplation of what it means to love and lose, even if briefly and even if the prodigal is only out of sight for a few minutes. While I realize the story of the prodigal son was a parable Jesus told to illustrate how much God loves me (and all the other prodigals in the world), it took Sama to make me look at it through a different set of lenses, that of the father who gave his son the freedom he desired and who never stopped looking for him to return home safely.
It makes me also realize that all the characters in the story are me at some time or other in my life. Today, though, I'm the rejoicing parent. My prodigal is once again home, a celebration has been held and things are (more or less) back to normal.

Thanks be to God.

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 Donald Schell

Our oldest grandchild is three, or more accurately three and a third. Many readers won’t be surprised to learn that his word of the day (and week and month) is

- Why?

When our own youngest was this age, I discovered that if I didn’t try to respond his questions with answers, but paused

and then asked,
- What do you think?

He’d often have an answer that he was glad to offer. And sometimes that answer told me that the answer I was ready to give wouldn’t have actually addressed his wondering. I’m making that my default response with the grandson and finding again that a child (maybe our inner child too) asking “why” frequently wants to talk and think aloud.

My wife teases me when I slip into being a pedagogical and theological Piaget, and yes, I do think of Jean Piaget as I notice what startlingly fertile reflection on human learning and our insatiable drive to find meaning in our experience I witness in our grandson’s learning process.

His three year old answers to his own questions of why (and how) move freely among Aristotle’s four kinds of causation –

Material cause (“when ice melts it becomes water”)
Formal cause (“because she’s your mother and parents make those decisions”)
Efficient cause (“it fell because you dropped it”)
Final cause (“because saying ‘thank you’ makes you and the person you’re thanking happy”)

(I’m happy for comments or refinements to this sketch of the four causes from any philosophers or Aristotle scholars who’d like to offer them as a comment here.)

What I often notice in conversation with my grandson is that my adult default answer (the “because…” that often gets left unsaid when he supplies us with a more satisfactory answer) tends to be an efficient cause, the “what started it all” in a chain of cause and effect. My grandson’s “why” is a richer question than we adults usually let ourselves ask so nakedly. He’s asking for (and often offering) an answer that’s part of a whole spectrum of meaning, how things fit together, how they work, why we care about them, what we’re committed to.

Aristotle’s cluster of possible answers may hint what our own internal three year old is looking for as s/he keeps asking “why.” We’re not actually hoping for “The Answer.” There are all kinds of answers, many of which we can frame for ourselves. Maybe we want to tell our answer. Maybe hearing someone else’s question prompts us to discover an answer we hadn’t yet framed. What we’re looking for is the pleasure of engaging with someone we’d like to talk with about what it all means and how.

In Sunday by Sunday church practice in the Episcopal church, are we in danger of rushing to offer and assert “the answer.” I fear that partisans of the Nicene Creed in the liturgy have lost sight of the process that runs through the historic liturgical action, inviting the Spirit to come among us as we become and partake of the Body of Christ. We come to the point in the service where we all articulate our faith in ancient words (not a story, not a prayer, a series of finely tuned philosophical and Biblical points). We’ve unconsciously shifted the public work of liturgy to deliverables (proclaiming the Word, defining the faith, receiving the sacrament).

Was the liturgy of the first five centuries in the East and the first eleven centuries in the West defective for not having its moment of reciting the answer? What does it tell us that the liturgical use of the creed began when Monophysites in the East introduced it as a protest against the Council of Chalcedon? Why did the West resist using it liturgically for half a millennium? And what about finally introducing it in the West with the filioque added in (“who proceeds from the Father AND THE SON”) so that the recitation of the Symbol of Christian Unity cemented the division between Eastern and Western Christians. Is the creed like answering my grandson’s question when he wants to talk? What I notice talking with him is that the faster I offer answers, the more “why” he throws back. Answers aren’t giving him what he wants or needs.

Let me rush to add that the content of the creed makes sense to me. All I’m questioning is its liturgical use. When I’m in a congregation that uses it, I do say (or more happily sing) the creed. As a text and theological formulation, I welcome what it adds to our understanding of (and wonder at) our faith in Christ.

But I think the “why” question we’ve been asking since we were three years old and are all still asking, our craving to get closer to “what it ALL means” and to get closer to that meaning in the company of people we’re also learning to love and may be better “answered” by the Prayers of the People (where prayer and the action that flows from it are our shared response to what God is doing), or the Peace (our physical celebration and enactment of God’s reconciling work), or the Eucharistic Prayer (that tells the same story as the creed but does so as a prayer in, to and with our loving God).

I also suspect that what a Godly Play “I wonder” session or an EFM theological reflection conversation touches is truer to our ceaseless why than something that thinks we’re looking for “the answer.”

My grandson is asking me to join him discovering and reflecting on what the world and everything in it means. Whether I’m preaching and presiding or happily attending and sitting in the congregation to pray and sing and listen and share, what I find enlivening, satisfying, and sustaining is feeling and knowing that we’re plunged into that discovery together. Prayers and intimations are truer to our discovery and fit the richness of our “why” better than anything that presents itself as “the answer.”

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

Parables: finding the kingdom in the mystery

by Sara Miles

Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33,44-52

What is the kingdom of heaven like? In the parables, it’s like a tree alive with birds, a hundred rising loaves, a pearl, a net full of writhing fish. It shows forth in coins, a lamp, a dishonest steward, a lost son, a wedding feast. The kingdom of heaven is very near; it’s right here; it will come at the end of the age. The Kingdom is like the world, it is not of this world, it is the world. Parables are infuriating. Why is Jesus speaking this way?

I was talking with a parishioner a while back about how hard she finds it to engage with what she calls “Jesus-y” preaching. “Well, I’m pretty Jesus-y myself,” I said, apologetically, and then she gave me about the best compliment I’ve ever received. It was very parable-like. “No, I enjoy your sermons,” she said. “It’s like listening to someone with a rare and extremely interesting mental illness.”

She’s right. I’m crazy about Jesus. And I love hearing Jesus’ parables exactly the way I love eating his flesh and drinking his blood.

What’s revealed to me about God and God’s kingdom through the Eucharist and parables gets delivered in a way that manages to be both physical–– the detail of the nests in that mustard shrub, for example, or the taste of that yellow, sweet wine in my mouth –– and profoundly mysterious. In parables and in the enacted parable of communion, I find an overload of treasure, a frustrating excess of metaphors, a surplus of meanings. The most ordinary, prosaic gestures happen and happen again, and then time stops. Language starts out simple: bread, wine, a man, a woman.... then the words go off all over the place like fireworks, shooting up, blossoming sideways into unlikely shapes, surprising everyone into gasped aaahs, then disappearing into the night sky as you huddle together in the dark, looking up, trying to see more.

Why does Jesus speak in parables?

The parables are often paradoxical. They present as good something that Jesus’ listeners commonly thought of as bad –leaven, for example, a corrupting, rotten, sour thing that made flour dirty and unclean. They present as important things thought of as insignificant or bizarre: invasive, weedy mustard seeds, an ordinary woman baking a massive quantity of bread. They present values backward: people sell everything they have for something they find by accident. The kingdom Jesus speaks about in parables and enacts with his body has a crazy, upside-down logic: as if a pigeon-infested shrub could be the cedar of Lebanon, the very tree of life and healing for the nations. Or, for that matter, as if God the Almighty could be a helpless baby, or arrested as a criminal, or mocked and pierced and killed.

I think maybe Jesus speaks in parables because he loves us too much to talk in a more reasonable way. Scripture, the record of God’s love affair with humankind, offers multiple witness to the revelation of the living word, and the complete joy to come, in language as confusing and powerful as his passion. Being in love, after all, is much like living in the kingdom: words fail, and all you can say is that your love is like an apple, like sunshine, stronger than heights or depths. The strange becomes familiar, and the old new.

So I put this before you: the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. It’s like my friend Lisa, who always prays for people while she weeds. Lisa is a priest, but her multiple sclerosis eventually made driving and standing and talking on Sunday mornings too hard. The MS made gardening hard, too, but she loved everything that grew in her foggy backyard, and kept trying to get people to come take her bulbs and slips and seeds. One afternoon we were walking very slowly together along the little pathways, while Lisa introduced me to plants she thought I might like cuttings from: this is the Graham Thomas rose, here’s a clarkia, look at that cute little succulent. “What about that blue stuff ?” I asked. “The forget-me-not?” said Lisa, “ I keep trying to get rid of it—it takes over your garden.” I looked longingly at the plants, and she yanked one up. It had tiny little burr-like seeds. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” she said, “it’ll spread everywhere.” It did. There are clouds of blue flowers all over my garden now, and whenever those annoying little seeds stick to my pants legs and invade the decent, orderly beds of roses, I think of Lisa. I can’t forget her. The kingdom of heaven is like a forget-me-not.

Or the kingdom of heaven is like yeast. It’s like my friend Ruth, a baker and student of Torah who lives over her bakery. One Passover I helped set the long, handmade wooden table in her home as she told me about searching out all the leaven--everything puffed up and impure-- the night before, and how she baked matzoh and wrote a blessing for “our imperfections, our burnt spots, our jagged edges.” At Seder twenty people talked and drank and ate and laughed and prayed, and at the end of the evening Ruth sent a child out to find the hidden piece of matzoh she’d stuck under a couch cushion. “We share the hidden piece,” she prayed, “as a pact to join together in the ongoing journey of revelation. ” We broke the matzoh and gave it to each other, and it was delicious, and the unclean yeasted cake a guest brought by mistake was delicious, and the dulce de leche ice cream was delicious, and Ruth said, “We have done our part, we have kept the Passover, as it has been done for three thousand years.” The kingdom of heaven is like feasting together at a big wooden table.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. It’s like my neighbor Rosana, whose first baby was stillborn, and who grieved all during her next pregnancy, picking a calla lily from our yard each day to put on the shrine she’d built in her bedroom for the lost daughter. She cried and she feared for nine months, and when the new baby was born, healthy, beautiful, Rosana named her Lily, and was radiant with joy. And one day she carried the baby over to visit us and said, surprised, “I just realized I haven’t put any fresh flowers on the shrine for a while. I guess it’s OK.” The kingdom of heaven is like finding the one thing that matters and letting the rest go.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea that pulls up fish of every kind. It’s like walking down the sidewalk on my way to the bank, and gazing at an old woman sitting by the bus stop deep in conversation with a young bearded man. At a Guatemalan Indian boy walking alone, eating a piece of pizza. At the two guys outside the fish market discussing astrology, and the older man with his pit bull, and the mother helping her chubby toddler out of a stroller; at a window full of Italian wedding cakes and a locked-up storefront covered in graffiti, at the dollar stores with their cheap luggage and Che t-shirts and plastic buckets and brooms and earrings. At the hot-dog cart and the truck full of watermelons, the hipsters and paleteros and drunks and cops and teenage girls. The kingdom of heaven is like Mission Street.

The kingdom of heaven is like you when you’re hungry, and you drinking deeply on the hottest day of summer. It’s like you fighting with your sister and you taking care of your father. It’s like you being generous, like you being rich, like you being cruel and gnashing your teeth. The kingdom of heaven is like weeds and roses, dirt and precious stones, bread and rotten potatoes: and all of it, all of it, held in love in Jesus’ heart.

Have you understood all this?

I haven’t. Listening to parables I can’t figure out what Scripture really means–– even with the most painstaking fundamentalist or feminist or historical or anthropological analysis. Because the Bible is not a system, but a relationship. And the kingdom it witnesses to is as about as easily managed as a cloud, or a fire, or living water.

And so, like Jesus, I think we need to keep asking each other, what is the kingdom of heaven like? and offer up not answers but parables, our real experiences. We need to listen carefully, because each one of us alone just gets a glimpse of heaven from time to time: it is the whole of God’s creation that is God’s kingdom, and I can’t begin to know what it’s like unless you say what it’s like too, unless the children of God all hum together, each adding her own little scrap of music to join in the angels’ song.

What is it like? Not what it means. Not how we can master it. We can’t find the kingdom of heaven if we try to explain it, solve it, or own it. The kingdom is hidden, just as our lives are hidden with Christ in God: hidden right here, in plain sight, waiting for something as crazy as a parable or the Eucharist to reveal it. And when we find it, when it finds us, it is revealed as old and new at the same time: a feast prepared for us from before the foundation of the world, a feast we can taste and chew and swallow right this moment.

We don’t have to get the parables right. All we can do is plant the weeds, eat the impure bread, gaze in wonder at the odd fish dredged up, shining, in this blessed net of life. All we can do is give thanks: that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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

How to be in the presence of Jesus

by Deirdre Good

Text: Luke 10: 38-42

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

Think about the last meal with friends you really enjoyed. Was it at your house or theirs? Or maybe you were at a restaurant. In which case you were able to enjoy the company and the food without having to prepare, cook, or clear away afterwards. If the meal was at your house, then you know what was involved.

Before I arrived in Maine this summer, I was able to share a memorable meal at home with friends. It all came together at the last minute. I wanted to extend hospitality to our new President at the seminary where I live and work since he had just arrived and was temporarily without family. Fortunately, I was able to invite two other couples to join us. And thanks to Whole Foods, I was able to assemble the dinner at the last minute rather than cook it. So I was able to enjoy the company rather than worry about whether they liked the food I’d cooked. Why was it so enjoyable? Because all the couples (including us) knew and liked each other. Three of us work together, and six of us went to the same church at one time. We have the same sense of humour, values and interests. We respect each other’s viewpoints.

The meal Jesus shares with Martha and Mary presupposed in today’s gospel is quite similar in that the three of them are friends—they eat together in Bethany; they probably worship together and they love each other. How do we think about it? Does the story describe types of people, and continue by commending contemplative types over active types, as Luke’s Jesus apparently does? I know the story can be read this way but there’s a price to pay. It’s a moralistic reading, seeing figures as exemplars. It favors one character over another. Are all of the characters in Jesus’ stories intended to advise readers? Are they meant to evoke empathy and strengthen our proclivity for doing good? Or might we see the whole story in a broader context of Luke and thus as a meditation on deeper issues in the surrounding material. I want to suggest that the passage is a meditation on what it means to be blessed to see and hear what is at hand since others longed to see and hear it but did not (Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” Luke 10: 23-4)

A few words about context. Today’s gospel lies close to the start of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (9:51) that is a journey of many functions besides travel. One of them is shaping of a community around Jesus (followers, disciples, crowds) alongside the shaping of opposition outside that community. Travel and following Jesus to Jerusalem to death and beyond is also about discerning the meaning of presence and absence and how to be in the presence and absence of Jesus.

So here’s a suggestion: If you are on a journey and Jesus joins the journey, stop whatever you are doing. Look and listen. If there’s time for a meal, order a take-out and food to go. This is a meal to remember: tastes, sights, sound. Savor the meaning of Real Presence.

Now what Martha is doing in our gospel is the important task of service (from which we get the word “deacon”) that can be applied to church leadership with connotations of administration and organization. And the verb in Luke’s description, “Martha welcomed him into her home” shows Martha as head of a household, which leads us to think more broadly about Martha in the rest of the New Testament and beyond.

In John’s Gospel, for example, the siblings Mary, Martha and Lazarus are described as loved by Jesus, a term that scholars understand to describe relationship of disciple to teacher Jesus. In the episode reporting that Lazarus has died, it is Martha who engages Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” “But,” she continues, “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus assures her that her brother will rise again and when he declares, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-6) Martha professes: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (11:27). Her confession is a high point of the Johannine communities’ profession of belief in Jesus. Martha is every bit a thinking person.

And, when we look at the rest of the New Testament, it turns out that Mary of Bethany is every bit a doer. At a meal in Bethany where she functions as host and her sister Martha serves, Mary anoints Jesus as a prefiguring of self-giving in the service of footwashing he is about to enact and his death and burial. She does what friends are taught to do by Jesus says Johannine scholar Cynthia Kittredge.

If we take all the evidence of the New Testament, we see that both Mary and Martha have been with Jesus in ways that indicate they both listen, think, and act out a deep understanding of Jesus’ ministry.

I think the lesson for us from the gospel is how to be in the presence of Jesus.

Anthony Bloom, an archbishop in the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, recounts in his book Beginning to Pray an experience with a Russian woman whom he visited in a nursing home before she died at the age of 102. It was shortly after his ordination and she sought his advice. “All these years I have been asking people who are reputed to know about prayer, and they have never given me a sensible reply, so I thought that as you probably know nothing, you may by chance blunder out the right thing.” She explained further that for 14 years she had been praying the Jesus prayer almost continually and had never perceived God’s presence.

Bloom blurted out in response: “If you speak all the time, you don’t give God a chance to place a word in.” “What shall I do?” she said. Then he suggested:

“Go to your room after breakfast, put it right, place your armchair in a strategic position that will leave behind your back all the dark corners . . . into which things are pushed so as not to be seen. Light your little lamp before the icon . . . [Orthodox homes traditionally have an icon altar, often with an image of the face of Christ.] and sit, look around, and try to see where you live. Then take your knitting and for fifteen minutes knit before the face of God, but I forbid you to say one word of prayer. You just knit and try to enjoy the peace of your room.”

At first, Bloom writes, the woman was suspicious that this advice was superficial. But when she returned to see him some time later, she announced, “It works!” Bloom was eager to hear her elaboration, so she told him how she had followed his instructions to neaten her room and then settle herself peacefully before her icon. She continued:

I settled into my armchair and thought, “Oh how nice, I have 15 minutes during which I can do nothing without being guilty! I looked around the room and thought how nice it was. After a while I remembered that I must knit before the face of God, and so I began to knit. And I became more and more aware of the silence. The needles hit the armrest of my chair, . . . there was nothing to bother about, . . . and then I perceived that this silence was not simply an absence of noise, but that the silence had substance. It was not absence of something but presence of something. . . . the silence had a density, a richness, and it began to pervade me. The silence around began to come and meet the silence in me. . . . All of a sudden I perceived that the silence was a presence. At the heart of the silence there was the One who is all stillness, all peace, all poise.”

So if Jesus appears on our doorstep, close the laptop, turn off the ipad, and sit down at his feet. This is a time to savor. And if Jesus doesn't appear – do what ever it is that you naturally do; and in that very action; in that deep silence, look and listen for the Divine Presence.

**Preached on Sunday July 21st 2013 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Castine, Maine.

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 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

Revisiting Romans: Justification, Sin and Faithfulness

by Kathy Staudt

For various reasons I thought a lot about the themes of “judgment,” mercy,” “justification” and grace” during Lent this year. My Young Adults Bible study group has been reading Romans, and trying to do so through the lens of the 1st century rather than the 16th century, especially when we try to figure out what Paul means by words like “sin” and “justification,” “righteousness” and “grace.” This has been aided by the recent book on Paul by Marcus Borg and John Crossan as well as some wise commentaries by scholars I respect. The liberating thing that emerges is a vision of a God who desires to bring humanity back into good, right relationship, with a God who desires good for us and loves us. “Justification” translates something closer to “getting into alignment” or “being in right relationship with” -- Eugene Peterson favorst this translation in his interpretive translation of Romans in The Message. And in this view, “sin” is the human condition when we choose ways of life that are out of alignment with the will of a loving God (the “righteousness” of God) . Paul looks at the story of sin in human history through two lenses: there’s the “sin of Adam,” which is common to all of humanity -- our tendency to use our freedom of choice in ways that lead us away from right relationship with God. And there’s the sin of Israel, the people God calls to live in covenant relationship, and who keep violating that covenant, even though God is faithful. Paul wants to show a God who is faithful, and whose love transforms both versions of human sin (and perhaps any others we can think of as well. . . )

The theology in Romans is of course dense and challenging and, in my experience, rewards exploration, especially with the help of some good commentaries (I especially like The Story of Romans, by VTS colleague Kathy Grieb). But a key shift from the Reformation understanding of “faith vs the law” is the re-translation of the assertion that we are “justified by faith in Jesus Christ” -- modern exegetes have been observing that the more likely translation of the Greek phrase (dia pisteou jesou christou) is not “faith in Christ” but “the faithfulness of Christ.” We are brought into right relationship with God through the faithfulness of Christ, who is himself the incarnate God.

This leads to Paul’s deep theology of the Cross: that through the whole story of Incarnation-Passion-and Resurrection, God has radically re-set the relationship between humanity and Godself, and made it possible for us to “die to sin” and become “alive to God in Christ Jesus.”. There is much to ponder here, and lots of theological rabbit warrens to explore, but on the whole I have found this way of reading empowering because it gives me language for something I’ve pretty much always thought: that the event of the Cross is not an expiatory sacrifice demanded by an angry Father who sacrifices his son, but rather a voluntary and loving self-offering of Godself which resets and redeems the brokenness in the divine-human relationship, and puts all of us - Jews and Gentiles alike -- into new relationship with God, as people who are “in Christ.” The language points toward mystery, and there are many questions - -- but I have become convinced of the basic pattern of good news about a God who desires to heal and reconcile, in the story of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus.

“Judgment,” in this reading, becomes good news -- it is the way we are brought back into right relationship with God, and “grace”, empowered by the Holy Spirit, gives us assurance that this new life is possible -- even in the face of what might seem like a lot of evidence to the contrary. The bottom line is to announce that a new life has begun and our job is to figure out, with God’s help, how to live it. But we can be confident that ultimately, God “has it” and “has us.”

This, at least, is a sketch of my new “elevator speech” (assuming a tall building) coming out of our current rereading of Romans. It means that this Eastertide is inviting me to reflect on the “faithfulness of Christ” in my own life and in the life of the Church, in the face of all kinds of conflict and struggle. The assurance is that God “has this,” ultimately -- and so the hymn at the end of Romans 8 is ‘singing” for me in a new way this year -- becoming a kind of mantra for my contemplation of the mystery of the Cross, and of the whole story that we are re-living, in this holy season: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8: 35-39 NRSV)

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.

On the "Jesus' wife" fragment

by Deirdre Good
Reposted with edits:

Academic conferences are not usually electrifying. But on Tuesday September 18th at 7pm, at the Tenth International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome, Professor Karen King of Harvard Divinity School, the last speaker in the evening panel “Gnosticism and Manichaeism,” announced the discovery of a fourth century Coptic papyrus fragment. The tiny fragment, scarcely bigger than an NYC Metro Card, contains the words “Jesus said to them, 'My wife...” In subsequent material, Prof King has named the Coptic fragment, “The Gospel of Jesus' Wife” as part of a longer text. The website of Harvard Divinity School has published an image, transcription and translation of the text here, together with an FAQ and a draft of an academic article about the text to be published in HTR (Harvard Theological Review) in January 2013. The Smithsonian channel will premier a documentary about the discovery on September 30th, 2012.

The FAQ documents the earliest reference to the fragment in a letter from the early 1980s indicating that Professor Gerhard Fecht from the faculty of Egyptology at the Free University in Berlin believed it to be evidence for a possible marriage of Jesus.

The fragment seems genuine and not a forgery, although not much is yet known about its provenance. It belongs to an anonymous private collector who contacted Prof King several years ago. The fragment carefully examined by several people including eminent papyrologist Prof Roger Bagnall of New York University, and Ariel Shisha HaLevy, Professor of Linguistics at Hebrew University , a leading expert on Coptic language, who concluded that “the language itself offered no evidence of forgery.” The size of the fragment warrants further investigation—it would be helpful to reconstruct how might it have been removed from a larger codex and whether there are other similarly-sized fragments already in existence.

The recto of the fragmentary Coptic text can be viewed here with magnification and provisionally translated thus (square brackets indicate reasonable conjectures):

1. not [to] me. My mother gave me li[fe

2. the disciples said to Jesus [

3.deny. Mariam is worthy of it [

4. …..Jesus said to them, 'My wife [and...

5. …..she will be able to be my disciple [

6. Let wicked people swell up [

7. As for me, I exist with her because [

8. ] an image [

The verso has only isolated words. The translation of the recto above indicates that the text is part of a dialogue between Jesus and the disciples. Jesus' opening words, “My mother gave me life...” may refer to the Holy Spirit. Both Origen On John 2.12 and Jerome On Micah 7.6, preserve a quotation from a lost Gospel of the Hebrews in which Jesus says, “Even so did my mother the Holy Spirit, take me by one of my hairs and carry me away on the great mountain of Tabor.” Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas saying 101 that his birth mother "gave him death" but his true mother (perhaps the Holy Spirit) "gave him life.” Similarly, in the new fragment, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit gave him life. Next comes the disciples' response. Perhaps they query whether women are worthy of life since Jesus then responds that Mary (Mariam) is worthy. Then Jesus says “his wife [and]..” will be able to be his disciple. The next line speaks of wicked people who perhaps think otherwise. Jesus then speaks of himself existing with her for unknown reasons or purpose.

It is not difficult to place the fragment in a Valentinian Christian orbit. The Gospel of Philip 9, 6-11 describes Mary as Jesus' “sister, mother and companion.” This is analogous to the description of Jesus' wife in the fragment who may or may not be Mary. Moreover, the conjectured word “and” after Jesus' words, “My wife” in the fragment indicates that Jesus is not saying something like, “My wife, the...” Professor King is careful to say that this fragment does not provide evidence that Jesus was married. What it does indicate is that some Christians in the second-century claimed that Jesus was married and that such a discussion belongs in second century debates about marriage and discipleship where it will have a wider resonance.

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.

The danger of Mancinism

by Leo Frade

My beloved in Christ let me begin this homily by alerting you that the first part could upset some of you and confuse others; still others may wonder “What in the world is our bishop talking about?” The second part of what I have to say, hopefully will clarify this and also the reason I am preaching about this topic on Trinity Sunday. So please be patient with me as you hear or read what I am about to say.

Let me start by reminding you that throughout the history of the Church we have heard the voices of those alerting us to the dangers that we face every time we abandon the practices of the past and exchange them for innovative and misguided modernistic ideas that have led us through the wrong path.

In the Church and in our nation it is imperative to protect those cherished traditions, practices and orthodoxy of the past.

In yesteryears, our ancestors held fast to the thoughts of the past and their conscience caused them to oppose any progressive and modernistic ideas that a new age was bringing. The integration of the races, the use of birth control, allowing divorce persons to remarry and also to receive communion, allowing children to receive communion, permitting girls to serve as acolytes on the altar and more recently their firm opposition to the ordination of women and the inclusion of gays and lesbians as ordained deacons, priests and bishops in our Church.

But it seems that we have missed one of these trusted beliefs of the past and it is left to me to raise my voice and to warn you in order that we may protect our Church and society from a dangerous practice that is even now, lurking in our midst.

By now you may be wondering what I am talking about? What is precisely the danger that we are facing?

That, my dearly beloved is the danger of Mancinism. Yes, Mancinism or Sinistralism, as others prefer to call this abnormality.

Please don’t laugh or regard this danger as unimportant once you hear the common way we called those who practice Mancinism. Unfortunately, we have abandoned the warnings from our ancestors that protected themselves and did their utmost to cure this affliction of persons that were suffering. Unfortunately, the liberal conspiracy of modernism has blinded us to the danger of Mancinism.

I am referring to those “left-handed” persons in our midst. Those who are older may remember how people afflicted with this abnormality were excluded and action was taken immediately as a teacher in school or a parent noticed that a child had this tendency.

It seems that we have been blinded by faulty scientific beliefs by those that teach evolution and those that claim that Global Warming is affecting the weather patterns our planet.

It was hard for me as a student in Elementary School to understand why my left-handed classmates insisted on writing with their left hand instead of using their right hand like everyone else in my school.

I didn’t believe for a moment that they were born like this as they claimed and that they didn’t have a choice.

Well, in my days in Elementary School the mancinists were punished for their behavior and I observed how the teacher tried to cure them by tying their left arm to their side in order for them not to use the wrong hand. I believe that today there could be a cure for this abnormality but unfortunately due to the liberal conspiracy the medical profession refuses to categorize mancinism as an abnormality.

Are you aware that the word “sinister” derives from the Latin word “sinistra” that means left-handed or unlucky?

Our wise ancestors referred to Black magic as the left handed way and described being left-handed as a sign of the devil.

If you are one of those misguided persons that believe that it doesn’t matter if you are left handed or right handed tell me why both the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed say that Jesus is sitting at the Right Hand of the Father and not at the left hand?

The Gospel according to St. Matthew states clearly that Jesus will separate the good to the right and the evil to the left. Let me quote Matthew 25:41 when Jesus clearly states: “Then he will say to those at his left- hand: You that are accursed depart from me into the fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

I have some ideas that could help to prevent the spread of Mancinism in our church and society?

First, let us pass laws excluding teachers, Boy Scout leaders, and clergy that are afflicted by Mancinism from having contact with our youngsters. Let’s make sure that we don’t have to rent housing to them. Why?

Because they can influence and teach our children to write with their left hand. From ancient days we know that being left- handed is a learned behavior and not something that you are born with. God doesn’t create people to suffer this handicap and force them to write with the wrong hand.

Second, we must create laws that prevent left-handed people from adopting children that will be exposed to this abomination and be influenced to learn that behavior. Were you aware that every August 13 the Mancinists have a “Left-Handed Pride Parade” where they flaunt their devious practice?

To justify their wrong path they claim that 10% of all the population of the world is left- handed and they also like to boast that many artists, mathematicians, musicians, architects and Nobel Peace Prize Winners are and were also left handed. Mancinists brag of their sick behavior by listing several Presidents of our country like Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barak Obama as left-handed. That will explain the sad situation of Washington at present. I say to them that George Washington was right handed and that is good enough for me!

Another important reason of why I am raising this concern today is also to alert the Bishops and Deputies of our upcoming 77th General Convention next month in Indianapolis to be careful of this danger that afflicts our Church. Bishops need to be careful not to consent to the election of any left-handed bishop and also the Deputies have to be sure to exclude any left-handed candidate from being elected as President and Vice-President of the House of Deputies.

If any of these things do occur they will surely become a scandal for our beloved Church and people will say that our church welcomes left handed people into our midst.

OK! Have you had enough already? At this point, you know that what I have said was weird or maybe you began to wonder that after 28 years serving as a bishop in the Episcopal Church I finally flipped out.

I started this homily by saying that I wanted to warn you of a great danger that our church and society is facing. That danger is bigotry and intolerance. No one can deny that the Church throughout its history has been notorious for excluding and persecuting different types of people because they were different.

We have also have managed to reject new ideas that dared to challenge the accepted understanding of the past.

One notorious example is that in the second half of the past Century the Roman Church finally admitted that Galileo was right and that the earth was not the center of the universe and also the church had to admit that they were wrong and that the sun doesn’t orbit around the earth.

Sadly, today church and society manages to put down persons because they have the wrong skin color or because of their nationality, sex or sexual orientation.

I am old enough to have witnessed how well intentioned teachers punished my left handed classmates and how we used to make fun of them for what we thought was weird. I apologize to all the left handed here, including the Dean of Trinity Cathedral who suffers this affliction.

Are you able to understand now why gays and lesbians have a hard time with the church in general? Who wants to come to church to be demonized, excluded and condemned to eternal damnation for being the way that they were created. The same God that created Abraham, Sarah and Hagar; Isaac and Rebekah; Jacob, Leah and Rachel is the God that created Jonathan and David.

Unfortunately today gays and lesbians of our society continue being demonized as we ignore, and refuse to give credence to copious scientific data pointing to the fact that this is not a learned behavior but a trait we are born with like heterosexuality. We don’t learn to be heterosexual and the majority of creation is born with that tendency. Unfortunately it seems that especially the church can’t escape this ancient taboo of considering homosexuality as an abnormality. Like left-handed people they have been created different from the majority of the people of this planet but they have been created by the same God that created all of us.

There is already enough scientific proof that indicates that their sexual preference is not something that they do by choice the same way that being left-handed is not something that people choose. You are born that way.

Love is a splendorous thing for both heterosexuals and homosexuals. For me, one of the dangers that we face as a church is when selected Bible verses are used out of context to demonize others. The real abomination lies in using the Bible to justify homophobia much in the same way that some still use selected passages from the Bible to justify slavery, racial discrimination, xenophobia and misogynist ideas. What better time than today, Trinity Sunday, to be reminded that God and all of God’s creation is much larger than our limited imagination? We tend to place people and things in our limited mental boxes either to control them or to explain that any deviation from heterosexuality is sinful.

I still remember one of my theology classes in seminary when the professor asked us to define what God was. He wrote on the blackboard just these words: God is….. and then went around the class asking us to give a definition to complete that sentence. He filled the blackboard with wonderful definitions that we gave trying to define Almighty God. When all had contributed, he reminded us that when we think we have defined God and believe that our finite minds were able to come up with a definition of the infinite then whatever definition we come up with will surely not be God. We simply cannot put God in a human “mental box” and make God in our image and then put words in His mouth to condemn others by using our Sacred Scriptures.

Are you able to give a reasonable explanation of why God bothered to come up with so many different types of flowers with so many different colors? Why one person’s pigmentation is black and another person is white, or brown or yellow or whatever shade or color? Why are my eyes green and my daughter’s eyes blue and my son eyes are brown? Why are you taller or shorter than me, or perhaps even left-handed? Why are some persons born with an attraction to the opposite sex and others happen to be attracted to persons of the same gender? Why do we all fall in love with another person?

I am sure that one day our scientists will have a definite explanation for this wonderful diversity in our world. I personally hope that God will grant me an audience in eternity and explain why He created us in so many different ways. I will ask other things too, like why some people eat all they want and stay slim and why just by smelling food, I gain weight!

The Holy Trinity should be our guide to live in harmony, as one, regardless of the obvious differences that we may have and further, to seek unity in our diversity. We can explain what the Trinity “is not” but any finite explanation of what it “is” will fall short to the reality of what God really “is.”

In closing this homily, remember what our Lord God said to the Prophet Samuel as he went around to choose and anoint a new leader for Israel. “Do not look on appearance or on the height of his stature….for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (I Samuel 16:7).

I say “Amen” to that and I pray that the Holy Trinity bless all of God’s creation without exception and allow us to live in harmony regardless of our differences.

The Rt Rev. Leopold Frade is the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Southeast Florida. From a sermon preach on Trinity Sunday, June 3, at Trinity Cathedral, Miami FL. Shared with permission

When we encourage Bible reading

By George Clifford

The volume and variety of responses to my last Daily Episcopalian post, Encourage People to Read the Bible? Maybe not, suggest that I wrote about a vital and controversial issue. An essential follow on question is: How should Christians read the Bible? The answer to that deceptively simple question may help to identify differences between the norm and how Christians actually read, or recommend reading, the Bible.

For at least a century, The Episcopal Church (like most other Churches) has insisted that its seminarians learn the historical-critical method for reading and understanding the Bible. An implicit, if not explicit, premise of seminary biblical studies and other courses is that the historical-critical method is the preferred, if not the recommended or even the normative, approach to reading the Christian scriptures.

Yet, after graduating from seminary, many clergy default (revert?) to other ways of reading and interpreting scripture. Exegesis employing the historical-critical method is time-consuming hard work for which many parish clergy feel both under-prepared and unsure of its necessity or utility. Historical-critical exegesis can also challenge some long held and popularly cherished interpretations, e.g., the story of Jesus feeding the multitude reflects post-resurrection theology rather than factual history. Consequently, clergy tend to use scripture in daily morning and evening prayer (whether privately or as a public service), formation programs for children and youth, and adult studies in a manner that presumes that readers/hearers will understand the text’s meaning with little or no effort.

Presuming that casually reading (i.e., the devotional reading of texts not complemented by historical-critical study) scripture can be uplifting and formative but that preaching requires solid exegesis entails an oxymoronic dichotomy. On the one hand, scripture’s meaning is apparent and easily grasped when encountered in the context of a prayer office (apart from preaching). On the other hand, scripture’s meaning requires solid exegesis – even from a text that is part of the daily office lectionary – when expounded in preaching. A cynic might characterize this apparent inconsistency as clerical hypocrisy indicative of a lack of integrity or as clerical hubris indicative of believing laypeople lack the ability or faith commitment to master and use the historical-critical method.

My ruminations repeatedly prompted reflections on how other “people of the Book” (a Muslim phrase that includes Jews, Christians, and Muslims) read their scriptures. Unlike some people who attempt to straddle religious traditions, I’m very clear about my identity as a Christian. I’m a committed Christian, not a Jew or Muslim. On the other hand, unlike some Christians who think that we can learn nothing from other religions and non-Christians, I’ve often found that examining my beliefs and practices from multiple perspectives brings clarity and fresh insights.

Islam is riven by a sharp divide over how to read the Koran. Most Muslims today, as has been normative for centuries, read and interpret the Koran in the context of its history of interpretation. Various schools of jurisprudence (a term that reflects Islamic emphasis on the Koran, God's recitation to Mohammed, containing God's commands for people) provide the continuing conversations that help Muslims rightly understand what God's timeless words mean in the present.

In sharp contrast to that approach, Salafists believe that only the Koran and Hadith (the compilation of Mohammed’s words and actions not included in the Koran) are useful in understanding how people today should obediently submit to God. Salafist schools often teach only the Koran; well-meaning but ignorant instructors sometimes teach highly individualized interpretations as definitive. Unsurprisingly, these groups interpret Islam in ways that occasionally diverge radically from mainstream Islam.

For example, the Koran teaches that men and women should dress modestly. The Koran also instructs women to cover themselves with an outer garment when they leave their house. However, neither passage directs a woman to cover herself completely. Radical Islamists often require that women cover themselves completely based on Mohammed instructing his wives to hide behind a curtain. In keeping with longstanding Islamic tradition and jurisprudence, most Muslims believe that this latter guidance applied only to the Prophet’s wives, not to all women.

About 85% of Muslims are Sunnis, who have no authoritative clergy. Denying the value of centuries of Islamic juridical scholarship has multiplied individual interpretations and had the unanticipated result of producing extremist movements that include al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Turning back to Christianity, I find the analogues strikingly clear and horrifying. A few terrorist groups self-identify with Christianity, e.g., Operation Rescue, which targets abortion providers and bombs abortion clinics. These allegedly Christian groups, like their Muslim counterparts, justify their crimes with idiosyncratic readings of scripture. Mercifully, scripture study leads blessedly few Christians to become violent terrorists.

However, appallingly large numbers of self-identified Christians inflict terrible emotional and spiritual damage on others because they, like Muslim Salafists, reject their religion’s mainstream normative approach to reading and interpreting scripture in favor of individual interpretation guided by the Holy Spirit. These Christians include those who argue that women should be subordinate to men, all homosexual behaviors are sinful, effective child discipline requires generous and frequent doses of corporal punishment, and caring for the environment is unimportant.

No analogy is perfect. Christianity has had a dynamic, evolving approach to interpreting its scripture. Thankfully, the Church no longer regards allegory as a key interpretative principle. Yet from the second century forward, allegory figured prominently in reading and interpreting all of scripture. Similarly, after bruising controversies (e.g., with Galileo), the Church began to move away from a literal reading of the text toward a more complex reading informed by multiple disciplines (history, linguistics, psychology, science, philosophy, and so forth), tradition (i.e., a continuing conversation among God's people), and reason (to include experience).

I’m not arguing that scripture and its interpretation are properly the exclusive prerogative of the clergy. In any case, widespread literacy and access to the Bible and other materials prevent that from happening again. Nor do I want to adopt something akin to the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching magisterium.

I am arguing that Christians rightly use the historical-critical method to read and interpret scripture. Engaging in that endeavor requires effort and education; it also entails dialogue with the Christian community, directly (e.g., conversation) and indirectly (e.g., reading commentaries). I wonder what the Church might look like today if substantive biblical study that used the historical-critical method replaced the pabulum that widely passes for religious education. Every parish could, indeed should, regularly offer substantive, Bible study for all ages that teaches and uses the historical-critical method, empowering people to read and seek to understand scripture.

Judaism teaches that God gave the scriptures, particularly the Torah, to Israel. The scripture does not belong to an individual but to Jews collectively. Interpretation, therefore, belongs to the community rather than to individuals. Rabbis are not priests but Jews who have received an education in Torah, devoted themselves to the study of Torah, and to whom the Jewish community grants authority to teach because of that education and devotion. Judaism reads and interprets its scriptures through an ongoing dialogue between living rabbis conversing with scripture, dialogue with the rabbinical tradition of interpretation, and one another. This communal interpretive process explicitly recognizes that Jews today read the scriptures within a very different context than the one in which Israel received its scriptures from God.

Episcopalians, thanks be to God, are not Baptists or Pentecostals. Unlike many in both of those traditions, we believe in the importance of an educated clergy. We don’t ordain the uneducated, naively trusting God to guide them when they teach and preach. It’s time that we also believed in an educated laity. Only then will we honor both their calling as God's ministers and the Christian heritage of reading scripture informed by multiple disciplines, tradition, and reason.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings.

Encourage People to Read the Bible? Maybe not

by George Clifford

For years, I, like most clergy, frequently and indiscriminately exhorted Christians to pick up a Bible and read it. No more. I have realized that this advice, although well intentioned, is usually counterproductive, causing more disaffection from Christianity and guilt than spiritual growth.

The Bible, written over a period of more than one thousand years, contains multiple diverse worldviews, all of them foreign to twenty-first century life in the United States. The person who genuinely wants to understand the biblical text benefits by beginning with good introductions to both the Old Testament and New Testament. These provide overviews of important historical, linguistic, textual, and literary issues. Commentaries and Bible dictionaries offer more specific assistance related to particular passages.

In other words, to read the Bible with even a moderate level of informed comprehension, a reader needs to invest substantial time and effort in acquiring the knowledge and skills that seminarians generally learn in their first year or two of biblical studies. In contrast to the pseudo-scholars with their interlinear versions, developing the linguistic knowledge to appreciate and ponder the text in Hebrew or Greek requires even more years of work.

Beginning when I was in seminary over three decades ago, I have frequently heard seminarians lament the alienation and disaffection that they experienced as they began their biblical studies. Devotional reading of the Bible had nurtured their faith and often played an instrumental role in the spiritual journey that led them to seminary en route to seeking ordination. Now their academic studies challenged, if not actually contradicted, what they believed was the Word of God they had previously heard in their devotional reading of beloved texts.

Devotional reading of the Bible naively presumes that a person, by reading the text, will hear God speak. Meaning depends upon the reader’s modern worldview, the plain sense of the English text, and the reader’s existing theological biases.

Devotional reading was the pervasive approach among Bible reading Protestants – whether mainline Church members, evangelicals, or fundamentalists – to whom I ministered in the Navy. These good people considered themselves Christians in spite of both their theological ignorance and (being kind) eccentricities. They invariably and insistently assured me that the Holy Spirit guided their reading of Scripture, leading them into the truth and the correct understanding of Scripture. They almost universally believed that consulting scholarly resources such as commentaries and Bible dictionaries disadvantageously increased the distance between the believer and God.

Yet the sad truth is that a straightforward, uneducated reading of the text, even with a supposed assist from the Holy Spirit, presents most readers with an unfortunate choice.

On the one hand, the reader may uncritically accept the text as authoritative and adopt an unscientific (creation in seven days; people walking on water), unhistorical (hundreds of thousands of slaves exiting Egypt; the slaughter of innocents), and theologically bogus (God ordering mass slaughter; women subservient to men) reading.

Thoughtful readers find this choice uncomfortable, even unacceptable. It jars with the rest of what they have learned. But their faith is important to them. So they divorce their faith from other aspects of life, naively privileging Scripture as true. These readers may believe that God moved differently in Bible times than God does today. Alternatively, they may accept the dissonance between their faith and the rest of life, adopting one worldview in Church and another outside of Church, without reconciling the two. These readers tend to focus on the parts of the Bible that appear most readily understood and most congruent with the world (e.g., people generally read and study the gospels and Pauline epistles more than the prophets or Leviticus).

On the other hand, the reader may set the text aside as incomprehensible. Some who choose this option will abandon religion as anachronistic in the modern era, implicitly characterizing the chasm that separates them from the biblical text and worldviews as impassable. Other readers will cling to their faith in spite of the Bible, rarely read it, and feel guilty about both not reading the Bible and not finding it more inspiring when they do read it.

Unfortunately, the Episcopal Church is complicit in giving people this unfortunate choice. In sermons, confirmation classes, and other venues – most recently, a campaign to get people to read the Bible through in a year – we regularly encourage people to pick up the Bible and read it. Bible studies typically consist of the blind leading the blind: well-meaning, devout believers telling one another what God is saying to them through a particular text. Lectio divina is similar: listen to the text and hear the Holy Spirit speak to you.

We have largely failed to offer the substantive religious education programs that would empower people to read the Bible informed by the benefits of modern scholarship. (The four-year Education for Ministry program from the University of the South is a notable exception to this generalization.)

If we really believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God and contain all things necessary to salvation (Book of Common Prayer, 513, 526, 538), then the Church needs to get serious about Bible study. Classes for youths and adults could offer the substantive introduction to the Old and the New Testaments similar to those in seminaries but appropriately geared to level of academic achievement.

Ironically, encouraging devotional reading of the Bible, with its implicit promise of relatively effortless access to God, devalues Scripture and insultingly presumes that people lack the intellectual ability and spiritual commitment to engage in serious Bible study. As a constructive alternative, the Church could develop and promote a resource that presents the text alongside outstanding scholarship. William Barclay in his popular, although flawed, Daily Study Bible attempted such a project. Better yet, groups of Christians, after completing introductory studies, might gather for Bible study with commentaries, Bible dictionaries, historical references, and other resources.

Reading the Bible with understanding is hard work; perceiving God's light is even more difficult. Dumbing down the process demeans God's people, alienates many, and forms a dead church in the image of biblical literalism rather than the living God.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings.

Amanuensis and community

by Maria L. Evans

“There were times when I was amazed by my own boldness in expressing my views about the novel, and still more amazed by the indulgence with which a brilliant writer used to listen to these almost childish remarks and opinions.”
--Anna Grigorievna, transcriptionist for Dostoevsky's book The Gambler, from her Reminiscences

Not long ago, I began to realize in a new way that "Dictation and transcription" is fast becoming a lost art.

I'm pretty spoiled in my little office. I have a transcriptionist who has been translating spoken ruminations from behind microscopes into surgical pathology reports for over 40 years. Really, she knows what I say, and how I say it on the most common types of specimens, that on occasion she will stick her head in my office and go, "You said such-and-such on that skin lesion you dictated but when I heard the description, didn't you mean this-and-that?" and most often she is right. She and I also both have the skill of starting to read through an old report and, before we get to the signature line, know which pathologist signed out the case--even when it's an old case done by my former associates. We have both worked so long paying attention to what folks say and how they say it, we know things between the lines. I can go back through one of my present associate's reports and tell if she is feeling hesitant or edgy about a diagnosis. She can tell the same with me. There's an odd little intimacy in how we speak words for the world that betray bits and pieces of ourselves.

Modern voice recognition software, and transcriptionist work outsourced to transcription pools in India, is changing this into a less intimate production in some ways. Yet I can see a trend moving back to a few old things in communications in general--the business of speaking our words rather than keying or writing them.

Many of the memoirs penned until the invention of the typewriter were not penned at all--they were spoken to scribes. I even discovered a great term from antiquity for this function--amanuensis--from the Latin servus a manu, literally, "Slave at hand." The slave was literally supposed to write exactly what was said. I suppose, ideally, the slave was supposed to do this with no input, but my guess is it was more what Grigorievna described--or what my own transcriptionist does--stop and go, "Say WHAT?" I am sure a good amanuensis created a layer of community and accountability to the speaker. It might also surprise us that many cultures at the time of the Bible used female slaves as scribes. We tend to think of women of that time as largely unable to read and write, but for slave women, this was a pretty good job, I imagine, and it brings an interesting possibility to light--that some slave women became more educated via osmosis of their job description than the more privileged or "free" ones. The relationship they had with the person doing the dictating would possibly have been a position of influence.

Now, our modern permutation of this, via things like Dragon Dictation for the iPhone, doesn't do this (well, it does excise the curse words...) but it does bring back an old, almost lost distinction in communication--the notion that what communication that springs from our mouths is different than what comes from our hands.

What the modern permutation lacks, however, is what I'm going to call "the amanuensic process." Things like Dragon Dictation only have a twice-removed human layer in which the programmer worked on certain assumptions that may not be true in an individual case.

It dawned on me that when we read or study the Bible, we don't really consider the amanuensic process of how it came to be, very much. We also tend to forget that these stories were told to each other multiple times before anyone bothered to write them down. I think many of us have this notion that these words shot out of God's mouth into the author's ears and they were transcribed verbatim (in King James English, of course.) Even if we don't really believe that, it's a pervasive mindset that these were a series of solitary inspirations.

Thinking about the amanuensic process of how the Bible came to be, really opens up an interesting door in how we understand it. It means that from its very beginnings, this set of books that we come to regard as the heart, soul, and backbone of our faith, were forged in relationship with each other, even if these relationships carried a power differential. It also raises the reality that these relationships weren't perfect--I am almost certain there are probably spots in the Bible that are the equivalent of Celie spitting in Old Mister's lemonade from The Color Purple. But I'm just as certain that there are places where the "good scribe" looked up and said, "Are you SURE you want to say it like THAT?" and a discussion ensued, that made those words more understandable.

Could it be that, as we begin to return to the idea of speaking our words to the electronic scribes in our smartphones, that we are going to become more attuned to the relationships that created the words of the Bible? Could it be that this notion was the part of the Bible we were supposed to understand more fully rather than quibble about the words themselves? It's an interesting proposition, 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

Is the Kingdom of Heaven a Ponzi Scheme?

by Deirdre Good and Julian Sheffield

After Sunday's Gospel, the parable of the talents, we were having a discussion with the preacher about the text. I complimented her on the way her sermon engaged the complications of the text. She had encouraged parishioners to exercise even the smallest of their talent(s). What if, she said, your ability to make a meal fed the next Gandhi? Or your talent helped the next Dr Martin Luther King Jr.? Not all of us are given five or even two talents. But we all have some talent and the parable challenges us to do something with our gifts not just bury them. As we were talking, other parishioners went by in the background and complimented her on her sermon.

Our discussion moved to the fearful servant, the one who categorized his master as hard and opportunistic, an issue the preacher identified as being too difficult to address in this sermon. The master reproaches the servant for not acting even on the basis of what the servant knew about the master's nature. The servant could at least have banked the money and gotten some interest (even at a time when banking is in its infancy and usury is condemned).

My wife Julian then observed that Jesus never addresses the issue that is on all of our minds in the current economic climate, what if one of the bold servants, the one who had five or the one who had two talents, had actually lost money on his investment? Jesus doesn't seem to have much grasp on the uncertain nature of financial markets. Would this “hard” and opportunistic master have forgiven bad timing, weather that sank the ship invested in, a blight on the cotton crop, an epidemic of hoof and mouth disease in the herds? Would he have commended the servant that took the risk, even if the investment was diminished or lost entirely as a result?

Or look at the parable from another angle. The parable assumes 100% return on investment. But even in the best of markets, investors are ecstatic with 10%. So should we take it that these enterprising servants are phenomenally lucky? Insider traders? Or does Jesus just not have a clue about market forces and realistic expectations? Or is he assuming that these servants should become venture capitalists?

Julian's mentor of blessed memory Canon Edward N. West once related how a business man had come to him and said, “I keep praying and praying to St. Francis for guidance in my investments, and they keep failing! What am I doing wrong?” “And why would you imagine,” Canon West responded, “that St. Francis would know anything at all about making money?”

But imagine that Jesus did have a better grasp of market forces than St. Francis. Perhaps unrealistic expectations was what Jesus was driving at. Venture capitalists take huge risks, for potential huge returns or huge losses. At the beginning of the parable the first slave went off “immediately,” without hesitation, to trade. And at the end of the parable, the buried talent is taken from the timid slave and given to the slave who already has ten talents, and is now sharing in the master's joy. Is this parable more about having the faith to take huge risks for the sake of the kingdom, than it is about the need to make the best of what we have? Does God have unrealistic expectations of us? Or are we, perhaps, being encouraged to have unrealistic expectations of God?
Consider this: if we set out just to make the best of our talents, we are already limiting expectations, because we have a conception that there is an achievable “best.” But if we decide to take the risk of being in partnership with God, to invest in God's venture with everything we have, then the returns will be beyond our wildest imaginings. And the long-term risk of failure? Nil.

Better than a savings account, isn't it?

It's the stories that matter

By Maria L. Evans

All during my growing-up years, I never really could figure out why my great-grandmother Louise died in 1939.

The relatives told two drastically different stories. One version was, "She got stomach cancer, and it went everywhere." This was almost always immediately challenged by other relatives, who would interject, "No it wasn't! She had..." (and the speaker would invariably lower his or her head and speak in a hushed tone of voice this last phrase) "...female cancer."

I only knew two things about this growing up--that no one could agree how she died, and that even though I was not exactly sure what female cancer was, it must be worse than other kinds of cancer.

As I became a young adult, I learned a little more, but not much. I knew she had been taken to the then-brand-new Ellis Fischel Cancer Center in Columbia, MO and had "treatments." When I became a resident physician in pathology at the University of Missouri, I did several rotations over at Ellis Fischel, and found myself obsessed with discovering the truth of this story in my family. I am sure in my mind, as the first person to go to college, let alone medical school and become a doctor, I fantasized myself as this grand purveyor of the family truth--a truth that would somehow raise my status in the family and allow me some respect as a full-fledged adult member. I would no longer just be "the strange kid whose nose was always in a book."

Fulfilling this quest was not difficult at all--all of the Ellis Fischel patient records were in storage dating back to 1938--and what I discovered within the yellowed pages filled with Parker-style handwriting confirmed my educated medical guess. She had been opened up in an exploratory surgery and found to have metastatic cancer throughout her abdomen and pelvis. The multiple biopsies were examined and read out under the microscope by the pathologist there at the time, who postulated that the appearance of the tumor was most like that of a primary adenocarcinoma of the stomach. Both her ovaries were extensively involved by metastatic tumor.

I'm sure I swelled up with my own self-brilliance. I had postulated that she had a primary cancer of the stomach, which had metastasized to her ovaries--what we call a Krukenburg tumor.

I suddenly viewed myself as "the person who was going to settle this once and for all."

The next time I was around several of my relatives, and the subject came up, I literally stood up and announced, "Y'all have been arguing this one for years, and I'm just gonna tell you what happened." I made my proclamation with all the authority of someone giving grand rounds at a prestigious teaching hospital, expecting people to look, or at least, behave enlightened.

I was not prepared for the response. They just all looked at me, and muttered, "Oh." One of the relatives who was the most insistent that it was "female cancer," said, "See! I told you she had female cancer!" Despite my careful clarity in stating it originated in the stomach, the fact it was merely on her ovaries was enough for her to stick to her original statement.

But as they started talking, other stories emerged, and I began to see I was the one who was to become enlightened. The story was not about "what kind of cancer my great-grandmother had." The story really was about what happened to everyone else in the family and how they felt about Louise's death, and what carried over as a result of it in the next generation. It was an era when doctors didn't tell the person with cancer that they were going to die. Sometimes they didn't even tell them they had cancer (although her going to a state cancer center pretty much took that one off the table.) I discovered "what the story was about" was different for each older relative in the family. It was about the difficulties they had in knowing Louise was dying and Louise pretty much knowing she was dying and no one addressing it. It was about being sent home for a protracted, painful death that my grandmother had to watch as a 22 year old with a small child. It was about being unable to afford a visitation at the funeral home and "sitting up with the dead" and receiving visitors in her home. It was about my great-grandfather becoming meaner and more difficult in the remaining ten years of his life. I came to learn years later it was why, when my grandmother was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer, she became convinced that I was somehow going to block her from knowing her diagnosis. I still learn things about this story to this very day. What began as my quest to "shut everyone up, once and for all," turned out to open me to a never-ending set of discoveries.

To me, this is the crux of what reading the Bible, not just as an individual spiritual practice, but in a community of worship, is all about--revealing deeper stories within ourselves and to each other.

It's our tendency, I think, in this fact-based modern world, to dissect Biblical text in much the same way as I dissect surgical specimens grossly--cut it to shreds, examine the pieces, select the pieces we want to examine microscopically, and render our diagnosis upon it. Under that light of scrutiny, the Bible will always fail the exam. For those who hinge their faith upon the Bible being literal, as well as inspired, it will always require "one more proof," because there will always be someone out there who finds a new scroll, a new bit of archeological hoo-ha, or a new tomb that reveals an error or discrepancy. When we take the Bible apart with no regard for the history, the culture, or the factual knowledge base of the people for whom these writings are originally intended, it becomes no more than a quaint historical tchotchke--like viewing an iron lung or a rotary telephone. It did a lot of good once--but why would we ever want to use it now?

Yet, our Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer states that "God still speaks to us through the Bible" (p. 853,) and I certainly believe that. It's not to say we shouldn't dissect it--in fact, I think we should, and in fact, I do on a regular basis in my blogging, writing, and preaching. It is only in the process of dissecting it and naming the parts and seeing the parts strung all over that we come to realize what the Bible represents is actually more than the sum of the parts.

The core of the Bible, to me, that defines its synergistic nature is in the telling of the stories.

When one reads the stories individually, and in groups, we hear bits of our stories in its stories, and we can begin to relate the stories in community, and we discover it wasn't about the actual "facts" in the story at all. It's where the story took us, it's where we see our lives within them, and it's about how we proclaim them corporately as the church.

When we read the Bible as part of a daily spiritual practice, it doesn't matter how many times we've heard the story--we always hear something new if we allow ourselves to be open to the possibility. When we hear it proclaimed in the readings during worship, we hear it in another person's voice, in another's inflection and choice of emphasis. When we hear the homiletic response to these words, we hear the benefit of the experience, education and point of view of the person in the pulpit, and the same sermon takes each person in the pews to a different place, a different response.

It's why the mismatches in the four Gospels don't bother me anymore. I am simply hearing four different accounts of the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, rendered at four different times, for four different reasons. Spinning my wheels trying to bolster my faith by explaining the Resurrection scientifically would be a pointless exercise. Of course, any atheist worth his or her salt would simply say "that's because it didn't happen," and that's an equally pointless exercise. Frankly, if one doesn't believe in it, and it is not a part of what motivates one's life and behavior, it's a moot point. The assertion is only useful for "dissing" Christianity and Christians.

When I think back to my comparatively less formally educated relatives and the story of my great-grandmother's cancer, I have come to realize (and be grateful) that understanding every detail of a story is not a prerequisite to "understanding the story." If my faith required "proof," I would, indeed, be lost.

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

The grace of failure

By Sylvia Miller-Mutia

In my seminary, seniors had to take a course called “Issues in Ministry,” so we spent the better part of our final semester working in small groups on case planning strategies to face tough challenges that we’d soon encounter in ministry. By the end of the semester, each group was supposed to have developed a comprehensive evaluation and response to their case study—including a sermon series, an education series, a liturgical plan, etc., and each group was complete their assignment synthesizing their project into a thirty minute presentation for the rest of the class.

At last, when the time came for presentations, the first group moved to the front of the room and began setting up a cardboard stage. Then out came brown paper bags decorated to resemble the members of the group. (Well actually, there were puppets representing three of the four members of the group: one puppet held a bottle of pepsi; one puppet wore a pair of glasses; and one puppet was holding a baby. The fourth group member just wore a brown paper bag on his own head).

As the group members took their places behind the cardboard stage to begin their presentation, I thought to myself: A puppet show! What a clever idea. Why hadn't WE thought of that? My group hadn't planned anything nearly so creative for OUR presentation.

But they didn't begin by summarizing their case study.

And they didn't tell us about their exciting sermon series, or engaging educational series, or innovative liturgical plan.

Instead, each group member, in turn, told their story of the experience working with the group over the past months.

One challenge after another had disrupted the group's ability to work together and complete the project. There had been job interviews and family emergencies—a wedding; the death of a parent, the birth of a baby. There had been differences in communication styles, and learning styles, and working styles. There had been distances—generational and geographic—that proved impossible for the group to overcome.

The group had no project to report on. All they had to offer was the story of their frustration and their failure.

Their story was a costly gift to us. During the discussion that followed their presentation, one member of the group set aside her puppet to tell us, “We've made this experience seem kind of funny with our puppet show, but you need to know that this experience has been really, really painful. It’s one of the hardest things I've ever had to do.” But we learned more about “issues in ministry” from the halting story of that one group's failure than from the polished presentations of all the other groups combined. In their real pain and truthful account of failure, all of us found grace.

Saint Paul writes:
I did not come with any brilliance of oratory or wise argument to announce to you the mystery of God... I came among you in weakness, in fear and great trembling...(1 Corinthians 2:1, 3)

Paul speaks what that small group was feeling as they stood before our class. Could I have done what they did - coming in weakness and telling their story? I don’t think so. Unlike Saint Paul, I still have aspirations to “brilliance of oratory and wise argument.” And I have pretty strong aversion to failure.

I would have withdrawn from the class. Or taken an “Incomplete”.

Or, to be perfectly honest, I probably would have manically tried to single-handedly complete every facet of the group project on my own. And, in so doing, I would have robbed myself, my group, and our entire class of the chance to encounter grace.

One thing I’ve found profound since joining the ministry team at St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco is our congregation’s practice of “sermon sharing.” Week after week, members of the community stand up right after the sermon--often, I suspect, “in fear and great trembling”-- to share their raw, unfinished stories. They don't stand up to show off their great ideas, to offer brilliant oratory and wise arguments. They stand up to share the truth of our lives. Often we hear messy, broken, beautiful human truth. In the sacred space we create by offering and receiving these stories, we encounter grace. We give one another a tremendous (and sometimes costly) gift —and especially, I believe, we’re giving our best gift to the children and youth in our community as they struggle to make sense of their own experiences of failure.

Paul writes:
I was resolved that the only knowledge I would have while I was with you was knowledge of Jesus, and of him as the crucified Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:2)

So we look to an icon of human weakness and failure to discover the power of God; this is one of the truly bizarre things about Christianity. But the strange, troubling image of the crucified can also be tremendously liberating. Because the crucified Christ points us towards the truth that doing everything “right” can still end in apparent failure. And the crucified Christ points us towards the truth that apparent failure is not, in fact, our end. And I suspect that the crucified Christ points towards one more truth:

In Matthew's Gospel we read:
You are the light for the world. A city built on a hilltop cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp to put it under a tub; they put it on the lamp-stand where it shines for everyone in the house. In the same way your light must shine in people's sight, so that... they may give praise to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)

Isn’t this passage at odds with the passage from Paul? Do we come before the world and one another in weakness, or as bright shining lights? Which is it?

The crucified Christ points us towards the truth that it's both—that they are, in fact, the same thing. When the shell of our success, and competence, and apparent perfection begins to crack -- that's when our true light, the light that emanates not from our own accomplishments but from the tremendous power of God, can shine forth.

The very broken-ness of the crucified Christ offers us a way in to Jesus—and that same broken-ness allows the light of God to flow out of Jesus. And what’s true of Jesus is also true for us…it's actually the cracks in our shell that offer others a way into our lives...and allow the light of God to flow out into the world.

When followers of Jesus tell and listen to our own truthful stories of weakness and failure – like the bag puppets did for us in my class, we begin to see God’s light and power shining forth with unparalleled brilliance. And telling our story, makes us bold to tell a world tyrannized by devotion to strength and success the impossible, unimaginable hope we discover in Christ crucified.

The Rev. Sylvia Miller-Mutia, is Youth and Family Minister at St. Gregory's, San Francisco. She is a dancer, teacher and recently ordained priest who just began her ministry at St. Gregory’s.

Divine subversion

By Bill Carroll

When reading a familiar and beloved text like the Sermon on the Mount, we may despair of finding anything new to say about it. For here, Jesus speaks in a programmatic way about the central features of his message about faith, discipleship, and the Kingdom of God.

One, rather obvious way to read this sermon is to observe that it’s about the giving of a New Law. Just like Moses did on Sinai, Jesus climbs a mountain and gives us commandments. Unlike Moses, however, Jesus does not disappear into a cloud and reemerge with a message he’s received from God. Jesus is God. And so, he opens his mouth and speaks, beginning with the beatitudes, proclaiming God’s righteousness in all its fulness.

At one level, there’s nothing wrong with this interpretation. We could all stand to be reminded of God’s call to holiness from time to time. In human society, the claims of justice are seldom preferred to those of wealth and power. What is more, reading the sermon as an exhortation to the highest form of morality has the authority of many early readers of the Gospel behind it. Augustine, for example, observes that “If anyone will piously and soberly consider the sermon which our Lord Jesus Christ spoke on the mount…I think he will find in it, so far as regards the highest morals, a perfect standard of the Christian life.”

It’s a standard, of course, that has often been observed in the breach. Even in ancient times, wave after wave of Christians found they had to flee to the desert to try to follow the teachings of Christ. The desert monks, and many kindred spirits since, have sought to live out the Gospel without the compromises and evasions most of us settle for.

More often than not, however, they discover they’ve brought the world with them. Living the Gospel in its purity is easier said than done. Since Eden at least, there’s never been a golden age free from ambiguity and imperfection. Indeed, in large measure, that’s what the Incarnation is all about. Without removing the world’s imperfections, God subverts it from within. In this way, God’s power and wisdom confront the world as the weakness and foolishness of the cross.

We can learn this wisdom from saints of the past like Anthony, Francis, or Teresa—or from more recent examples like Dorothy Day or Martin Luther King. These men and women show us what the Gospel looks like in practice. Saints like these and the movements that form around them draw at least some inspiration from the Sermon on the Mount, the great manual on Gospel discipleship. They also make the cross of Christ visible in their time through suffering and martyrdom. Though many of them left behind a body of writings, some of them commenting directly on the words of Jesus, the ultimate commentary is holy living that follows in his steps. Truly, as Jesus says later in the sermon, whoever hears these words of his and does them is like the wise man who built his house upon a rock. Truly, these saints are the light of the world.

There’s a risk here, though—one at least as great as that of half-hearted discipleship. It’s that we reduce the Gospel to a rulebook. A new series of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots" adds to our guilt without changing our lives. Where, we might ask, is the Good News? Where do we find promise and hope in the beatitudes?

The first thing to note is that none of the beatitudes is, in fact, a commandment. Each is a blessing, stated not in the imperative but in the indicative mood. Rather than tell us what God commands us to do—he isn’t shy about doing that elsewhere by the way—Jesus begins by announcing what God is doing and is about to do. Rather than tell us we ought to become poor or meek or pure, Jesus tells us about the blessings that fall to those who already are, and then invites us to get in on the action.

In a recent Gospel, as Jesus begins to preach publicly, we hear him announce that the Kingdom of God has come near. Later, in the beatitudes, we catch a glimpse of what that Kingdom is like. It’s an upside-down Kingdom, where the last come first and the first, last. The peacemakers, the merciful, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness—everyone who comes dead last in a world ruled by violence, greed, and fear—these are the ones God is blessing. Those who are in first place now have cause for concern and repentance. Thank God that, as painful as the great reversal will be, there is new life for us all in the abundant mercy of God.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, says Jesus, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven. And this is Good News for the Ohio University staff member near the bottom of the ladder, drowning in debt and two payments late on the mortgage, living in fear of another round of layoffs (as a result of impending state budget cuts). Blessed is he, because God has heard his cry and sent Jesus to take up his cause. Blessed is he, because Jesus became a worker and showed us the way of solidarity, justice, and love. Blessed is he because Jesus has drawn near to him in mercy.

Blessed are those who mourn, says Jesus, for they shall be comforted. And this is Good News for the widow, struggling to make a new life for herself on the other side of loss. Blessed is she, because God is with her in strength and love. Blessed is she because Jesus has shared her grief, overcome death, and opened the way of everlasting life. Blessed is she because Jesus has drawn near to her in mercy.

Blessed are the peacemakers, says Jesus, for they shall be called children of God. And this is Good News for those scarred by the present reality or the awful memory of war. Blessed are they, because Jesus forgives their sins, binds their wounds, and bears their pain. Blessed are they, because Jesus endured the hostility of the world, made peace by his blood, and showed us the way of reconciliation. Blessed are they because Jesus has drawn near to them in mercy.

And so, as we hear these words, let us take them to heart, and look for those things that God is doing or is about to do among us. For it is by discerning and responding to the movements of grace that we open ourselves to God’s blessings in our lives. And let us remember (for we often forget or are told otherwise) that:

Blessed are we when we are humble or hungry or poor.
Blessed are we when we are merciful or gentle or compassionate.
Blessed are we when we are falsely accused or persecuted or practice costly forgiveness.
Blessed are we when we grieve or suffer or struggle.
Or hunger and thirst for justice in a world gone mad.

For then, in those very moments, we find that Jesus has drawn near to US in mercy.
Then, we discover that the Kingdom of God is at hand.

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.

Chosen to be a blessing?

By Kathleen Staudt

In his book A Generous Orthodoxy--the chapter on “Why I am Missional”--Brian McLaren, makes a point that opened up for me the whole tangled question of what it means to be “called and chosen” as the People of God. Crediting the theology of Leslie Newbigin, he reminds us that when God calls Abraham and promises to make of him a great nation, God’s purpose is that Abraham and his descendants will be a blessing to the world.

Though God’s language in this story is still very rooted in a tribal ethos, the promise is that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3) . They are called out from among the nations, not for special privileges, but so that God can work through them. And at its best, the covenant that God eventually calls them into is, by the standards of the time and place, a new way for people to be together in society, where just distribution of wealth and resources are assumed, family relationships honored, and right relationship between creatures and Creator is valued. At least that’s what the overall narrative reaches for, with its ongoing pattern of embracing and falling away from the covenant that God offers and keeps offering again. I think we can learn a lot be reading Scripture with this pattern in mind.

Like McLaren, and like Verna Dozier, (both of whom, like me, started their careers as readers & teachers of literature), I see this theme of “chosen-ness” as a part of the “arc” of the Biblical story -- perhaps of all the Abrahamic traditions in one way or another. The Biblical story is the story of a God who is engaged with and wants to work through human history. In Hebrew Scripture God does this through the Torah, and the narrative tells of the waxing and waning of the people’s faithfulness, and all the consequences of that. It goes all the way through the story of exile and return, when the people, repentant and redeemed, see themselves again as being called to be “a light to the nations.” And then for Christians, the New Testament offers another take on Hebrew Scripture, through the lens of our call to follow the Way of the Risen Christ. (*Just a note that I hope may avoid some detour in the comment threads: I honestly think that it is possible to embrace this reading without being supersessionist, i.e., without arguing that the call of Christ somehow displaces or negates the call of the Israelites to be the people of God. I hope that the way of reading I propose does not necessarily makes us complicit with the damage this misreading of scripture has done through history. Rather, I think it helps us toward faithfulness to read Scripture at least in part as the story of a God who calls people into covenant and acts in human history. It is a particular and radical theology and it is at the heart of the Biblical story. The New Testament may be our chapter of that story, as Christians, but we need to embrace the whole story.)

In the gospels, we also have stories of calling and again the call is not to special privileges but to participation in a mission – the bringing in of the kingdom, the reign of God. The fishermen become “fishers of men” in Mark and Matthew. When Jesus is bidding farewell to his disciples in the fourth gospel, he says “you did not choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you to bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commandments so that you may love one another.” (John 15:16-17). This is not the conferring of special privilege or magical powers, but a commissioning to a new way of life that will touch and transform human communities.

Obviously I’m picking and choosing passages here – (I hope it isn’t “proof-texting: -- just suggesting some themes that thread through the Biblical story and help to make it our own). When there’s language about God’s call in Scripture, we may want to resist our contemporary inclination to read everything individualistically and consider that in the context of the story, being called and chosen is usually about becoming part of ( or even leading) a new kind of human community, bearing the cost of this, and becoming in some way an example to the world on God’s behalf. True, Christians as a body have not always been a blessing to the world -- we’ve certainly been known to appropriate and distort the language of chosen-ness in destructive ways. But I think it’s important to revisit the idea and try to understand it in a fresh way, rather than to throw it out as contaminated by our past. Just because we’ve failed to live up to it doesn’t mean that the call to become God’s people and to be a blessing has gone away.

Most of us cringe at language about chosen-ness because of all the attention that has been given in theological discussions to more individualist questions about who is and is not chosen and what it might mean not to be chosen. Paul struggles over this himself - and comes to a ringing, hopeful conclusion when he says that in Christ “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus .” (Galatians 3:28) It may just be “human nature” to turn a story that it mainly about what it means to be called “the people of God” , , into a story about us and them, who’s in and who’s out. It happens within the story itself, many times. Nevertheless, I think we’re meant to pay more attention to what we’re called for and to, if we see ourselves as part of the Biblical story, than to worry much about who is in and who is out and how God makes that choice, questions which have occupied us perhaps too much in Christian theologizing. . “Your way of life must be different from that of others,” writes that early Christian reformer St. Benedict, “the love of Christ must come before all else.” That is still a Biblically- based reading, related to this understanding of being called and chosen. McLaren’s take on the call to “be a blessing” as the basis for a missional theology offers us a liberating way to read Scripture as a story that is in some sense our story. He uses it as the basis for his claim that the church’s call is “to be and to make disciples of Jesus Christ, in community, and for the sake of the world.” And so this way of reading Scripture provides a fresh lens for asking what the Church is called and chosen to be, as the people of God in the real world of the 21st century.

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 holy innocents

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.

Jesus is born

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Read the Psalms. Write a psalm

By Leo Campos

What do we use language for? In a church setting how is language used? On Sundays what is th elanguage you use, and how does it compare to your Monday language? We tend to think of language as this “thing” that points to an experience. The experience (“Look at this tree”) is “out there” and language points us to it (“looking”, “tree”). But language itself is an experience. If you are trying to be fully present to this moment you should get lost in the experience of language itself.

Church language, BIble language is also a vaccine. It contains some agent (words) that resembles the disease (divorcing ourselves from God’s Reality, the Fall, Babel as well) . Vaccines are made from weakened or killed forms of the disease. So good word-vaccines are made of neutralized strong emotional statements (“dash the babies against the rock”). Strong vaccine! But it is neutral in the sense that it is not my experience or my actions which are described, so it gives me an “out” a way to not get too involved. And yet these are all actions I could (and probably would) commit in the right circumstances.

So through skillful use of language we can overcome the poison which is language. Thus a common exercise is to read the psalms over and over. They are a vaccine against our crass use of language. They refine and purify our own language until all we say and all we hear is psalm.

For example here is a vestry psalm (no resemblance to my wonderful colleagues at my vestry):

Have been having some issues with the leaders The vestry is full of barking dogs They prowl around growling, keeping everyone in line They bite with their teeth, they hit everyone with their rules They prod the people with their regulatory spears What are your “job duties” they ask? We will tell you what God says! O God I dislike interlopers who say “You are not godly unless...” Lord come quickly and rid us of all these rule-mongers Why can’t people just trust in your love? They email me harsh words, make demands But I want only to have space to be with you In the silence of the evening I want to sit Content as a chick waiting for you

And here's a psalm about looking forward to a massage:

After the work of days and days After the tending of data, planting of reports, the cycle of meetings Today O Lord I get to be tended. Please Lord God of Life do not let me be disappointed. Let their hands be skillful who will tend your servant Lord, I cry out to you let their hands be supple With a stronger body O lord I will sing for joy and give you praise!

You will find much in your own life which is psalmody, if you listen carefully to language, and become a prayerful presence to your own life.

Brother Leo Campos is the co-founder of the Community of Solitude (www.communityofsolitude.com), 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).

The shepherd at the font

By Bill Carroll

The fourth Sunday of Easter is often called Good Shepherd Sunday, because at the Eucharist we hear from the tenth chapter of John. As I prepared to preach about the lessons appointed this year, I was struck by a piece of writing our Music Director shared with me, a brief paragraph from a series that some congregations use for liturgical education. It notes that, in the second and third centuries, the figure of the Good Shepherd was the single most common visual representation of Jesus in Christian baptisteries.

Now, at one level, I think I knew this. I've certainly seen examples of a young and beardless Jesus carrying a lamb. But I had never made the generalization. In the churches of the period, Christ the Good Shepherd is portrayed next to the baptismal font more often than any other theme.

This is no accident. Holy Baptism is the great sacrament of union with Jesus, who lays down his life for the sheep. In baptism, we renounce evil and commit ourselves to follow him. In the Bible, the image of the shepherd is a royal one. By being baptized, we acknowledge the sovereignty of Christ the King. At the same time, however, the image of the Good Shepherd reminds us of fundamental promises of the Gospel. In the words of Henry William Baker’s famous hymn, a paraphrase of the Twenty-Third Psalm:

In death’s dark vale I fear no ill With Thee, dear Lord, beside me; Thy rod and staff my comfort still, Thy cross before to guide me.

The Lord Jesus is indeed our Shepherd. We know him and follow his voice. He reassures us in times of danger, fights off the wolves, and leads us safely home.

Most often in recent years, I've heard about the Good Shepherd at funerals, where we also read from the tenth chapter of John. The Psalm appointed for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, as well as the beautiful vision from Revelation, are also frequently chosen for funerals, especially in a parish like ours, which is named for the Good Shepherd. In the liturgy of Christian burial, we remember our baptism. As we lay our loved ones to rest, we call to mind their union with Christ, who died for us and rose again. We commend them to God in the "sure and certain hope of the resurrection." And we envision Jesus leading them by the hand into paradise.

Even when the Good Shepherd Gospel is not read at a funeral, the liturgy itself evokes this powerful image: "Acknowledge we humbly beseech you," we pray, "a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming." The bond between Christ and his own cannot be broken. Not by sin. Not by death. In life and in death, we belong to Jesus, the risen Lord. Again, to cite the same beloved hymn:

The King of love my Shepherd is, Whose goodness faileth never, I nothing lack if I am His And He is mine forever.

How blessed are we to belong to such a Shepherd! Indeed, his goodness is abundant, and it never runs out. His mercy is everlasting, and his faithfulness endures from age to age.

It is through our union with Jesus, sealed in Holy Baptism, that we lay claim to the promises God made to John of Patmos in the Book of Revelation. For the Lamb who was slain has become our Shepherd. He is the firstborn of the dead, who lives and reigns forever—from the very throne of God.

Here and now, in this life, we contend with toil, sickness, loss, and death. Over time, they take their toll on us. They even overcame Jesus himself for three sad days. But the day of God is surely coming. With Easter, it has already begun. On that day,

We will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike us,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be our shepherd,
and he will guide us to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

Even now, the Shepherd is with us. May we hear his voice and follow. For we belong to Jesus. And NOTHING can snatch us from his hand.

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.

Rehabilitating the image of the Magdalene

By Beatrice Gormley

On social occasions people always politely ask me what I’m writing. These days, I tell them my latest book is a young adult novel about Mary Magdalene.

Some are startled. “This is a book for young people? But she was a prostitute.”

I gently disagree: nothing in the Gospels indicates that Mary of Magdala was ever a prostitute. The legend of her as the archetypal repentant sinner grew up several centuries after her death. I’m tempted to explain in more depth, but if I go on to summarize a close reading of the Gospels, plus an overview of early church history, the other person is likely to excuse himself and head for the bar.

On the other hand, some people react in quite a different way. An intense light comes into their eyes. “I’ve always been fascinated with Mary Magdalene,” they say. Clearly, whether they know a little or a lot about Mary, they feel a personal connection with her.

For a long time, I have to admit, I was one of those who accepted the traditional legend of Mary uncritically. I didn’t think much about Mary of Magdala. I only began to change my mind while studying the Gospels for a class. Going over Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John line by line, I learned that Mary the prostitute was nowhere to be found in the text.

But—then what was the basis for all the famous Magdalenes in religious art, such as Veronese’s painting of a remorseful (but bare-breasted) young woman, or Donatello’s statue of a hideously aged but spiritually purified hermit? What about Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation of Christ, or the many film versions of Jesus’ life that depicted Mary as a prostitute? They could all be traced back to the sixth-century sermon in which Pope Gregory I conflated Mary of Magdala with other women in the Gospels, and identified her as an iconic repentant sinner.

This “penitent whore” legend obscured the already faint knowledge of what was really important about Mary: She must have been a key disciple in Jesus' following. Otherwise, the Gospel writers wouldn't even have mentioned her name. They wouldn’t have described Mary and other women disciples as having the courage to witness Jesus’ crucifixion, while the male disciples hid. Mary, in particular, was so close to Jesus that according to Mark and John, she was the first to see the risen Christ.

By the time Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code was published, I knew enough about Mary of Magdala to be really irritated by his portrayal of her. Although Brown rejected the traditional concept of Mary as a whore, it was only to substitute the idea that she was Mrs. Jesus, the “vessel” that bore his child. One could write volumes discussing how much is wrong with this, including the ludicrous idea that Jesus passed on his spiritual power through his genes.

Meanwhile, I had been busy writing historical novels based on stories in the Bible. Those Bible stories! They’re some of the most dramatic tales ever told, full of passionate love, deadly jealousy, overweening pride, devastating loss. But many of them are tantalizingly sketchy about the female characters, practically begging to be expanded and fully imagined.

I wrote into novels the stories of several of those young women: Miriam, about the girl who saves her brother Moses from Pharaoh’s soldiers; Adara, about the Israelite slave girl in General Naaman’s household who connects him with the prophet Elisha; Salome, about that girl who danced for the head of John the Baptist. But I’d never considered Mary of Magdala for one of my books, because I thought she was too old.

Then, casting around for an idea for my next novel, I asked my friend Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick for suggestions. Her answer was instantaneous. “Obviously, Mary Magdalene.”

Before I could object that my teenaged readers weren’t going to go for a story about a middle-aged church lady, something clicked in my brain. I was still harboring an unexamined assumption about Mary: that she was older than Jesus. In fact, Mary may not have been even twenty when Jesus and his followers set out on that last journey to Jerusalem. So my story of Mary could cover her life from preadolescence to young adulthood and still include her encounter with Jesus. My story would answer the question, what kind of girl was she? By what rocky journey did that girl grow into an extraordinary spiritual leader?

Writing a novel is all about challenges. A particular challenge of this novel, since I intended to stick as closely to the historical record as possible, was that there was almost no solid information about Mary of Magdala. Only a few sentences in the Gospels, plus the later, extracanonical Gospels of Mary, Thomas, and Philip. All my other research had to be indirect, carefully constructing possibilities about Mary from what was known about life in first-century Galilee. I examined many scholarly speculations (some of them contradictory) about Mary’s background and decided which ones seemed most plausible, as well as most useful for my story.

A different kind of challenge, in Mary’s story, was daring to portray Jesus. It seemed presumptuous, almost sacrilegious, to write about the way he might have looked, might have talked, might have acted with his followers. I had to keep telling myself that Yeshua of Nazareth was, after all, a historical person. It was my function as a novelist to imagine his physical presence. In order for a character in a novel to come to life in the reader’s mind, the writer has to provide details about that person.

Illogically, I also worried about the effect on my faith, if I succeeded in describing a convincing Jesus. Would that trivialize him in my eyes? Would that make him small enough to fit inside the covers of a book?

I had to point out to myself that I was not, after all, trying to write a definitive biography of Jesus of Nazareth. I was not trying to understand him. I was writing Mary’s experience of knowing Jesus, the man who healed her and transformed her life. Poisoned Honey would be the story of Jesus’ effect on Mary, and I was qualified to imagine that. I know many people who have been healed and transformed by faith, including myself.

And I felt strongly drawn to defend Mary, maybe the most misunderstood person of the Bible. I know that a good story can be more convincing than all the scholarly arguments in the world. I wanted very much to tell what I thought was Mary of Magdala’s real story: An idealistic young woman, blocked by her social environment from developing her gifts, suffers and struggles but finally finds her mission as a close disciple of Jesus. This is the Mary of Poisoned Honey.

Beatrice Gormley is the author of many novels and biographies for young readers, including Poisoned Honey: A Story of Mary Magdalene. (Knopf, 2010, ISBN 978-0-375-85207-7) She is a parishioner at St. Andrew’s by-the-Sea, Little Compton, RI. Her website: www.beatricegormley.com.

"Come and see": an excerpt from Jesus Freak

An excerpt from Jesus Freak by Sara Miles

By Sara Miles

Jesus who is utterly, dirtily human; Jesus who just wades into the water and accepts the divine Spirit coming to dwell in his flesh. As it will, through him, come to dwell in us.

And how do we know this? Come and see, says Jesus, kicking off his public ministry after his baptism. It’s a statement that’s got more than a little dare in it; more than a little edge. This is the Jesus that our rector Paul and I started referring to as ‘‘the Boyfriend.’’ We used it as a colloquial version of the ancient Christian name of ‘‘Bridegroom’’ for Jesus, but it felt more personal—and funny, if a little disturbing, because that’s how Jesus is.

In the Gospel story, Jesus asks two of John’s disciples what they’re looking for, and Andrew politely says, ‘‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’’ Then the Boyfriend says, simply, come and see. In this story we learn what Jesus is like, and how he sees us, and what he’s going to ask of us, the disciples. How our relationship is going to be.

Right away, the Boyfriend makes clear where he’s staying. He is staying with us. On earth. Period. And he’s inviting us to come and see what it means to abide in a human body in the world. The Boyfriend is moving in. So what’s he like? One, he’s promiscuous. Because Jesus is the kind of boyfriend who’ll go with anyone. He picks up John’s disciples. He chats with strangers. He’ll even flirt with two brothers at the same time—he has no shame. Jesus talks to anyone: Jews, Gentiles, women, children, foreigners. He’s soft on them. He touches them. He calls them by name.

Two, the Boyfriend is a bit of a troublemaker. He likes to stir things up. In the conventional order, only members of Aaron’s royal family get anointed to the priesthood in an exclusive temple ritual. But Jesus goes to John, the mad prophet, instead. Jesus wades right in and comes up shining, and then he starts getting everyone else riled up. Okay, ready or not, he says, let’s go: come and see.

Jesus isn’t the kind of boyfriend, in my experience, who’s just going to smile and be agreeable. He’s the thrilling, scary Boyfriend who’s going to dare you to do things you’d never dreamed of, shower you with unreasonable presents, and show up uninvited at the most embarrassing times. Then he’s going to stick with you, refusing to take the hint when you don’t answer his calls.

In the story of Andrew, Jesus is just beginning his love affair with all humankind. That first baptism in the Jordan will lead to baptisms of fire, tears, the cup, and the cross; Jesus will submit and go under it all, falling and coming up, dying and rising, and he will never, ever, let his lovers go.

But to start, Jesus simply looks at us. He sees us, face to face. And what he sees about us—his confused, doubting, selfish followers—is that we, too, are beloved children of God. That we, dumb and dim as Andrew, as Peter, as any crushed-out ninth-grade girl or sulky teenage boy, are part of the Boyfriend’s body: one flesh with him, and with all humankind.

Oh, my dears, says the Boyfriend. This is how it’s going to be from now on. All those other discipleships are over, because I’m here now, for good. This is what our relationship is going to be like: I love you, and you love me and each other. Come and see.

Jesus doesn’t make us obey by claiming the mantle of religious authority or worldly power: he meets us at someone’s ordinary house, at four in the afternoon. He doesn’t ask us to prepare and purify ourselves: he takes us as we are. This Boyfriend is not a big talker. He just invites us, without exception, into experience. It’s a dare, and it’s a promise. Come and see, he says.

Our Boyfriend insists on staying with people. He abides with us in the lowliest places, kisses the most despised sinners, sticks around for the worst messes humans can make. And even when we doubt the love, even when we wreak jealous violence on his other beloveds, even when we try to break up, the Boyfriend is still there. He still wants us to touch him, eat him, become him.

Because the thing about Jesus, the story turns out, is that he believes in us, the people who betray his love, just as he believed in Andrew and poor frightened Peter. Jesus trusts that humans have the power to truly see him ourselves. He believes that our mortal bodies, our experiences here on earth, are enough to bear and hold God. He knows we can find him in our own flesh, and in the flesh of others.

Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Jesus Freak by Sara Miles. Copyright © 2010 by Sara Miles.

Fox in the henhouse

By Greg Jones

At the end of Luke 13, Jesus takes us from Jerusalem – that city of ancient holiness and evil – goodness and sin – faithfulness and idolotry – and he puts us on the farm. Out in the yard. Jesus, the cosmic storyteller by whose Word the World takes shape, presents the whole history of God’s people as what goes on in the henhouse. He paints a Gospel picture we can all remember, when the going gets rough.

In that Gospel picture, we see Herod, the vile puppet of pagan Rome, who defiled the Temple and Jerusalem by his own shocking ungodliness, who killed children, members of his own family, and the great prophet John, and who represents the powers and principalities of evil which do indeed run this world. Jesus calls him, ‘the sly fox.’ We see Jerusalem, the city of God, the place where God’s beloved are supposed to dwell in peace – which represents Creation itself – intended to be a kingdom of God – a Garden of Eden – but which is instead the divided and conquered realm of that sly fox himself – the devil. Jesus likens it to a henhouse. We see the Israelites – the people of God, called to a covenant of promise, of steadfast love of God, neighbor and self – who represent everybody who wants to be a of God and heir to hope. Jesus calls them to baby chicks. We see Jesus himself – who loves us – whose will and purpose is to gather up God’s people and shelter us from evil and death. He likens himself to a Mother Hen. Then we are reminded what Jerusalem does to the prophets. We are reminded of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem – “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” – an entry not into power – but into sacrifice and pain – and into the very jaws of the fox himself.

All told, the Gospel picture is pretty simple: Jesus is the Mother Hen who sees the Fox in the henhouse – slyly luring chicks to follow him. To save them, the Mother Hen will cover her chicks under her wings, knowing what the fox will do to her instead. This is what Jesus is talking about: The love of God who will offer up his own earthly life so we might live heavenly ones.

This passage from Luke 13 is about us. We are in Jerusalem. We’re living in a place that’s supposed to be good, holy and peaceful – but it’s not. It’s not because evil is around – and in. The fox is in the henhouse, and he’s looking to eat some chicks. And what’s worse, that sly fox has tricked us into thinking he’s here for us; and like baby chicks who imprint on the first thing they see when hatched, and think it’s their mama, we have imprinted our focus on the sly fox. We follow around the personalities, values, and politics of the world more than we follow the light of God. Like the ancient Israelites, we’re more caught up in the power of Rome and King Herod than in the humble grace of God. We’re like baby chicks in a henhouse following the fox around, and he’s smiling all the way home.

But, the Good News is that God knows this: God knows we can’t tell the fox from the hen. And so he’s come to gather us up – and to die for us – because that’s what it takes to save us from the fox’s fire. The fox is the one who doesn’t want what’s best for us, yet we are all following that fox around, everyday. Power, glory, pride, things of this world, self-satisfaction, security, honor, social respect, these are the fox's enticements. Run from the fox! Christ is the mother hen who gathers up her chicks under her wings – offering her life for theirs. Take shelter under her wings!

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.

A trip that changed my life

By Deirdre Good

How often can you say of a trip: it changed my life? I can say it of our recent visit to Turkey. I touched the Hellenistic and Roman worlds of Asia Minor, and because I saw where Paul was, where the cities of Revelation are, and where John and Mary may have been, these two thousand year old New Testament texts now seem new and alive.

We traveled from Izmir (ancient Smyrna) on the western coast of Turkey to Istanbul through Ephesus, Sardis, Pergamon, and ancient Troy, approaching Istanbul from the north. On the first day we went south to Miletus. We stood in the theatre where Paul, according to Acts 20, made his farewell speech. And we were able to calculate later how long the author of Acts envisaged it would take the Ephesian elders to get there and to return home knowing they'd never see Paul again. Two days later we gazed sadly at ruined buildings in Thyatira thinking of the judgment of Revelation 2:18-23 and wondering who "Jezebel" might have been. And who was the Lydia (Acts 16:14) of Thyatira offering Paul hospitality? Where did she live? In Sardis, we were awed by the central location and size of the synagogue. On the acropolis in Pergamum, we looked out across the valley at the sweeping view and just below us at the empty place where the Pergamum altar (now in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin) had once been and we wondered if it would have survived without being moved.

What about Ephesus? Everyone should see it before they die. Now a UNESCO world heritage site, Ephesus is one of the wonders of the ancient world. To visit Ephesus is to grasp what an ancient Hellenistic city looks like: you can walk down ancient intersecting streets. I've been down Roman roads in Europe. And I've been on Roman roads that intersect with other Roman roads but these roads are built up into modern streets. I've never been on Hellenistic streets that intersect with other ancient Hellenistic streets so that when you walk down them you can turn left or right at the end and keep walking.

At Ephesus, the main street is the Arcadian way. It is 100 feet wide and paved with marble slabs. At night it was lit by lanterns. Adjacent Curetes Street is named from the Curetes (priests serving Artemis) who guarded the sacred fire of the hestia (hearth). The most beautiful building on Curetes Street is the Temple of Hadrian (117-138 CE).

Halfway down is perhaps the most photographed building in Ephesus--the Library of Celsus built in 135 CE by Julius Aguila in memory of his father, Celsus, who was a Roman senator and governor-general of the province of Asia. Thousands of parchments and papyri were stored here long before books were thought of.

Opposite the Hadrian Temple we saw several of the best-preserved Roman houses for the elite in Asia Minor. Many had interior courtyards restored to show heating systems and clay pipes. On the floors are mosaics and on the walls are rich interior decorations including blue frescoes of birds and fish. Further on down opposite Harbor Street is the largest theatre in Asia Minor seating 25,000 people. Acts 19 locates the silversmiths of Ephesus there chanting, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians!" in opposition to Paul. We would have read the passage out loud in the theatre if it hadn't been raining.

Our group was composed of religious professionals for whom sacred sites were important. Some of us prayed with Muslim women at the house of Mary, a place of religious devotion in the hills above Ephesus. At nearby Selçuk we visited the church of John where John apparently took Jesus' Mother after the crucifixion to live out her days. In Istanbul, we spent hours in the former Byzantine church and mosque of Aya Sofia, now a museum. Scaffolding that had been on the walls for seventeen years had just been taken down. In the restoration of murals, a face of one of the seraphim had recently been revealed which our Muslim guide could hardly wait to see. Others of our group visited a display of sacred objects in a museum in the nearby palace of Topkapi. While the imam chanted verses from the Qur'an and vast crowds shuffled past each glass display case, we gazed at a footprint of Mohammed and at the rod Moses used to part the Red Sea.

We spent our final days in Istanbul. Istanbul is an international city at one and the same time both European and Asian, both secular and religious. The muezzin outside our hotel window called the faithful to prayer each morning. Shopping and drinking tea in the Grand Bazaar is like no other shopping experience in the world. The cash machines offer Turkish lira, Euros or dollars. But it's the same everywhere. Even in the smallest villages, everyone makes change in lira, Euros or dollars. Turkey has something for everyone. I'd go back there in a heartbeat.

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 contribution of the lone translator

By Deirdre Good

Take a look at the Bibles on your bookshelf. Which are the ones you read again and again? Many of us read the New Revised Standard Version, and the King James of course, but alongside these, we value translations by individual authors. On my own shelves, for example, I read Tyndale daily, and I often read Everett Fox's Five Books of Moses and Robert Alter's translation, The Book of Psalms.

Individual authors have been translating the Bible for centuries, but their work has little authority. From the Septuagint in the 2nd Century BCE to the King James translation of 1611, it is not translations by individuals but by committee that are authoritative. Individual translations of the Bible, however, have a vitality that just doesn't appear in the work of translation committees. So renditions of the Bible by individuals are crucial to the dynamism of the text. In this article, I'm going to explore the rationales some individual authors give for their Bible translations and the authority of their work both immediate and derived.

Jerome, perhaps the earliest individual translator, the patron saint of translators, revised Old Latin manuscripts on the basis of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts he gathered at the request of Pope Damasus in 382. His revision, the Vulgate, became the bible of the western Church. Jerome's theory of scriptural translation favored a rendering by sense over semantic equivalence (i.e. word for word). Augustine argued unsuccessfully that Jerome's rendering needed to be subjected to the scrutiny of other scholars to be authoritative. The first book to be printed in 1455 from the press of Gutenberg at Mainz was the Vulgate. The printing of quantities of identical copies gave additional authority to the Vulgate.

John Wycliffe created the first translation of the whole bible from the Vulgate into English between 1380 and 1384. He wanted people to have access to the word of God in a language they could understand. A less literal and more readable revision by John Purvey was completed in 1408 but the then Archbishop of Canterbury banned the use of all unlicensed Bible translations a year later. It's worth noting that in these two different translations we see a distinction still operative today between a more literal-formal translation and a more idiomatic or functional one. After his death, Wycliffe's bones were removed from sacred ground because of his translation work. Henry De Knyton, a scholarly monk, complained that Wycliffe made the gospel "vulgar and more open to the laity, and even to women who can read."

Erasmus produced in 1516 the first printed New Testament in Greek. In parallel columns he set out his own revisions of the Vulgate on the basis of the Greek text and he included detailed annotations explaining his proposed changes. Erasmus wanted to return the Bible to the heart of Christian life and reconnect theology to its biblical roots. Theologians and churchmen saw his work as undermining their authority, although that was not his intention.

William Tyndale encountered Erasmus' Greek and Latin New Testament as the basis for Luther's New Testament and he sought permission from Bishop Tunstall to translate the New Testament into English. When Tunstall refused, Tyndale went to Europe and from Germany produced a New Testament in English in 1526 and again in 1534. In 1530 he produced the Pentateuch and in 1537 Joshua to 2 Chronicles and Jonah. Tyndale emphasized God's law, that is, scriptural authority over the authority of the church. He translated the Greek word _ekklesia_ as "congregation" in Matthew 16:18 (as Erasmus before him had done) thus excluding a reading of papal primacy from the passage. Sir Thomas More described Tyndale as "a drowsy drudge drinking deep in the devil's dregs" intent on destroying Christian tradition. Tyndale's martyrdom and the incorporation of his translation into the King James version gives his work a derived authority.

In 1876, Julia Smith (1792-1886) published at her own expense a translation of the Bible that she had worked on for twenty years. From an educated family, she learnt Greek and Latin and then proceeded to teach herself Hebrew. Arguing that the King James translation was not literal enough, she translated "word for word, giving no ideas of my own" the Greek New Testament and Septuagint, together with the Hebrew Bible. By the end of her life she made a total of five translations.

In 1875, Smith was interviewed for the New York Sun. She describes her method: "I have used only the lexicon and, of course, have looked up the King James translation, but I have consulted no commentators. It was not man's opinion that I wanted as to construction or rendering, but the literal meaning of every Hebrew word that I wrote down, supplying nothing and paraphrasing nothing…" In her translations, she specifically eliminated all the italicized words of the King James' version. "Let every reader supply them for himself, as these translators did," she added. Smith's work is unjustly neglected.

Of 20th Century individual translations, that done by J. B. Phillips in 1947 is noteworthy. He had encountered young people for whom the language of the New Testament was completely obscure. So he sought to render Paul's letters into language he hoped would induce the same reaction as those first reading them might have felt. C.S. Lewis appreciated his work and argued in an Introduction that the immediacy and simple character of the Greek was better conveyed by such a translation than by the now-archaic rendering of the Authorised Version (the King James version of 1611). Phillips said that his goal was to make a translation "not sound like a translation at all."

A white southerner, Clarence Jordan translated Paul's Epistles in the Cotton Patch Version (1968) thus: "we go right on proclaiming a lynched Christ" (I Corinthians 1: 23). He explains, "It may be that 'lynched' is not a good translation of the Greek word which means 'crucified.' Christ was legally tried, if we may call it that, and officially condemned to death. So, technically speaking, it was not a lynching. But anyone who has watched the operation of Southern justice at times knows that more men have been lynched by "legal" action than by night-riding mobs. Pilate publicly admitted that his prisoner was being lynched when he called for a basin and washed his hands of official responsibility. If modern judges were as honest, then 'lynching' would be an appropriate translation of 'crucifixion.'"

Jordan believed that words and also context had to be rendered. So in the Cotton Patch New Testament, Jew and Gentile became "white man" and "negro." By rewriting the gospel in this southern idiom, Jordan made the reader a “participant” in the text. Thus the gospel is present reality, not past history. In Jordan’s rendition, the Good Samaritan is black, and good. It is the good person who through unlimited love opposes cultural stereotypes.

Something entirely different happened in 1995. Everett Fox produced the Schocken Bible as a translation of the Five Books of Moses. Influenced by the work of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig in translating the Bible into German, Fox's more formal translation seeks to draw the reader into the world of the text by replicating the patterns of spoken Hebrew.

Fox's rendition prioritizes the source language over the target language. His work has been well received and occasionally read in synagogues. What Fox invites us to consider is how we might produce a formal rendering of the New Testament. Mark's gospel, for example, is often improved by translations. Would it not be more authentic to render Mark in a rough, unpolished English that would reflect Mark's vulgar Greek?

In 2002, Eugene Peterson produced "The Message" to bring the Bible to life for people in the pews. He described people's response to hearing the Bible read. "It was just awful. They'd fill up their coffee cups and stir in sugar and cream and look at their cups and they weren't getting it. I went home after the third week and said to my wife that I was going to teach them Greek. If they could read it in Greek they would get it, they'd understand what a revolutionary text it is and couldn't just keep living in their ruts. She agreed that would empty the class out fast."

Peterson says that "Language has its own colloquialisms and every time the Bible gets translated, it expands, it's not diluted, it's larger." Reading is a translation. We need constant correction as we try to understand the revelation of Jesus.

So what's the merit of biblical translations done by individuals? Without Jerome's work, we wouldn't have the Vulgate. Without Wycliffe, we wouldn't have an English translation of the Bible. Without Tyndale we wouldn't have the King James translation. If Julia Smith had been included amongst the groups of scholars in 1870 to prepare a revision of the King James Version, the English Revised Version of 1881, we might have had a more inclusive translation sooner than the NRSV. We'd be more aware of the interpretative italics of the King James version and less inclined to see it as literal. Without the work of Clarence Jordan, we might miss the inherent racism of some translations and interpretations. Without the work of Buber and Rosenzweig underlying the translation of Everett Fox, the world of Hebrew wouldn't be so strange and accessible. And we wouldn't be considering a new and different way to apprehend the New Testament. Without Eugene Peterson's work, Bono might not have found the Bible so engaging. Our apprehension of the Bible is impoverished without individual translations, so why not read these translations alongside others both privately and publicly? Why not print official and individual translations side by side in new editions of the Bible? We just might bring about new encounters with the living word of 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.

Sharper than any two-edged sword

By Greg Jones

One of my favorite passages of Scripture is coming up this Sunday — Hebrews 4:12. It says, "For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart." I love this.

When I was a kid growing up in Washington, D.C., I was fascinated by the precincts around the Capitol, Washington Monument and White House. My dad's office was always downtown, and there were many "boring" Saturdays, when I would have to tag along with him while he was slaving away in the office. In those days, I was allowed to stroll around in the neighborhood and explore a bit. The White House was nearby, and a host of other interesting statues, buildings and monumental structures all over the place.

There is one particular monument that always mesmerized me as a boy — the flaming sword memorial at Constitution Avenue and 17th Street, N.W. This giant golden sword rippling with tongues of fire — it dropped me in my tracks every time I went by it. And it is always what I think of when I hear Hebrews 4:12 — "the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword."

Like most children, I was prone to mystical notions as a boy. I had a very deep appreciation for awe, and wonder, and spooky stuff. Being surrounded by enormous monumental buildings and incredible statues and memorials fed my creative imagination without question. To be regularly able to sit and stare at giant flaming swords of gold, or eat a hot dog by the Capitol dome, or go to church at the National Cathedral — these all fed the realm of soul and spirit. And of course it is in there that faith, belief and wonder pour out.

What are you doing to penetrate deep into the heart of your creative imagination — that fertile soil where the implanted words of God go to grow and change you?

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.

Eternity Happens

By Adam Thomas

‘Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” ’ (John 8:58)

You can always tell when Jesus says something truly sensational and scandalous because people respond by searching for rocks to fling at his head. The eighth chapter of the Gospel According to John contains four instances of Jesus saying, “I am,” which is one way Jesus imparts his divine identity to his listeners. Out of the four, only the final one elicits such a stony reaction, while the first three build to the climactic iteration. The escalation begins slowly when Jesus says, “I am the light of the world” (8:12). Next, Jesus says, “You will die in your sins unless you believe that I am” (8:24). Then, a few verses later, he says, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am” (8:28). Each of these statements of his divine identity flies right over the heads of his opponents. But then the conversation intensifies. Jesus says they are from their father the devil. They think he may have a demon. He says no one will see death if they keep his word. They are sure he has a demon. He says Abraham rejoiced to see his day. Now they know that he’s crazy—he’s not even fifty! How can he have seen Abraham?

Then Jesus knocks their socks off with his most dangerous statement in the whole Gospel: “Before Abraham was, I AM.” This time, no one mistakes his meaning. No one asks him to clarify his words. They understand the full significance of saying, “I AM.” They know God said the same thing to Moses when Moses was brash enough to ask God for God’s name (Exodus 3). But underneath the shocking nature of Jesus’ statement is a subtler point (ultimately missed in the search for stones) about how our eternal God interacts with a finite creation.

Jesus’ “I am” statements in the Gospel According to John are revelations of God’s very being. Because of the simplicity of the sentence (just a subject and a verb), “I am” is as close as language can get to universality and eternity. Since we live in a temporal world, eternity is an impossible concept for us to wrap our heads around. Eternity is not “endless” time; nor is it the framework in which time finds a snug fit. In eternity, before and after are undefined and the only when is now. (The previous sentence makes no sense, of course.)

When Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am,” he uses our language to express the eternal nature of God. He does not say, “I was before Abraham was,” which is the grammatically correct way to articulate the thought. Instead, his “I am” (while functioning in our world as a present tense construction) is really a representation of the eternal tense. In eternity, I AM is the only sentence that makes any sense at all. In other words, eternity happens. It didn’t start and it won’t stop because the notions of beginning and ending are thoroughly temporal. And eternity happens because God is.

We run into trouble when we expect God to exist in the same way we do. Our minutes tick by one after another. For every one of our actions there is an equal and opposite reaction. Objects fall at a rate of 9.8 m/s2. But those are our minutes, our reactions, our gravity, and they all rely on linear experience. When Jesus says, “I AM,” he reminds us that God created linear experience, and thus is not beholden to it.

When we stumble into God’s presence, we encounter eternity making utter nonsense of time. Time ceases to matter because eternity overrides the rules of linear experience. That’s why it’s so hard to say how long we feel the presence of God. We feel that presence in moments, not minutes. When Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am,” he pushes us to relinquish our need to order events when God is concerned. God exists in eternity, which just happens.

If you read my last contribution to the Café in conjunction with this one, you might deduce two things: (1) I like to use Holy Scripture to discuss spirituality and (2) I seem partial to the Gospel According to John. These deductions are both entirely correct. As a member of the Millennial generation, I am attracted to the Fourth Gospel’s combination of mystery and revelation. If you have a group of Millennials in your church (right now, that would be your middle schoolers through your college students, give or take) who huff and sigh and roll their eyes every time you pull out the Bible, try some passages from the Gospel According to John. You might encounter fewer glazed looks and drool-flecked chins.

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.

Loaves and fishes, salmon in particular

By J. William Harkins

It is late summer, and as we speak, in rivers and streams all along the Pacific coast, salmon are returning home to their native waters after journeys of up to 6 years—and thousands of miles—at sea. Some time back, I took a sea-kayaking trip to Alaska, just about this time of year. Our group journeyed to Tebenkof Bay, deep into the wilderness of southeast Alaska, for a week-long sojourn based on mindfulness practice.

One of the most memorable experiences for me was watching salmon return to their ancestral birthplaces to create new life. Very early one day, after our morning prayers and Qigong, led by my priest colleague Gordon Peerman, we set out in our boats across the bay. A gentle Alaskan summer rain was falling. Raven called out as seals and otters followed our small flotilla of kayaks. Ducks and loons eyed us curiously, and eagles flew overhead, framed by snow-capped coastal mountain ranges, their glaciers emptying into the bay.

Soon we found ourselves in the delta region of a small but fast-moving river as it tumbled out of the mountains into the sea. We paddled upriver as far as we could, now protected from the gently falling rain by fir and spruce scented forests. Beneath our boats, swimming upstream in numbers impossible to count, was a river of salmon within the river, coming home to spawn. Upstream a hundred yards or so, a solitary Alaskan Brown Bear expertly harvested fish. Kurt Hoelting, our wise and patient guide whose deep spirituality informed every phase of our trip, gave us an impromptu streamside lecture on the ecology and culture of salmon nation. As he talked I remember thinking; “This is more than a story about a particular kind of fish….this is a parable about a deep ecology of connection and relatedness.”

Kurt quietly explained that salmon are amazing members of God’s creation, and this is especially true of Pacific salmon. Leaving their fresh-water birthplaces they journey out to sea where they roam the salt-water oceans of the world, returning, studies have confirmed, to spawn at or near the exact spot they were born years—and thousands of miles--earlier. How do they navigate their way home—and why? We aren’t completely sure. It may have to do with smell, or the stars, or some combination of these and other navigational cues about which we know little. Once they return to fresh water and spawn, their condition rapidly deteriorates, and they soon die.

I’m sure most of you have seen the dramatic scenes of Chinook and Sockeye salmon making their way up roaring waterfalls to their native pools against tremendous odds, including foraging Alaskan Brown bears and other predators. At certain points in the season as many as 20 vertebrate species, including elk, deer, and bear, feed directly on salmon, re-cycling those ocean borne nutrients directly into the soil of the forest. Incredibly, some salmon born in central Idaho will make their way over 900 miles inland, and climb 7,000 feet from the Pacific Ocean as they return to spawn.

Much more than food for bears, or ravens and eagles, or humans, salmon are in fact a metaphor, a parable of a deeply mysterious, complex, and life-giving set of inter-woven relationships. DNA from Pacific salmon has been found in groves of Aspen at the top of the continental divide. The trace minerals from their ocean journeys, such as nitrogen, feed salmonberry bushes miles inland, and virtually every level of the food chain of the ecosystem will reveal evidence of the gift of salmon.

Over 137 species of animals in the Pacific Northwest rely on salmon as part of their diet. When salmon die they generate the most biologically diverse forests on earth, honoring future generations with the gift the journey that is at the heart of all they are. “They leave branches of streams no larger than a broomstick,” the author Richard Manning has said, “and make their way to the ocean for years, returning weighing up to 60 pounds of biomass harvested from the sea. They bring this mass of nutrients back to the forest to feed it, and the generations to follow.”

I have come to think of this narrative as evidence of the creativity of God delighting in God’s own creation—a sort of cosmic playfulness at the level of ecological communion, connection, and transformation. The grace that I find in the story of the salmon is evidence to me of deep, sacred connections of life-sustaining nourishment at multiple levels. As the poet Mary Oliver reminds us, “Let me keep company always with those who say “Look!” and laugh in astonishment, and bow their heads.”

That morning in Alaska, we did just that. It is no wonder that cultures as diverse and far-flung as Pacific Northwest Indians, Norse, and Celtic mythology found in the story of the salmon symbolic and religious power. I see God watching all the permutations and combinations of salmon connections, and I imagine God laughing with joy. The gift of their lives—and the cycle of living, and dying, and rebirth in myriad forms is moving, and powerful. Make no mistake, a salmon is not simply a fish—but a metaphor of the deep ecological mystery of God’s creation—a timeless reminder that in the cycle of life and death lies the deep, abiding connections of all living things, and of transformation, and renewal.

It is fascinating to me, then, that on another shore, this time near the village of Capernaum, Jesus gives a sea-side homily on the nature of bread, and living, and a metaphorical lesson on what really nurtures and sustains our souls, and the mystery of those connections. On this day following the feeding of the 5,000, the impromptu picnic was over, and Jesus and the disciples were looking for a quiet place to rest, and recover.

The people, however, had other ideas. They were not inclined to let him fade back into the Capernaum hills without finding out more about what he could do for them. They had been hungry, and they had been fed—more than enough—we are told, and yet they did not know the depth or sources of their hunger. He had given them bread, and they had their fill, but perhaps he could do more in the way of fulfilling basic needs of shelter, clothing, and the ambiguities and uncertainties of daily life. The possibilities were unlimited.

And somewhat disingenuously, when they find him they say, in essence, “What a surprise! Imagine finding you here! When did you come here?” Jesus will have none of it. “You worked hard to find me, and I know why. But I am more than a free lunch, and moreover, that is not what you really need. You ate your fill, and now you want more, but you are missing the point. The bread you seek won’t last. I am the bread that endures, and addresses a deeper hunger. All you have to do is believe.” “Prove it,” they say, invoking Moses and the manna in the wilderness; “Give us a sign.” “You don’t get it,” Jesus says to them…”Remember where the bread Moses gave you came from.”

It is not always easy to see beneath the literal to the metaphorical and symbolic, especially when our basic needs and fears often determine what we see, and how. Jesus knows we are hungry on many levels, and we are often scared, and wilderness can take so many forms.

The psychologist Carl Jung, himself deeply interested in religion, once said: “I have seen people remain unhappy when they content themselves with inadequate or wrong answers to the questions of life. They seek position, reputation, outward success, money, and remain unhappy even when they attain what they have been seeking. Such people are usually confined within too narrow a spiritual horizon.”

Our wise Alaskan guide said to us, “Broaden your horizons. Think creatively. The Salmon is much more than a fish—it is a sign of something mysterious, complex, and life-giving in the ways of the connectedness of God’s creation. They live their lives, and they give themselves away.” Jesus says to us, “Broaden your spiritual horizons. I want to be more than a provider of physical bread. I want to fill the hunger of your hearts. I want to fill the emptiness you try to fill up with lesser things…to satisfy those Holy longings you often attempt to quiet with substances and material goods; to quiet the anxiety that finally comes to possess you, rather than allowing yourselves to be placed in God’s compassionate, outstretched, open arms. I want you to remember where that bread in the desert really comes from. And then I want you to feed one another, in love.”

Like the salmon that journey so far to come home to their native streams, Jesus is to be broken, blessed, and shared with the world. He gives himself away, each moment, and like the Eucharist we celebrate he is more than a provider of physical sustenance. Our river guide said, in essence, “Pay attention; look around you at the connections; see, and you will believe.” Conversely, Jesus says to us, “Seeing is not always the same as believing; Sometimes you have to believe, in order to really see.” Paradoxically, both of them are correct. And both point to a similar truth: Salmon may be signs of a first principal of an ecological paradigm of altruism and gratitude. The only way to have a full life, and keep it, is to give it away. Jesus embodied this in the sharing of his life, in which we are invited to be creatively compassionate, in deep gratitude. “Every day,” Wendell Berry says, “you have less reason not to give yourself away.” Jesus said, “I am the Bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.” Amen.

Bill Harkins lives in Atlanta, where he teaches pastoral theology at Columbia Seminary, and maintains a private practice in pastoral counseling and marriage and family therapy.. He is a priest associate at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip. Bill is married to Vicky, and they have two sons, Justin and Andrew, with whom he delights in getting outdoors.

Redistribution of wealth: It's in the Bible!

By Daniel J. Webster

Tax day has come and gone. News video of tax protests is still being shown. There were images of President Obama wearing a Mao hat with the Chinese Communist red star. There were images of makeshift American flags with a hammer and sickle replacing the stars. One news photo showed a woman holding a sign that read, "My God, My Money, My Guns."

My God and my money, indeed.

This Sunday millions of American Christians who attend churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary will hear a reading from the Acts of the Apostles. It's a short reading. In just four verses those who hear Acts 4:32-35 may be a little surprised about how the early followers of Jesus handled their money and possessions.

They will hear "...no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common." The story tells us followers sold their homes and property, gave the proceeds to the apostles who distributed the funds so that there "was not a needy person among them."

I'm going out on a limb here and suspect that, like the woman holding the sign about God, money and guns, most of those protesting on April 15 really and truly believe the United States is a Christian nation. Many of them truly believe the economic stimulus actions by the federal government amount to socialism. That's what they've been told by their favorite radio talk show hosts or cable news antagonist anchors.

The brief reading for Sunday is actually just the beginning of a longer section of Acts that details those who redistribute and those who refuse to share their wealth. St. Barnabas is singled out as one who does right in selling his land and giving the money to the apostles.

But Ananais and his wife Sapphira don't fare as well. They hold on to some of their possessions. Peter calls them agents of Satan. And the consequence for withholding wealth for yourself in this story is death. Both Ananais and Sapphira drop dead when told of their inaction. They might as well have been holding the sign, "My God, My Money, My Guns."

This is one of those uncomfortable readings that are dismissed by millions of modern Christians who believe capitalism is God's will. Don't get me wrong. Capitalism is not evil if it has a conscience. But when capitalism is perverted to create a society that proclaims loudly, "I've got mine. You get yours," then we have a system that promotes death among the least among us.

There have been other images on TV and in the news. A recent "60 Minutes" report on CBS profiled uninsured patients at a Nevada hospital who had their cancer treatments canceled when state tax dollars were withdrawn because of the economic downturn. One patient said it amounted to a death sentence.

In that same story a doctor was shown treating some of those patients for whatever they could pay. He and other physicians were donating, or redistributing their wealth, to take care of those who were needy. They were acting today in the spirit of Barnabas and those early followers of Jesus.

Living in that spirit will really make us a Christian nation for all Americans whether they be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or those of no faith. President Obama, the man vilified as communist or socialist at the TEA Parties, often refers to the multi-religious golden rule when he discusses tax increases for the wealthy. Maybe he should refer to Acts 4:32-35 in the future for those who believe in "My God, My Money, My Guns."

The Rev. Canon Daniel J. Webster is canon for congregational development in the Diocese of New York and Vicar of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Montgomery, New York.

Singing Judith's song

By Deirdre Good

The Daily Office, the daily common worship experience of professionals and proficients in many mainline Christian denominations, incorporates the Song of Judith as one of the Canticles we sing on a regular schedule (the asterisks denote a pause):

A Song of Judith

I will sing a new song to my God, *
for you are great and glorious, wonderful in strength, invincible.
Let the whole creation serve you, *
for you spoke and all things came into being.
You sent your breath and it formed them, *
no one is able to resist your voice.
Mountains and seas are stirred to their depths, *
rocks melt like wax at your presence.
But to those who fear you, *
you continue to show mercy.
No sacrifice, however fragrant, can please you, *
but whoever fears the Lord shall stand in your sight for ever.

A canticle is any song in the biblical text other than Psalms. Based on Judith 16:13-16, the Song of Judith is part of a larger song forming a conclusion to the astonishing tale of Judith's defeat by decapitation of the Assyrian General Holofernes. But the canticle we sing in the Daily office extolling God for the defeat of God's enemies, powerful as it is, has been severed from its connection with the wider context of Judith's song and its recapitulation of the deeds of her hands. Do we recognize that Judith sings a new song celebrating the omnipotent Lord who set enemies aside at the hand of a woman? Can we who sing it hear the textual echoes and transformations of God's spirit in Exodus not now being sent to drown the Egyptians but to effect the creation of the world?

The fuller version of the Song of Judith (Judith 16:1-17) celebrates in song the earlier prose form of the narrative of the book of Judith in which Judith celebrates the deliverance of Israel from her enemies. At the same time, the complete version of the Song of Judith draws in form and content on other biblical songs of deliverance by God sung by women such as the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15 (attributed to Moses but now widely recognized to have been sung by Miriam and the women of Israel), and the Song of Deborah in Judges 5. And the Song of Judith in Greek anticipates the Song of Mary or the Magnificat in Luke's Gospel in the New Testament.

We know that Judith quotes the Greek text of Exodus: Judith 16:2 states, "For the Lord is a God who crushes wars," an allusion not to the Hebrew but to the Greek version of Exodus 15:3, "The Lord crushes wars, the Lord is his name." In the Hebrew text, Yahweh is a man of war but in the Greek text, the Lord crushes wars. This situates intertextuality at the level of the Greek text, not the Hebrew.

Exodus 15:10 describes God's "spirit" as potency and power for destruction: "You sent your spirit; it covered them: sea clothed like lead in violent water." Spirit in Exodus covers and drowns. But the same phrase, "You sent your spirit" appears in Judith as direct borrowing with different application: the spirit in Judith 16:14 creates: "You sent your spirit, and it built them up, and there is no one who will withstand your voice".

Specific to the Song of Miriam and the Song of Judith is the enemy threat of the sword in the hand: Ex. 15:9 describes the aggression of the Egyptians, "The enemy said, 'I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; my lust shall be satisfied upon them; I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them'". Similarly, Judith describes the boast of Israel's enemies at 16:4: "He said he would set my territory ablaze and dispatch my young men with the sword". Yet when Israel's enemy is routed in Judith, it is not by the hand of God but by the hand of a woman holding a particular short sword.

Miriam's song celebrates a victory wrought by the hand of another, her brother. In Miriam's song, the sword is wielded by God; but Judith wields the sword of deliverance herself. In a sense, there is an identification of Judith with God so that she embodies God's triumph.

We can now reflect on the difference this makes to our corporate worship. Worship embodies human beliefs about God. Recognizing that the language of war, subjugation and victory undergirds worship intrinsically, we can restore to the Song of Judith the meaning of God's actions on behalf of a broken and subordinate people by the hand of an inferior and marginalized woman. And we can thereby begin to redeem language of war in worship.

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 wisdom of jailed prophets

By Martin Smith

Have you ever received a letter from a friend, only to discover that he or she was already dead by the time you opened it? It does sharpen the message to fine point. I remember being so touched when I opened a package sent by Henri Nouwen containing a signed copy of his latest book. And then I learned he had died within hours of mailing it. His inscription made me think even more reverently of the craft of spiritual writing to which he was so dedicated, and to cherish powerful words he wrote about this vocation in his book Reaching Out. “Writing about the spiritual life is like taking prints from negatives…Maybe it is precisely the shocking confrontation with our hostile self that gives us words to speak about hospitality as a real option, and maybe we will never find the courage to speak about prayer as a human vocation without the disturbing discovery of our own illusions. Often it is the dark forest that makes us speak about the open field. Frequently it is prison that makes us think about freedom, hunger helps us to appreciate food and war gives us words for peace.”

“It is prison that makes us think about freedom.” Henri was talking wisely about all kinds of spiritual constraints, but that wisdom is founded in real history too. Some of Paul’s most liberating words are found in the letters smuggled out from his prison cell. The transcendent Spiritual Canticle of St John of the Cross was composed in a stifling jail cell in Toledo. And there is Martin Luther King Jr.’s immortal Letter from a Birmingham Jail of April 16, 1963. The power of words of freedom that issue from captivity is the reason why hundreds of former prisons are now pilgrimage sites. We are on holy ground when we lean against the bars of Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island. Those who have always taken liberty for granted can never craft words about freedom that have anything like the ring of those voiced by imprisoned prophets.

Perhaps the mysterious providence that guided those who put the books of the New Testament in their present order really meant the book of Revelation to be the “last word” of God’s Word, because it is the supreme example of the truth that those who have experienced the despair of imprisonment have the most right to call us to the task of setting one another free in the Spirit of God. Last year I visited some of the sites of the tiny struggling Christian communities to which the prophet John sent his galvanic tract about resistance and hope from his exile on the isle of Patmos. Standing in the ramparts of the castle that juts out into the sea at Kusadasi, looking out towards the island, one can sense how near the churches he cared for must have seemed—just across the water—and yet how far. “I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.”

This wasn’t a supernatural vision revealing the plot of the so-called second coming. It was a summons to hope in the coded poetry of apocalypse, recasting the whole resplendent array of biblical imagery. It was an up-to-the minute appeal to contemporary churches, and paradoxically that’s why it can strike us now with such force. Its core is the appeal: Expect God to surprise us. Jailed prophets specialize in reminding us that God is not merely the God who is, let alone the God who was. God is the one “who is to come, the Almighty.” Conventional religion looks to the past, but the passion of prophetic religion leans into the future of God. The God who is to come overturns our predictions and confounds plans. Divine innovation sets in play the unforeseen and makes human forecasting look ridiculous. Expect surprise, and let that expectation liberate you from all that oppresses you with a sense that power structures are immovable, custom set in stone, that history runs inexorably on rails of steel, and we are impotent to make an unprecedented future for humanity’s wellbeing.

We are praying at this time as nation taken by surprise through its own flawed but magnificent democratic process. We thought it was just another election, but surprise!—the launching of the third stage of American history is upon us! We open our Bibles again, and return to a message forged by prophets who let captivity become the crucible for hope. Our hope is in a God of surprises, of resurrection, and we can awaken again to the fact that the one certainty we have to offer is that God will continually take the world by surprise.

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

Overcoming the Corinthian temptation

By Greg Jones

"Conceited, stubborn, over-sensitive, argumentative, infantile, pushy." This is how bible scholar Jerome Murphy-O'Connor describes the Church in Corinth to which Paul wrote the two letters now in our bibles. They were a frustrating and exasperating people, who seemed to misunderstand Paul's teaching at every turn. Murphy-O'Connor writes that "virtually every statement he made took root in their minds in a slightly distorted form." Yikes.

Lucky for us that Paul faced this crowd. Because he had to teach, and teach, and teach them, now we have the benefit of First and Second Corinthians. The basic situation in Corinth was a mixed body of folks, divided by ethnicity, idea and practice. They were highly partisan, and apparently loved to dissent and divide.

Well, it sounds likes Christians everywhere, at least from time to time. It seems like Christians are always struggling with a "Corinthian" tendency toward division and disunity. To be sure, in our denomination, and global Anglicanism, we've seen lots of it in the past six years, and certainly will see more. It is worth remembering that the Church of England broke ties with Rome in the middle 16th century over questions of authority and power. Over the next couple of centuries - a host of groups left the Church of England, whether Presbyterian, Quaker, Methodist, Baptist and so forth. In the 19th century, a small group of evangelical Episcopalians broke away and formed the Reformed Episcopal Church. (They believed that 'Romanizing germs' had infected the Episcopal Church and it was corrupt beyond repair -- opposing things like altar candles, priestly robes, and high sacramental doctrine.) In the late 20th century, several groups split away from the Episcopal Church - first over integration, then over the new prayer book and women's ordination. And now, of course, we see the chasm forming between those who seek to include glbt people into the full life of the Church, inclusive of marriage equality and ordination, and those who do not.

I believe that there is a way forward that preserves a maximum of unity and diversity, with integrity. I think that the Church will always be reforming its understandings of how God wants us to be - but I believe it can be done in such a way as to comprehend both a faithful respect for what has been received, and a faithful openness to "new wine." As I understand Paul, what is required of Corinthians as well as Episcopalians is that we die to self, pick up the cross, and follow the Son of God. In my view, the community which does this, will also be able to maintain a glorious degree of both differentiation and unity within itself. Even when faced with questions which are very difficult to come to an accord about.

The way through the dilemma of Us vs. Them, and We're Right and They're Wrong is to remember the mark on our heads. For we who have been marked as Christ's own forever, are not permitted to ask any more, "How do I get what I want?' We instead get to ask, "How do We obey our Lord?" We instead get to ask, "How do we discern together what God wants, and how do we get there?"

Frankly, I'm afraid Episopalians simply do not remember that we are called to be a people submitted to each other as to Christ. I believe we very often identify ourselves in individualistic, then congregational, then diocesan terms, then General Convention terms; and then very little in terms of the wider Communion, let alone our ecumenical and interfaith partners.

As we approach General Convention, I simply pray that we be mindful of our primary identity as a people of God in Christ, called to submit to another as to Christ. I don't know what the way forward will look like - vis a vis the inclusion of glbt persons in matters of marriage equality or holy orders - or vis a vis the Anglican Communion and beyond. I would take great joy, however, if we could indeed find that forward route while maintaining the maximum degree of unity in the love of Christ. It would be so refreshing to pull off what so many are calling impossible. It would be so exciting to manage to get through this with the bonds of affection not only unbroken, but strengthened.

There, I said it.

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.

Strong man

By Greg Jones

I am always moved when in the Gospel of Matthew God appears to Joseph and tells him to take wife and child and run away, for Herod wants to destroy the child. As a father, I'm moved to want to protect my children – if that means running and hiding I'll do it. I know many in Gaza are feeling this way these days. Just as in Israel, the Sudan, Myanmar, Mexico, and all the places where babies depend on their parents for nurture in a world run ragged by the cruel arms of oppression.

What is more, as a believer, I am so deeply moved by the idea that God - who is infinite - has chosen to become a tiny baby in need of the protection of his parents, from the threat of folks like Herod. It still boggles my mind that our good old story of salvation is rooted in the story of the Son of God who became a baby dependent on a mommy and a daddy, so he might grow up to become the strong man on the cross.

I am also moved by the connected passage in Jeremiah where it says, "The Lord has redeemed him from hands too strong for him." Jeremiah is not just talking about the individual man who once wrestled with God, but with all persons who struggle with God. Jeremiah is also talking about the work of the fragile baby who becomes the strong man on the cross, who pries us free from hands too strong. Hands of sin, of fear, of destruction.

I am moved by this Word about a Baby going to Egypt long ago, and this prophesy about a redeemed creation. Moved because for me, it's not out there. It's not long ago. It's right here. It's now. I hear God speaking to me in these words.

Back in college I had a friend who was like a little bear. This guy was short and stocky and strong. Like strong teens often will to other boys, he'd come up and grab me sometimes – and just crush me. I tried so hard to break free, but he was just too strong. His hands and arms were too strong for me. He could have killed me with a bear hug, but instead he merely crushed me and then mocked me. He'd say, "Boy, you sure are big not to be strong."
Ouch. But it's true. Not only have I almost always been a bit stocky, and not that athletic, but I've never been able to get sin's strong arms off me either. This is why I thank God that the "Mighty Lord Become Tiny Baby Become Strong Man on The Cross" has done so for me.
This is the Gospel of course, that Christ offers strength to those who set their hearts on him. That's His message of transformation, to we Americans who are awfully big not to be strong for the Lord. That's His call to grow in spiritual strength, so that we might become strong hands for Christ.

We who have grown so filled with privilege and American overplenty, are called out of our big but weak lives into something more for the Kingdom. And it's not a guilt trip, but a journey toward service in Christ.

As I understand it, too, there's only one exercise that will transform ourselves, souls and bodies into Christly people. That excercise is the picking up of our cross.

This year, here are five ways to carry the cross and grow stronger in faith:

1. Forgive someone, even if they don't deserve it.
2. Make a sacrificial gift for the work of the Kingdom.
3. Volunteer in the name of God somewhere.
4. Read a bit of the Gospel everyday.
5. Take on daily prayer for self, neighbor and world.

We are all awfully big not to be strong. But the strong one on the cross will help us change.

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.

John and "the immersion
of mind change"

By Greg Jones

I would like to think that if I had lived in Jerusalem in the Anno Domini 20s, I'd have gone out to see John the Baptist in the Wilderness, for baptism and the forgiveness of sin. I'd like to think I'd have known I needed that repentance, that cleansing, that forgiveness. What about you? Wouldn't you like to think you'd be in that number; gone to see the Baptist in the desert; gone to wash away old ways and take on new ones?

Despite the popularity of the old book, I'm OK, You're OK -- I don't believe that. I am not O.K. And neither are you. Not on our own. Not as we are. Not without the Grace of God. As Mark explains in the first verses of the first chapter of the first Gospel -- the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ for all people happens when Grace works within us, making way for God's mercy to get through.

I'm referring to John's 'baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.' If you do a hyper literal translation of the Greek text of Mark 1:4, it says John announced "immersion of mind change." Immersion of mind change. John the Baptist says the way to wholeness in God's Kingdom, for salvation of body, mind and soul, requires an immersion of mind change, to put off sin and death.

When we submerge our life in God's, when we turn away from self-love and go toward God's love, that's when we become disciples. Have you taken that plunge yet? To seek a new life God's river? The call to take this plunge begins with baptism, but importantly extends to everyday renewal of the full baptismal covenant, with its affirmations about the Faith and the Mission of the Faithful.

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 fatherjones.com.

God's treasure

By Greg Jones

Jesus teaches in the parable of the talents that all people are blessed by God with some of His treasure. That we have all been blessed with something which belongs to God. That we have all been entrusted to care for what is God's in us.

Because God isn't looking for a creation of puppets, whose every action God controls. God isn't looking for robots, created to do exactly what God says. No, God has created a universe and from it He is working to build a household of members who do, who act, who unleash God's blessings they have stored within. Each according to ability.

Yes, Jesus teaches that when we do something faithful with what is God's (entrusted to us) it makes God rejoice and it makes us bigger. When we put God's treasure to work for God's purposes it transforms the creation, and we grow from strength to strength.

Yes, it's important to really hear Jesus' words - notice that the rich man does not give the slaves anything. He's not giving them his treasure, in some inequitable, deterministic or arbitrary distribution of who gets to keep more. No he's entrusting it to them, so they may steward it, care for it, work it -- do something with it on his behalf according to ability to do so.

The reward for faithful service is the same for all regardless of the amount they 'produce' for the Lord. The reward is to enter into joy, and to grow and grow in so doing.

In the same way, what treasure you and I possess if it is of God at all, if it is good, true, and faithful, is not ours to own, but rather ours to take care of on behalf of God.

God didn't have to - because he chose it in love, he poured himself into nothingness and created the world. And up we rose. He poured out a creation from Himself. In utter and total self-giving, God created the universe, and has entrusted us to do similar works of creation and self-giving according to our own ability and relative size.

We can't make something out of nothing. But we can make something of God's grace if we choose. The parable of the talents teaches that we can take what treasure God has freely offered us to tend and make something happen.

Or, as the parable teaches, we can also bury God's free will offering. We can hide God's grace inside lives of fear and self-concern and anxiety. We can and are free to shrink, and reduce, and ultimately even disappear. We can hold on so hard to our private resources that the tightness of our grip strangles our very soul. Yes, we can ... do nothing.

But, we don't have to. Christ's parable of the talents says that God is infinitely full of free will offering (of love, of grace, of blessing) and if we do likewise and pour out in faith what we've been entrusted with, there will be more to come.

Jesus teaches that if our cup of blessing is full, and we pour it out, it will be filled again. Likewise, if our cup of blessing feels dry, and we hold it out in faith, the members of Christ's body are called in faith to fill it in encouragement and mutual edification.

Yes, Christ is the free-will offering of a God who rejoices when we share as he shares, when we love as he loves, when we make something good happen from what he has trusted us with.

Enter into the joy of your Lord - do something with God's treasure that is in you.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ('Greg') is rector of St. Michael's in Raleigh, N.C. A husband and father, Jones is also the author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004), and the bass player in indie-rock band The Balsa Gliders - whose fourth studio release is available on iTunes. Jones is a graduate of Sidwell Friends School, the University of North Carolina, and General Theological Seminary - where he serves as a General Convention-elected trustee. He blogs at fatherjones.com.

A Christian skeptic examines our politics

By Derek Olsen

Well, we’re pulling into the home-stretch now. There are less than 30 days to the presidential election and the campaign rhetoric has become a full-out assault on the senses. I’m doing my best to keep up, I really am. As an Undecided voter, I’ve been dutifully watching debates and comparing platforms, pondering and praying about the decisions before us both national and local. How hopelessly out of touch I remain, however, was brought home to me one early Monday morning a few weeks ago.

I was at the Y, headphones blaring, German Industrial egging me on to the insane pace I’d set for myself on the treadmill; CNN anchors were mouthing words at me as the ticker at the bottom of the screen updated the world on where various important people had been over the week. To my chagrin I realized that I had absolutely no idea where McCain, Obama, Palin, or Biden had been or what they had said, but the moment Pope Benedict’s name started going across I knew what country and city he’d been in—and had already seen some analyses of the liturgies he’d celebrated…

Politics and religion: two forces that, in my life, share an uneasy tension that probably explains why I’m still Undecided. Politics and religion always have been and always will be intertwined—make no mistake about that—but their connection is far more ambiguous and complicated than pundits on either side want to suggest in this election season. There is no one way that politics and religion interrelate. It’s a many-sided relationship, sometimes mutually supporting, sometimes contradictory, never simple. And this time of year, I’m reminded that whatever politics thinks of organized religion, there’s always been a strand of our religious heritage that has been deeply skeptical of organized politics.

A foundational text for this strand is the words of Samuel to the people when they ask him to anoint a king:

“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your menservants and maidservants, and the best of your cattle and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day.” (1 Samuel 8:11-18)

Sounds to me like the proleptic cry of a crotchety conservative against both radical change and big government, but something much deeper and far more important is going on. As the last verse makes painfully clear, there are religious implications to this form of government—and these implications are all bad.

Let’s dig a little deeper here, though, because it’s complicated. On one hand is the political side of things: The Children of Israel had entered the Promised Land and had settled there. As tribes of nomadic herders, their links to one another had been tenuous, occasional, and temporary. When faced with invasion or oppression, nomadic herders pick up and move. As they grew more tightly tied to the land, as they put down roots—both metaphorical and literal—and began shifting towards a more agrarian society, their political reality changed. Their wealth, their livelihood, was no longer mobile. You collect a harvest, you store it somewhere, it’s not easy to just up and move it all. And with harvests come invaders, looking for easy prey. The Children of Israel are tired of yearly raids, of their small hastily-armed clan units being overwhelmed by dedicated bodies of seasoned warriors—herdsman and farmers with sticks and stones against professionals with bronze armor and swords. Sure, “judges” called by God would occasionally appear to unite the clans and strike against this year’s invaders—but is this a way to stabilize a land? (Imagine of we waited for a “judge” to arise and deal with the Wall Street mess!) In the face of these difficulties, the people plead for Samuel to give them a king: a single stable ruler with a standing army to protect their homes, children, and crops.

On the other hand, though, is the religious side of things: the people already had a king, God. As God reveals to Samuel a few verses earlier: “Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you [as a judge], but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Samuel 8:7). The call for a king was a rejection of the kingship of God. Furthermore, the choice of words given to Samuel are eerily reminiscent of both Deuteronomy 17:14-20 and 1 Kings 10:26-11:10 which inveigh against the aggressive foreign and economic policies which, for all of Solomon’s wisdom, drove the kingdom into idolatry and split the Promised Land into two rival kingdoms: Israel and Judah. The king brought idolatry, economic distress, and ultimately disunity.

While it’s present in the histories, this strand questioning and challenging political regimes has had a firm foundation in our liturgical traditions from the beginning. There’s a distinct group of psalms known as the Enthronement Psalms (Pss 47, 93, 96-99) which proclaim with boldness, “YHWH has become king!”—the typical shout of acclamation and accompanies it with the blast of the shofar, the ram’s horn, also a component of a king’s coronation. God is king—and not the man on Israel or Judah’s throne. Rather, they serve as a steward on behalf of the true King whose rule is marked by justice and equity for all. As modern Americans, I think we may miss the full significance of this. In the world of early monarchical politics, justice and mercy were ideals and rarely realities. A king’s primary task was ensuring that the warlords under him were too weak and disunified to make an effort to topple him. Justice and mercy took second place to balancing factions against one another, securing allies, and dissuading would-be usurpers—usually with “favors” which were miscarriages of justice themselves. These psalms present a strong word of condemnation to the established political powers: “You, mortal, are not the true king; you exercise power at the pleasure of the true King. His standards are justice, equity, and mercy—not based in venial calculation; be afraid lest he sweep you aside.”

It’s no accident that many Scriptural visions of God occur in a celestial throne room. We get moments like the throne-room vision of 1 Kings 22:19-22 in a number of place, but the grand-daddy of them all is at the end of our Bible in the Book of Revelation. Chapters 4 and 5 are an extended sequence occurring in the divine throne-room where John of Patmos literally redraws the cosmos, centering it all around the throne, envisioning and describing concentric circles of living creatures, of apostles, patriarchs, prophets, martyrs, of the whole created order bowing down, casting crowns, and acclaiming God as the one true Emperor of the entire inhabited cosmos. In a world that defined itself around Rome and Roman might, John redraws all the boundaries. There is a center. There is an emperor. And all that is really real participates in praise of the true Emperor—the one seated upon the throne, the Lamb standing as if it had been slain.

We Christians not only regularly pray these psalms and chant these hymns from Revelation, but moments like these pop up in our own liturgies as well. As a seminarian in a plainchant class, I was entranced by a set of prayers coming from an 11th century manuscript from Autun, in modern-day France. After a set of petitions by a cantor, the full schola would thunder the repetitive refrain “Christus vincit! Christus regnat! Christus imperat!”—Christ conquers! Christ reigns! Christ is emperor! According to certain clues in the liturgy, it seemed that Easter was when the court of the king would have been in Autun: the king would have been in the congregation as another king was acclaimed in full voice and power in his presence. The prayers were not just words to God—they were words to the king as well, reminding, qualifying, even challenging. There is a standard against which government is judged—and it ain’t you…

In our current liturgical round following the Revised Common Lectionary, the last Sunday of Ordinary Time is kept as the Feast of Christ the King. Some think this language outdated and passé. Me—I like it. Precisely because it is outdated. Precisely because it flies in the face of our current political and cultural realities. Precisely because it speaks a word of challenge and judgment against our regimes no matter what side of the aisle they come from. If we stumble at the title, the stumbling reveals a teachable moment to consider competing values and competing visions of what’s really real. The Gospel confronts us with a vision of the world as it can be—as it ought to be. It’s not a vision that lines up neatly with either American party’s ideology despite what some would like you to believe. Interestingly, this feast’s traditional placement—before Vatican II and the RCL came along—was the last Sunday of October which means that some years it was the Sunday just previous to our election; songs of Christ’s kingship would still be ringing in voters’ ears come November 4th.

As we head to the polls, we have painful political and social realities that we have to face. We have a lot of struggles to overcome: economic issues, military quandaries, energy problems, social confusions, and more that intertwine and defy easy answers and sound-bites. I’ll make myself listen, I’ll make a decision, and I’ll make my way to the polls. But no matter who stands triumphant on Inauguration Day in January, I’ll be the one in the background singing: Christus vincit! Christus regnat! Christus imperat!

Jesus amidst the moneychangers

By Greg Jones

Long before the Temple in Jerusalem was built the first time, the Israelites worshipped the God of the Universe in a tent. A tabernacle they called it. And they believed that the God of the Universe maintained a sacramental presence with them, pitched the sacred tent with them, wherever they went. The place where God was pleased to dwell was in their midst, as His people, who followed His word, his lead, his ways.

Around 957 B.C., Solomon built a stone temple to symbolize God's dwelling, tabernacle-ing, abiding presence with the people of God. In 586 BC, Nebuchadnezzar led the Babylonians into Jerusalem, and they tore the Temple down to the ground. Fifty years later, Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered the Babylonians, and allowed the Jews to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.

That temple was ruled by a high priesthood - which would become corrupted and perverted by the Greco-Romans and by deep seeded greed and pride. In a nutshell, the Temple operated a highly structured economic system in which it was claimed that God would put people's sins away - for a price. It was claimed that the People of God could stand near God's official dwelling place - and by using Temple-currency, could purchase Temple-approved sacrificial animals, to be offered up by the Temple-priesthood, for the sake of receiving Temple-certified forgiveness of sins and redemption.

The economic structure of the temple involved thousands of priests, central regulation, complex transactions, rates of exchange, and a host of lawyers and middlemen taking a cut at every step of the way. It also came with a special police force and armed guard. At the top were the chief priests - who also happened to be completely under the thumb of the King and the Roman Empire.

So, to be sure, when Jesus the son of a carpenter rides into town on donkey, and walks into the temple, overturns the entire commercial enterprise within, and starts teaching the word of God in a way that invites individuals to form a relationship with God quite apart from temple economics -- it's no surprise the secretaries of the temple treasury come down on him with some questions.

Yes, the chief priests who run the Temple come to him with some questions, not because they honestly want to hear the truth, but because they are afraid of what the truth might actually be and mean. You see, they know, that if Jesus is truly teaching and acting with authority in the Temple - in God's House - than it means two things: 1. That Jesus is the Messiah; and 2. That the Chief Priests are now out of a job.

Because if the Messiah is standing in the Temple - than there is no more need of a chief priest, a temple priesthood, or a complex system of spiritual supply and demand which seems to make the folks in charge wealthy, the people no better off, and the word of God very hard to hear.

Yes, "If the Messiah has come," think the chief priests, "then the reign of God has begun, and we are out of a job." Yes, if the Messiah has come - if God has come in human form to dwell truly not just in a building or a tent but in fully present form amongst his people as Lord and King - then the worst crisis since Nebuchaznezzar destroyed the first temple is about to be upon them.

No, the high priests of a selfish system of ambition and conceit, masked as religion, and marked by temple-taxation and spiritual-prostitution, absolutely don't want to know if the God of all things has come to dwell amongst them for real.

But, as Jesus has entered Jerusalem and the Temple to show - He has. The Messiah has come. Not with a bail out to preserve a failing temple economy, but to offer a whole new economics of salvation. For the Gospel economics of salvation is not capitalism, or socialism, or religious hypocrisy. It's grace.

Jesus the Messiah came to pour himself out, pouring out the power of grace, which is God's total love of a people totally confused about how to live. The Lord and savior came to wipe out selfish ambition and conceit - by pouring out his blood on the cross - by tearing down the temple of corruption - and by raising up a temple of new life in Him. That's what Jesus came to be and say and do. And he calls us to do the same - to share with Him in lives of grace.

And that's what we celebrate every Sunday - when we gather as the whole congregation of God's people around the eucharistic table. We go there not as spiritual consumers go to receive spiritual goods, or take out spiritual loans, or to pay back spiritual debts. Rather, we go to connect with the Spirit and each other, and prepare for lives of grace - so that God can work through us - so that we might be better - so that the world might too.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ("Greg") was educated at the University of North Carolina and the General Theological Seminary, where he is on the Board. Greg is husband of Melanie, father of Coco & Anna, rector of St. Michael's Raleigh, and author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004). He blogs at fatherjones.com.

Conversations with Paul

By Lauren R. Stanley

I’ve been having long conversations with the Apostle Paul of late due to some long-term writing assignments in which I am engaged, and the more I talk with Paul, the more I realize, we don’t always know what he meant.

Some of his statements are hurtful. Can you imagine being one of those new followers of the Way in Galatia, hearing Paul call you “foolish” because he doesn’t agree with how you are living your new life in Christ? How about being one of those Corinthians, listening as Paul – who was no longer in your midst – castigated you for re-interpreting what he had taught?

Some of his statements are so uplifting they make your soul climb right into heaven: “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” “The Spirit helps us in our weakness … (and) intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” “If God is for us, who is against us?”

And then there is Paul’s incredibly beautiful statement on love: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” What could be more beautiful than that?

When I am in my most generous moods, I love what Paul has to say. It may not be clear, but through his words, I can catch glimpses of heaven.

When I am in my less generous moods, I rant and rage at Paul: How dare you say that women are to be silent in church? How dare you say slaves have to obey their masters? (Slaves!? Slaves?!?!)

But the deepest conversations come from when I can’t figure out what Paul is trying to say. Lord knows, he’s quoted all the time by anyone and everyone who wants to make a point on any and every subject. And Lord knows, people claim to understand exactly what Paul means, especially on the most controversial of current issues, sexuality.

But me? I think even Paul wasn’t certain what he exactly meant. After all, this is the man who admitted, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been known.”

So when I get to heaven (by God’s grace alone, of that I am certain), I want to sit down with Paul. I want to ask him: What did you mean? Did you know how your statements would be used? Did you think you had the last word? Or did you know, or think, or believe, that our understanding of your words would develop as time went by, and people changed and grew, and whole new cultures were discovered? Which things that you said were immutable to you, and which were to grow in the Spirit of which you speak so frequently, so eloquently?

There are times when I think I understand Paul. And there are times when I know I don’t have the foggiest idea what he means. And there are times, too, which I think, “OK, that was then, this is now.”

But I won’t know the answers to these questions until I get to heaven. Because there, I am convinced, all things will indeed be mediated by God on high, and hopefully, I won’t have to ask any questions, because then I will know fully, as I am fully known.

In the meantime, I struggle with Paul, the Church’s first theologian, who in the immediacy of the moment said some things that he felt simply had to be said, but who might have a different take now, 2,000 years later. I don’t know that – it’s simply what I believe.

I think that Paul must be upset at how his words are used to hurt and exclude people. I think Paul must be pacing up and down in anger some days, as he must have been when he wrote that letter to the Galatians, fuming that we simply don’t get what he meant, and by God, not only does he need to explain it again, we need to listen again, and again, and again, until we finally do get it. And while he is pacing in frustration, I am convinced that he simply must be weeping in frustration and pain, just as God weeps when something awful happens to us, that Paul suffers with us as God suffers with us.

When I am struggling the most, I fall back on the one statement that I know to the depths of my being is true, for it rings not of Paul but of God, in all of God’s glory: “And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” I think Paul knew that in the end, the inexplicable mystery of God’s love is more important than anything else, that love itself is the greatest gift of God and is the only thing that holds us together, even when we disagree with each other.

In the meantime, my conversations with Paul continue, sometimes in complete understanding, sometimes without the foggiest idea of what I am doing or what Paul means. Because by staying in conversation, even without the deep understanding of each other, we are building up the relationship, and that, more than anything else, deepens the love.

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, Liturgy and English, and serves as chaplain for the students.

Inwardly digesting the Scriptures

By Greg Jones

Last Sunday, the Lord gave us quite a bundle of sayings about the Kingdom of Heaven. What do they mean? What is Jesus saying in these parables?

Consider, He says the Kingdom of Heaven is like:
- A tiny mustard seed: Something very small, yet very powerful, which went planted grows immensely, offering its branches in service to other creatures;
- Or a bit of yeast: Able to transform the entire substance in which it has been mixed, turning dough into risen bread;
- Or a treasure: Found and cherished after being long ignored or disregarded.
- Or a pearl; A beautiful gem created by an unbeautiful creature which the Law of Moses declares abominable.

These are powerful parables, which describe the Kingdom of Heaven as treasure of great power which grows out of surprising places, effecting all around it. These are fairly easy to grasp too, when Jesus asks, "Do you understand," it's not that hard to say, "Yes."

But what about the last parable today? The hard saying? The one where the Kingdom of Heaven is like a net filled with every kind of fish, of which those judged good will be kept, and those judged bad will be destroyed? What do you do with a parable like that?

Do you ignore it? Do you decide to keep the four 'good' ones and toss away the one 'bad' one? Do you presume to judge the teachings of Jesus this way?

No. But what?

A wise priest once said that interpreting the Scripture is like eating a trout. Some bites are fleshy and fall right off the bone, easy to eat and tasty. Others are spiny and hard to swallow, the small bones sticking in your throat.

This fellows says, "as with the Bible, go for the easy parts first, and when you've learned how good they are, and how good fish is, then go after the hard bites." It's a mistake to go after the hard spiny parts first - for once they stick in your throat - you may never learn to appreciate the whole.

Of course, the earliest Christian symbol for Jesus Christ is the fish. The first letters of the Greek phrase - "Jesus Christ Son of God Savior" form an acronym - ICTHYS - which of course also means 'fish.' And isn't it true that the Gospel of this Son of God can be a hard fish to eat sometimes? Especially because of the spiny parts - the hard parts - the parts which affront and confuse our sense of things?

As with today's parables, the Gospel is not always easy to hear, learn, swallow and inwardly digest. However, the strategy of the wise priest is the way to go. Begin with the fleshy, easy bites of the Gospel - the easier to swallow sayings of Christ - in order to form the trust that these teachings are good, precious and life-giving food. And when you are coming to believe that this fish is worth eating - entirely - then tackle the harder parts.

If you have learned to trust in Christ - with Paul in Romans 8 - that Christ has come to you, for you, and with you, and loves you so much that you cannot fathom the depths of his loyalty to you - then maybe you will be able to trust also that this hard parable of judgement is also trustworthy, good and necessary. For by trusting that the good fish, Jesus Christ the Son of God Savior, is the powerful seed which will transform the world around it into a treasure coming from a surprising place, then you will then have the confidence that you want and need the hard parts, the spine, the piercing truth of the Gospel: hard wood, nails and all.

After all, it is by the hard wood of the cross, and the piercing truth of Christ's love, and His resurrection from the grave, that Christ reassures us that God's kingdom will prevail in the world in which it has been planted, and sin and death will not, and those who enter into the kingdom will be changed.

Yes, the dangerous part of the Gospel is the implication of all these parables today that once the Kingdom of Heaven is planted (in a person, in a people) it cannot be stopped from ultimately taking over the whole of it - such that only the Kingdom will remain, and all else will fall away.

This is a dangerous message, because it threatens everything about us that is not of God. For though we are all made in God's image, the scary news is that we have also remade ourselves by choices not in God's image.

To some extent or another, these choices begin to define who we think we are. Yes, the Gospel is that God loves all people, but He doesn't love all our choices.

The work of the disciple of Christ is to make choices which please the Lord, and which will spread the Gospel like a tiny seed, like leaven, like treasure, like a net - so that all may enter the Kingdom in joy.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ("Greg") was educated at the University of North Carolina and the General Theological Seminary, where he is on the Board. he is the author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004), and blogs at fatherjones.com.

The Call to Discipleship

By Kathleen Henderson Staudt

I have been trying to create ways to talk about vocation WITHOUT moving immediately to questions about “how am I supposed to make my living,” and especially without moving immediately to the question: “Is God calling me to the ordained ministry?”

It is almost impossible to disentangle these questions these days in our culture, where identity and worth are so tied to our role in the consumer economy, let alone in the Church, where vocation and discernment so strongly tied in people’s minds to questions about ordained ministry. But I insist on disentangling them. I believe it is essential for us as a church to be focusing, not so much on roles and résumés as on the original call of each of us to “follow” Jesus , to practice ever more faithful and intentional discipleship. I’ll probably return to this theme in future posts. For now, here are some Eastertide musings on discipleship and how we experience the call of Jesus.

The gospel appointed for Friday in Easter week tells the wonderful story of the risen Jesus calling the disciples away from their fishing to come and have breakfast with him, on the beach by the sea of Tiberias. (John 21:1-11). Immediately after breakfast, as we know, he repeatedly asks Peter “Do you love me,” and offers him a new, pastoral ministry: “feed my lambs.” One of the things that has always struck me about the story is that Peter and his friends, doubtless disoriented in the aftermath of the Passion and reports of the Resurrection, return to the work that they know, the work that has identified them and sustained them economically, the work they were doing when they first met Jesus. And here as in the Lucan version of the story (Luke 5:1-12), Peter and the beloved disciple recognize the urgency of Jesus’ call by the way the fishermen’s work is transformed in His presence. They have been coming up empty. The stranger on the beach tells them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat, and suddenly there is abundance, and they recognize him – “It is the Lord”, and head for the beach to be with him.

If we attend closely to the language, the story of the calling of the fishermen in Mark and Matthew can also be read as a story about the call to discipleship as transformation. Jesus finds the disciples fishing by the side of the sea, and the narrative tells us “for they were fishermen.” He calls them and, in the New Revised Standard Version, says “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (Matthew 4:19; Mark 1:17). What is lost is the phrase I grew up with, in my Presbyterian Sunday school where we used the Revised Standard Version: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” It isn’t all that clear what that means, “fishers of men,” and it doesn’t seem to be their reason for following him: there’s no new job description here. But Jesus is promising some kind of change that begins where they are. That’s the literal meaning of the Greek, I’m told: Follow me: and I will make you to become fishermen-of-people. They will be transformed into some new version of what they already are.

Dwelling a bit with these stories, in meditation, and especially with the post-Resurrection version of this call story in John, I think we can gain insight from remembering how the call of Jesus tends to come to us where we are. (“wherever we may be,” as the catechism says of the ministry of the laity (BCP 855)) When I talk about vocation with laity - people whose primary work is in the world rather than in the church as institution, I find they tend to think of vocation as being about something that’s coming in the future, or something that will require a radical shift from all that they know and are. But in fact, I have observed that most people experience the call to discipleship beginning where they are, and the transformation comes in stages, beginning with that desire simply to follow Jesus, for reasons we often can’t explain to ourselves. For many people, though we do find ourselves making changes in our lives, the call to discipleship emerges gradually, as we grow into what it means to be followers of Jesus.

This is something we emphasize in our language at worship, but most of us need to spend more time reflecting on what it means. I have been a scholar, a lover of literature, a teacher; I am a wife and a parent. Gradually, as I’ve grown in faith and deepened my spiritual practice, I’ve learned that all of this is “for Christ,” even though the content of what I teach and write, and the focus of my relationships, is not always explicitly religious. But the call of Christ has gradually changed me, has “made me to become” someone new, and it changes the way that I view the work I’ve been given in my profession and in my relationships. It seems that the transformation in me does touch the lives of others, often in ways I do not see.

So when I speak with people – especially laity – about call and discipleship, I invite them to look at where they are in life right now, not what they wish they were doing or think they “should” be doing. Vocation is not about lines on a résumé. Nor is it about office in the church. It is about identity, community, and spiritual practice. What is it, we ask, in your work, your gifts and abilities and yearnings right now, that makes you feel fully alive? Where is the abundance? Or where could the abundance be? That’s probably the part of you that is hearing Jesus’ call to discipleship, to being “made to become” a part of the new thing that God is doing.

It is true that sometimes people are in a place where they need to “leave their nets” immediately, and “do” something totally different. But usually, vocation is about an ongoing process of transformation, through the practices of discipleship that are summarized in Jesus’ command to follow him. I find this expressed most simply and poignantly in the Easter version of this call story, where the renewed call to “follow me” is preceded by a much more homely invitation: “come and have breakfast.” (John 21:12)

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt (Kathy) keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area, and teaches courses in literature, theology and writing at Virginia Theological Seminary and the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

Female prophets: a lost legacy?

This is the fourth in a series of articles on non-canonical writings. Previous installments can be found here.

By Deirdre Good

The 5th Century BCE playwright Euripides explains the connection between women and prophecy through one of his female characters:

"And in matters concerning the gods, for I consider these matters to be the most important, we women have the greatest share. For in the temple of Phoebus (Apollo) women prophesy the thoughts of Loxias (Apollo) and around Dodona's holy foundations by the sacred oak, it is the female sex which conveys the thoughts of Zeus to any Greek who seeks them. Also, as to those rituals which are performed for the Fates (Moirai) and the nameless Goddesses (Eumenides), it is not holy for men to participate in them: all of them flourish in the hands of women. This is how the case for women stands in their dealings with the gods. "

Menelippe, the speaker, is defending herself against detractors by pointing out the role of women as prophetic priests and oracle for the gods at Delphi and Dodona.

In post-exilic Israel, there were also women prophets. Judith is a prophet to whom knowledge is divinely imparted after her prayer (11:17-18). Job's daughters are praised for their ecstatic hymnody in the 1st C BCE Testament of Job and their oracles are recorded. Female prophets at Corinth, in Egypt, and in Asia Minor mentioned in the New Testament, and after, inherit these prophetic mantles.

In a letter to the Corinthians written in mid-first century CE, Paul urges that female prophets at Corinth prophesy in the public assembly with a head covering, "because of the angels." Paul recognizes women's personal and public experience of the spirit, but his concern is that it seem unintelligible to outsiders. We can reconstruct something of their beliefs from Paul's letter. They call themselves "spiritual ones," whose speech to God and each other was in the "tongues of angels." Perhaps their experience was focused on Sophia, Wisdom, whom Paul identifies carefully in the letter as Christ crucified--the object, never the subject of his proclamation. Perhaps they focused on separation from one's spouse in order to practice celibacy as a state of spiritual receptivity.

Scholars have suggested that the Corinthian women experienced something similar to Philo's 1st Century CE description of the community of Therapeutai or Therapeutrides in forming a monastic community near Lake Mariotis outside Alexandria in Egypt. Yearning to have Sophia as their true companion, these men and women renounced their spouses and property to become virgins. Their common worship includes the formation of two choirs, one of the men and one of the women, singing antiphonally. Then, "having drunk the strong wine of God's love, they mix and both together become a single choir set up of old beside the Red Sea in honor of the wonders there wrought," singing hymns of praise and thanksgiving to God their Savior, "the men led by the prophet Moses and the women by the prophetess, Miriam" (Philo, The Contemplative Life 85-7). It is possible that Corinthian women were attracted to ecstatic prophetic experience in a local worshipping community as a protest against the Emperor Augustus' "family values" campaign designed to increase the population of the Roman Empire.

The author of the book of Revelation at the end of the first century CE criticizes a female prophet in the community at Thyatira he names Jezebel. She seems to have believed that eating meat sacrificed to other gods was no problem. Her condemnation by John, the author of Revelation, shows that there were a variety of opinions on the subject; whether her community was impoverished and needed food or whether she thought that idols were of no consequence we cannot say. She clearly had disciples whom John calls "her children" whom he threatens to strike dead. Rather than disagreeing with her attitude to pagan Rome, John makes the attack personal. Calling her Jezebel not only vilifies her and obscures her identity but also legitimates calling down divine vengeance down on her. We cannot gauge the effect of John's words.
Besides the female prophets identified in Thyatira by John the seer of Patmos, we find four prophesying daughters of Philip in Acts 21 who move to Hierapolis in Asia Minor with their father. In the mid-second century, a movement called the New Prophecy or Montanism after its founder Montanus, swept through Asia Minor, North Africa and even to Rome. Oracles of Montanus, Priscilla, Quintilla and Maximilla are preserved in the attacks of their opponents Tertullian and Hippolytus. "Hear not me, hear rather Christ" said Maximilla. Priscilla claims warrant of the Paraclete of John's gospel, "Appearing in the form of a woman, radiantly robed, Christ came to me and implanted Wisdom within me and revealed to me that this place [Pepuza] is holy and that here Jerusalem is to come down from heaven." Scholars surmise that supporters of Montanism might be derived from Johannine communities, particularly women who disagreed with the author of the Fourth Gospel. Epiphanius says, "they acknowledge the sister of Moses as a prophetess as support for their practice of appointing women to the clergy." Like the author of Revelation, the church fathers deployed the rhetorical strategy of attacking the morals of women leaders: Maximilla was not a virgin; followers were accepting money for personal gain.

Female prophets in early Christianity are not all obscure. Luke identifies Mary, the mother of Jesus as a prophet. Her first reaction to the angel's message is to "consider in her mind what sort of greeting this might be." She follows the angel's response with a query: "How will this be since I do not know a man?" Receiving a satisfactory answer, and a confirmation from Elizabeth's pregnancy, she sings a song of praise to God in thanksgiving for the angel's message. We call this song the Magnificat from its opening words, "My soul magnifies the Lord." It has connections to the song of the prophet Miriam in Exodus 15. Mary's prophetic abilities are recognized outside the New Testament in a second century text called the Protevangelion of James. This is her vision:

And so (Joseph) saddled his donkey and had (Mary) get on it. His son led it and Samuel brought up the rear. As they neared the three-mile marker, Joseph turned around and saw that she was sulking. And he said to himself, 'Perhaps the baby she is carrying is causing her discomfort.' Joseph turned around again and saw her laughing and said to her, 'Mariamme, what's going on with you? One minute I see you laughing and the next minute you're sulking.' And she replied, 'Joseph, it's because I imagine two peoples in front of me, one weeping and mourning and the other celebrating and jumping for joy.' (17.5-9)

Maria is Mariamme, a Miriam figure, when she is momentarily identified as a seer. In this scene alone, Mary is portrayed as one visited by a revelation that serves as the counterpart to Simeon's prophecy in Luke 2.34, "a sword will pierce your own soul also." Only here does the Protevangelion of James reassign to a female figure prophetic insight that Luke attributes to a male character.

Female prophets from Greece to Israel, from North Africa to Rome were enthusiastic, creative, spontaneous and spiritually committed, crossing rational and spiritual boundaries in private and public settings. Why has Christian tradition never endorsed women prophets unreservedly? What voices have we lost? When women are positively valued as prophets, as in the case of Mary in Luke, or the four daughters of Phillip in Acts, they are chaste and virginal. When they are criticized, their behavior is described as sexually suspect. According to Luke, once Mary becomes a mother, she ceases to be a prophet. Paul recognizes female prophets at Corinth but is alarmed by them. In Revelation, and the assessments of the New Prophecy by the Church Fathers we see a rhetorical strategy of linking prophecy to sexual behavior. What would it be like if Christian tradition welcomed the voices and actions of women prophets?

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. She keeps the blog, On Not Being a Sausage.

Exploring "Secret" Mark

This is the second in an occasional series on non-canonical writings. Part one is here.

By Deirdre Good

The Secret Gospel of Mark has elicited fascination and concern ever since it was discovered in 1958 by Morton Smith (once an Episcopal priest) in the library of the Mar Saba monastery south of Jerusalem. In the back of a collection of letters of Ignatius of Antioch, published in 1646, handwritten pages from a letter of Clement of Alexandria (150-215 CE) to Theodore identify three versions of Mark known in antiquity: a gospel written in Rome; an expansion of the gospel written in Alexandria by Mark for those “being perfected in the faith;” a further expansion of Secret Mark by Carpocrates that Clement rejected as false.

In the following citation from Clement’s letter, the first longer quotation of material is inserted between Mark 10:34 and 35, while the second shorter quotation fits after the first part of Mark 10:46, “And they went into Jericho…”

To you, therefore, I shall not hesitate to answer the questions you have asked, refuting the falsifications by the very words of the Gospel. For example, after ,"And they were in the road going up to Jerusalem," and what follows, until "After three days he shall arise," the secret Gospel brings the following material word for word:

"And they come into Bethany. And a certain woman whose brother had died was there. And, coming, she prostrated herself before Jesus and says to him, 'Son of David, have mercy on me.' But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus, being angered, went off with her into the garden where the tomb was, and straightway a great cry was heard from the tomb. And going near Jesus rolled away the stone from the door of the tomb. And straightway, going in where the youth was, he stretched forth his hand and raised him, seizing his hand. But the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan."

After these words follows the text, "And James and John come to him," and all that section. But "naked man with naked man," and the other things about which you wrote, are not found.

And after the words, "And he comes into Jericho," the secret Gospel adds only, "And the sister of the youth whom Jesus loved and his mother and Salome were there, and Jesus did not receive them."

But the many other things about which you wrote both seem to be and are falsifications.

Now the true explanation and that which accords with the true philosophy...

[the text breaks off]

What are we to make of this? We can, with scholars who reacted to the initial publication of the text in two books, The Secret Gospel: The Discovery and Interpretation of the Secret Gospel according to Mark, (Harper and Row, 1973); Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark, (Cambridge University Press, 1973), reject Morton Smith’s interpretation of the texts as a baptism Jesus gave secretly to followers (and, in passing, the suggestion of a physical union between Jesus and the young man). Some scholars to this day suggest that the text is an ancient forgery or even that Morton Smith himself forged eighteenth century handwriting for unknown reasons. Or, we can, with Prof Cyril Richardson, not necessarily follow Morton Smith’s reconstruction of Christian origins, but “face the challenge of explaining the text.” It is unfortunate that the text has disappeared after it was taken from Mar Saba to the library of the Patriarchate in Jerusalem in 1976 but it was then seen by four people two of whom are alive today, Professor Guy G. Stroumsa of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Archimandrite Meliton.

We already know that the text of Mark’s gospel in antiquity is unstable. For example, several different endings have been added to the oldest ending of the gospel at 16:8 most of which can be seen in the footnotes of modern translations after 16:8 under headings such as “The Longer Ending” and “The Shorter Ending of Mark’s Gospel.” These alternative endings show that Mark was transmitted in antiquity either with or without a resurrection account and if the former, with more or less detail.

Then there’s the question of the stability of the text of Mark 10. The text of Mark 10:46 is odd since in its present form it fails to explain what happened in Jericho: “And they came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a large crowd, Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, a blind beggar was sitting by the way.” Secret Mark gives us an explanation of the present enigmatic text of Mark 10:46. Thus, it compels us to ask how old and how well-known our canonical version of Mark is. Perhaps it is a more public, less secret version of Secret Mark. Secret Mark also invites us to reexamine traditions about Jesus’ performing baptisms, as in John 3:22. It encourages us to re examine the relationship between synoptic gospels like Mark and John’s gospel where the account of the raising of Lazarus bears some resemblance to the Secret Mark’s account of a young man’s baptism by Jesus.

Secret Mark reminds us that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies. We can’t simply destroy texts or vilify scholars with whom we may disagree. Let’s take up the opportunities Secret Mark offers for all our reconstructions of Christian origins.

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 interior desert

By R. William Carroll

Last weekend on our vestry retreat, we did a brief Bible study on Psalm 30. One of the verses we reflected on for some time was verse 6, “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.” Certainly one of the most beautiful verses in the Bible, it anticipates the Paschal mystery, in which we pass over with our Lord Jesus, out of death into life. The whole Psalm exalts God, who has lifted the Psalmist up from deep suffering. He has been brought very low from a place of security and strength, and then, suddenly, God lifts him up again to a place of safety and joy. A truly disturbing thought is found in verse 8: “Then you hid your face, and I was filled with fear.”

What would it mean for God to hide God’s face from us? What a terrifying thought. The vestry and I spoke about the experience of Good Friday, when Jesus is broken on the cross, and God’s heart skips a beat as he lies dead in the tomb. On Good Friday, everything falls to pieces, and not even God can pick them up again until Easter.

The hiding of God’s face is a popular theme in monastic literature. The source of this is the story where God tells Moses that he cannot look on God’s face. So Moses hides himself in the rock, and looks at God’s backside as God passes by. Luther takes up this tradition as he discusses the distinction between Law and Gospel. His whole quest, to find a gracious God, could be described as a search for God’s face. Other writers use the theme to describe the experience of God’s absence at the heart of many a spiritual journey, an experience often labeled the “dark night of the soul,” a phrase used by the great Carmelite, John of the Cross.

At times, God seems to be silent and withdrawn. Whatever intimacy and friendship with God we have known disappears, and there is only a void. It is a time when we may face severe temptation, when we may have to cling to God in faith and love, even when there seems to be no sound basis for either. How long, O Lord, another Psalm asks, will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? The Psalms are not filled with false piety but with a genuine struggle for faith.

Writers about the Christian spiritual journey often hearken back to what is called the desert experience. The early mothers and fathers would journey into the desert to face their demons and find God. We often think that the life of prayer should be a source of comfort and joy, but it is also a risky venture. True prayer causes us to let go of our certainties, our desires, and our will, seeking nothing but God. This is especially important in an age that sees “spirituality” as just one more commodity to be purchased, or a source of religious “highs.”

Thomas Merton, no stranger to the desert experience, once wrote:

“The true contemplative is not one who prepares his mind for a particular message that he wants or expects to hear, but is one who remains empty because he knows that he can never expect to anticipate the words that will transform his darkness into light. He does not even anticipate a special kind of transformation. He does not demand light instead of darkness. He waits on the Word of God in silence, and when he is ‘answered,’ it is not so much by a word that bursts into his silence. It is by his silence itself, suddenly, inexplicably revealing itself to him as a word of great power, full of the voice of God.”

I think that all of us can experience this interior desert. We don’t have to travel far away either. We can encounter the desert in our day to day lives. And I think this fact points us, we who don’t necessarily believe in a devil and certainly not one with a pointy tail, to what is really going on in the threefold temptation of Christ. Here we see the very Word of God confronted with God’s silence. Jesus will face this silence again in Gethsemane and on the Cross. In the Gospels, we see Jesus wrestling with his vocation when God’s face is hidden, yet embracing it with love.

Today, in the desert, Jesus defines himself through responsible choices. Throughout his ministry, he says “yes” to some things and “no” to others. Satan knows how to make a good offer, some of the things he would give Jesus are quite attractive and seductive—food when he is starving, in one case, and all the kingdoms of this world (they are apparently Satan’s to give), in another. The devil even cites Scripture in support. Nevertheless, three times, Jesus says “no,” remaining steadfast and faithful in the midst of real temptation. So the devil leaves him, and the angels wait upon him.

Lent is a time of intentionally clearing space for God. We shouldn’t be surprised if we encounter a great and awful silence, when we do so. Fasting and self-denial are meant to leave us without the props we use to fill in the spaces that are meant for God alone. Silence and solitude open us up to thoughts and feelings we ordinarily drown out with the noise and busy-ness of our lives. The Scriptures point us to God’s promises and steadfast love—to the powerful Word that lies hidden in God’s silence.

This is how it goes when we walk in God’s presence for any length of time. The Israelites too, when they left Egypt, wandered forty years in the desert before they entered the Promised Land. They doubted God’s good intentions and complained that Moses had led them out to kill them. It took faith to keep putting one foot in front of the other until they reached the Promised Land.

The Good News is: we have a God who is able to journey with us as we really are. And to lead us, kicking and screaming if necessary, into freedom. I’d like to close with another text from Merton, a famous and beloved prayer. I was discussing it with a parishioner the other day, and it reminded me of the sermon I preached in front of my parish’s search committee. It was about a friend of mine who died too young. This prayer was one of his favorites, and he took great comfort in it, in the last days of his life. It makes for a wholesome meditation in this desert season, or whenever God’s face seems hidden from us.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.

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 blogs at Anglican Resistance. He is a novice in the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

He must increase,
but I must decrease

By Greg Jones

John the Baptist was real. He was a historical figure – not a literary invention, not a mythical fantasy. He had a life of his own, with parents, family, a name, a neighborhood, a nation. He was a real person, no less than you and I.

He is spoken of in books – not only in the Gospels but also in the books of Josephus. John was charismatic enough to draw thousands of disciples to himself and lead them to change their lives dramatically.

The Baptist was full-on real, and widely known in his own day. The evidence suggests he had a very large following of many thousands – attracting not only the poor and the restless – but also the rich and the comfortable. His own king took interest in him, and then, fearing his power, had the Baptist killed.

John the Baptist was MAJOR – and yet, we really don't know most of the details of his life – because he gave it away to point to Jesus. John was big, but he made himself small, as he pointed toward Christ and showed that disciples of God must live lives of giving it all away.
It's the central paradox of the Gospel – to live, we must die.

John got that message first.

Of course, I'm not talking about the past really. I'm talking about us too. For we are tomorrow's past – at best to be forgotten by this world and remembered in the next – at worst, to be remembered in this world but not in the next.

If John the Baptist has anything to say at all to us it is this: "Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, Go to Him, See Him, and Stay there, forever."

In the Gospel of John, after the Baptist identifies Jesus, two of his own followers leave him, Andrew and Simon Peter, and go after Jesus. They go to see where Jesus stays – or abides -- in late afternoon on the Sabbath eve - and then stay for the entire Sabbath -- a 24 hour period.
The Gospel of John is suggesting that this is what true discipleship looks like: Leaving your old master, and abiding with the Lord for 24 hours a day.

Are we doing that? Or are we popping in on the Lord for an hour a week and returning to our all-day masters the rest of the time?

Friends – God's grace is free – but discipleship does have a cost. And the cost is the giving up of our old masters – our all-day masters – whatever those are – to abide with Christ all the time.
Who is your master -- this hour? And the next?

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ("Greg") became a member of Christ's Body at St. Columba's in Washington, D.C., and he was educated at the University of North Carolina and the General Theological Seminary, where he is on the Board. Greg is husband of Melanie, father of Coco & Anna, rector of St. Michael's Raleigh, and author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004). He blogs at fatherjones.com.

Find a new way home

By Greg Jones

Only two of the four gospels talk about the events surrounding the birth of Jesus – Matthew and Luke. Luke talks about angels and shepherds and all of what happened regarding an inn and a manger, etc. Matthew skips all of that – and talks about the arrival of some Magi from the east – following a star – and bearing gifts.

Contrary to legend, we don't know where the Magi came from, what their names were, or how many of them there were. Only tradition tells us these things. And tradition varies. In the West, their names are Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. In the Ethiopian Church they call them Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater.

In Armenia, its Kagbha, Badadakharida and Badadilma. Syrian Christians call them Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas.

Chinese Christians believe that one of the wise ones was from China – perhaps his name was Liu Shang, chief astrologer in the Han dynasty, from the time Jesus was born. Liu Shang discovered a new star the Chinese call the "King Star." Notably, Liu Shang disappered from the emperor's court for two years after he discovered the King Star. Chinese Christians argue that he took the Silk Road west to Bethlehem. Marco Polo claims to have seen the tomb of the magi in the Persian city of Saba in 1270.

Who knows. But, the Gospel story we read on the feast of the Epiphany is not so much about the Magi as it is about all seekers after God from everywhere on Earth.

We don't know who the magi really were, but we know who they represent: you and me. We are seekers after God too – right? And I believe that like them, you and I have been made to know by Grace where the King of Love is – and he's in our midst. Christ is born by all who bear him – and Christ is within us as we are within him.

Which is why once we've been led to Christ, we just can't go back to the same old ways. We just can't go back to Herod.

Just as Herod represents the vile, the corrupt and the captive to sin and its power – let us not go back to him once we've had a glimpse of Jesus. Let's not say our prayers, worship, receive communion, enjoy Christian fellowship – all means of Grace – all ways to connect with the eternal plan of God – and then, go back to Herod.

In the earliest days of the Church, there was a common way of teaching seekers about holiness. They used an approach called 'the Two Ways.' One was the Way of Light. The other -- the Way of Darkness.

And I believe we do have to choose as best we can between those ways in this life. For I believe with the wise ones who first saw Christ that in this World there is an eternal plan – and that God is working toward the healing and unity of all in Christ. I believe this is the free, gracious and expansive plan of God, which seeks to include all people in the Kindgom.

I believe with the wise ones who first saw Christ that in this world there is another plan too. That plan is about conquest, ownership, worldy power – and finally – the annihilation of creation by the One who loves it NOT.

The powers and principalities of this world – according to Paul – don't love God or His Creation and they seek to ruin it. And friends that is what Herod represents. And that Herod – that power and principality – is not just a long ago character out of the bible. That Herod is a part of our lives even now.

For the light has come into the darkness – and in Him God was pleased to dwell. If you call Jesus Lord – then the Grace of God is also in your life – even now. If Jesus is in your life – even now – then don't go back to Herod.

This year, I invite you to examine in what ways you are 'going back to Herod' on a seven day a week, real life in the world kind of way – and how you can find a new road home – to the kingdom.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ("Greg") became a member of Christ's Body at St. Columba's in Washington, D.C., and he was educated at the University of North Carolina and the General Theological Seminary, where he is on the Board. He is the author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004). He blogs at fatherjones.com.

New Year's resolution

By Derek Olsen

The secular New Year has come and gone—and that means it’s time for resolutions for the year that will be 2008. Like many Americans, I’m making a resolution to do something about my physical health. Now, I could just resolve to “be healthy” but something that vague and general will never translate into actions, something that vague and general will never be formed into habits. And that’s what we’re really talking about, right?—habits, dedicated ways of being.

I’m not just resolving to “be healthy”, I’m resolving some specific things: to buy organic food whenever possible, to buy local food whenever possible, to eat my five servings of fruits and veggies daily, and to exercise at least three times a week.

So far so good, but now—what about my spiritual health? Doesn’t it require just as much nurture as my physical health? And again, what sort of resolution should I make? Let me give you a hint: if “be healthy” didn’t cut it, neither will “be holy”… Just like the physical goals, we need something that we can be accountable for. As a Scripture scholar, I’m always partial to the goal “read more Scripture” but even that’s too vague and general to form a habit.

One option is to select a plan that reads through the whole Bible in a year. Some folks may be wary of such a thing…as if it weren’t properly Anglican or something...but let me assure you, nothing could be farther from the truth! As it turns out, the earliest one-year Bible reading plan that I know is thoroughly catholic. It’s a set of instructions from the 8th century that lays out the cycle of readings for the monastic Night Office. Biblical books were read straight-through in patterns that coincided with the liturgical seasons: for instance Exodus was read in Lent, Isaiah in Advent, Acts and Revelation in Easter, etc. It was a plan with staying power, too—I’ve seen versions with minor edits and tweaks from the 11th century and we can even find references to it in the very first Book of Common Prayer.

In the preface to the 1549 BCP, Archbishop Cranmer (following the work of the Spanish liturgist Cardinal Quiñonez) laments the loss of this yearly reading system and goes on to present a new version of it in the body of the prayer book. No longer restricted to the Night Office for monastics and clergy alone, Cranmer incorporated it into reworking of the monastic liturgies that we know today as the Daily Office—Morning and Evening Prayer. This revised system offered two readings per service for a total of four daily that read sequentially through the Old Testament (except for some bits of Leviticus, Chronicles, and Ezekiel) once every year—and through the New Testament (except for Revelation) three times every year. This system remained in place until sometime after the authorization of the 1662 prayer book. In short, a one-year Bible reading plan is about as Anglican as you can get!

If a one-year plan sounds like a little much, another terrific option to work on your spiritual health is to move to the modern two-year plan. Cranmer’s one-year system eventually gave way to longer versions with shorter readings. The Daily Office lectionary in the back of our current prayer book stands in direct continuity with these. It reads through most of Scripture with three readings a day stretched over two years. Perhaps taking up the discipline of the Daily Office and utilizing this Scripture reading plan might be a good option for you.

While either of these plans appears daunting at first glance, remember that we’re talking about habits here, not one-time—or even one-year—events. If you want to start reading through Scripture or praying the Daily Office, approach it with the same strategies as you would a physical exercise plan. Find some buddies to help out! You don’t have to read or pray together—though it may help—but checking in and being accountable to others is often a great motivator. Also, commit to reading your Bible or doing either Morning or Evening Prayer a certain number of times each week and increase it as you are able. If you pick a sequential plan and you miss a few days or even a week, show yourself a little grace; don’t beat yourself up or even try to make up what you missed—just continue on with your plan. After all, it’s a cycle—you’ll catch it the next time around!

Click here for a copy of Cranmer’s original reading plan and here for online and downloadable resources to help you get started with the Daily Office.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc.

A Proverb for bloggers

By Marshall Scott

So there I was, today, looking in at one of the Episcopal blogs -- one of THOSE blogs. You know the type: issues are raised by blog owners and moderators, who do have a clear position, but who are themselves relatively orderly and polite. Then, extensive comments are posted, most by folks who agree with the owners and moderators; some by folks who agree intemperately; and a few by folks who are, well, virulent. I do visit such sites, of more than one position, and some more than others; but they exist across the spectrum of our current Episcopal and Anglican disagreements.

And for each of those sites there are a few respondents who don’t fit the mold. They may hold the “other” position, or they may simply want to play [angel’s or devil’s] advocate. And among them there are gadflies. Gadflies are usually civil (and uncivil gadflies usually get moderated out), but are always both consistent and persistent. They are convicted of the rightness of their respective causes, principles, and authorities. They assert much more than they reason, however reasonable they perceive themselves to be. They are happy, or at least determined, to stand as Daniel in the lions’ den in order to proclaim their positions. They delight in taking on all comers. They find moral satisfaction in being challenged, and even more in being attacked; for blessed are they indeed if they “suffer for the sake of the Gospel.”

And, predictably enough, it does indeed become a den, although whether of lions, foxes, or adders is not always clear. A gadfly is inevitably successful in generating not simply challenge and discussion, but also an attack. Shortly some few of the regulars on the site fall into intemperate and uncivil posts, largely of thinly veiled (if veiled at all) ad hominem attacks. There are those, of course, who seek to discuss and to argue logically and civilly; but they can be drowned out by the volume if not the number of the more personal, less temperate responses. And those less temperate responses are less likely to be moderated away, because the moderator is so conscious of the suffering that has led the responder to speak truth, however intemperately.

So, there I was today, looking at one of those Episcopal blogs, and I was struck suddenly by my favorite verses from Proverbs:

[4] Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
[5] Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.
(Proverbs 26:4-5, RSV)

I looked at how the discussion had descended into diatribe and distraction, and I suddenly wondered what I was to do. Should I put my two cents in, trying to reason against the assertions of the gadfly? If I did, would I be associating myself with the intemperance of the intemperate responders? Should I refrain, and allow both the assertions of the gadfly and the virulence of the intemperate to stand unchallenged for both had gone beyond reason? What to do?

I spent Saturday of Labor Day Weekend in the midst of a cultural experience. Specifically, I attended my first feis, my first Irish dancing competition. My niece made her first parent-less trip to come and compete. Family members outnumbered dancers in the room, but they faded from view, overwhelmed by the colorful riot of dancing dresses. They showed every color in the crayon box (although there is surprisingly little green and, less surprisingly, even less orange), decorated as they were with shapes and patterns that once showed family and tribe and allegiance.

In a way, the current Episcopal and Anglican discussions have all the ordered chaos of a feis: within the parameters of the larger event there is the dull mutter of the crowded room, the mingling of hundreds of conversations, until someone calls a tune. Then, for a period there is great focused interest, as most in the room watch the competitors doing their very best to outdo one another in optimizing the balance of authentic choreography, competent performance, and that little bit of added presentation that might hold the attention of the judge. After that there is applause for all, or at least for one’s own; and impatient waiting to see who has outdone whom; and a return to the dull mutter. There will, of course, be some ranking at the end, and some competitors will be thrilled and some disappointed, and their respective families with them. But most present simply want to have danced well, and to have heard their efforts appreciated.

In parallel, we who want to take our own places in this discussion, have opportunities in the blogosphere (and elsewhere, certainly) to share our reflections and to see the reflections of others. At our best, we’re also trying to optimize a balance of authenticity, competence, and that little bit of added presentation that we hope will allow us to stand out a bit. Most of the time as a common enterprise I think we manage relatively well; but sometimes it isn’t any prettier for us than for the poor, unprepared dancer. And in all those situations, there are the colors and patterns of opinion that claim family and tribe and allegiance. It is in just those circumstances that we need to think about the passage from Proverbs: whether our participation will challenge foolishness, or simply contribute to it.

It’s September; and there are those who have seen events of this September, and of the Autumn to follow, as critical, literally as moments of crisis. There is much talk of deadlines and decisions, of imposition and resistance, of the standing and falling of many in Zion. Because I continue to think these are struggles for identity (and I do think it’s about identity, with such issues as sexual morality and Biblical authority and historical precedent being discriminators within the identities at issue), they’re all the more liable to be personal, ad hominem responses. I think Episcopal Café is one place that has worked hard to maintain discourse instead of dissonance; and while most of us who write here would be considered “progressive,” we have all sought to offer our best, and to offer the best of the Episcopal Church as we see it.

But out there in the rest of the blogosphere, on our own blogs and in responding to the blogs of others, I think we need to reflect on Proverbs. We believe the voices of the Net are meaningful and in some sense representative in Episcopal and Anglican discussions. We believe them part of the conversation, along with sermons and official statements and press releases. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be putting our own view out, and we wouldn’t be reading and responding to the voices of others. As we do so, let’s think carefully, and respond appropriately. The lessons from Proverbs should give us all pause; and if they don’t, there is always that other proverb: “Better to be silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

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.

In praise of the longest psalm

By Derek Olsen

Psalm 119, weighing in at 176 verses, has the virtue of being the longest psalm in the Scriptures. According to Cranmer’s original 30-day plan for reading the psalms, we start 119 on the evening of the 24th and don’t finish it until two days later on the evening of the 26th. The more you look at, the more unusual it becomes. First, you’ll notice that it’s broken up into twenty-two parts, each containing eight verses, and that our prayer book identifies each with an odd word. Take a look at the original Hebrew and you’ll quickly see why—even if you don’t read any Hebrew at all… This psalm is an acrostic, meaning that different lines begin with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. There are other acrostics among the psalms but they tend to be 22 verses long: one for each letter of the alphabet. Only Psalm 119 dwells on each letter for eight verses.

Furthermore, this psalm doesn’t “go” anywhere. Some psalms are narratives; they literally take you on a journey whether it’s out of Egypt and into the Promised Land (like Ps 78) or from vignette to vignette (like Ps 109). But Ps 119 isn’t like these; you can read it forward or read it backward—starting with v. 176 and reading back up to v. 1—and it doesn’t change the meaning one bit.

Lastly, the closer you look at each set of eight verses, the more you start seeing certain words. In fact there are a set of synonyms which keep appearing over and over again: “word,” “statutes,” “judgments,” “decrees,” “commandments,” “law”… They appear with such regularity that it becomes clear that there is some highly elaborate pattern at work directing the structure of the psalm: each verse has to begin with the same letter of the alphabet and as many of these synonyms for “law” must be worked in as possible before moving on to the next letter.

For these reasons—especially the last—a whole school of Old Testament scholarship takes Psalm 119 to be people’s exhibit A of everything wrong with the worship of Israel before the time of Jesus. This school, German and beginning in the mid to late 19th century, was heavily influenced by Romanticism and its notions of authenticity, inspiration, and artistic expression. The prophets! they cried, the prophets were the truest and best example of authentic religion in the Old Testament because they present the individual genius (as in Romanticism), directly wrestling with messages from God (not just “texts”), rejecting conventional formulae, and presenting their bold calls to the people who subsequently reject them (a classic Romantic criterion for true authenticity). This psalm (they said) uses a formulaic structure that clearly stifles the creative spirit, points back to a legalistic religious text instead of living personal experience, and is completely and thoroughly anonymous; in no way does it satisfy their religio-aesthetic standards.

I’ve never liked this understanding of Psalm 119. Rather, I see Ps 119 as a word of invitation.

The German school sees this psalm as “artificial”—but, I’d argue—perhaps that is where we find its value. Lately when I read Psalm 119 I’ve been reminded of two things: a poem and a picture. I’d agree that it’s artificial—but then, so is all good poetry. That is, a poet voluntarily embraces restrictions in order to use a form that restricts expression in order to enable meaning. To accept the boundaries of rhythm and meter is to accept a challenge to communicate in a form that itself communicates by its very rules and strictures. Reading Psalm 119, I think of the Pantoum—a stylized form of poem where the first and third lines of each four line stanza become the second and fourth of the next. Because of its shape, the Pantoum lends itself to poems about time or experience because of the constant repetition of elements and the measured progress of meaning. (Here’s a good example.) So what is the function of this psalm’s particular form? Where is it inviting us? What state is it evoking within us?

And that leads me to the picture: a carpet page from the Lindisfarne Gospels. One of the great treasures produced by early medieval English scriptoriums, the pages that set each gospel off from one another are a dizzy and dazzling nest of knots and curls and circles one within another. They, no less than the psalm, are artificial as well—but does this detract from or create the beauty they embody? And indeed it is the very curling and looping that leads me from this artistry back to the psalm. The curls do not lead us anywhere except back from whence we came. They invite us not to linear progress from one side to another but rather to the places and spaces within and among themselves. Just as the picture invites reflection and study and contemplation, so too the psalm invites us to rest, to wait, to ponder.

The form of the psalm—especially if you’re already familiar with the acrostic form and if you’re expecting the psalm to head directly to the next letter—holds you back. It contradicts the expectation of informed readers, deliberately slowing their pace through the poem. The use of synonyms further invites careful reading. They ask that attention to be paid to shades of meaning. Is there a reason why “decrees” appears in one place rather than another? What's the nuance of “word”? Only close and careful attention to the text and its turns, a measured turning over of the verses and repeated readings will yield results.

As the form communicates, compelling a closer reading, to content surges ahead to reveal a why and wherefore. The world that the psalmist evokes is not a safe place. It's a place filled with dangers and powerful enemies. This isn't a psalm about contemplation that takes place away from the world. Rather, the sense the psalmist draws forth is that contemplation of God's commandments and then translating that contemplation into righteous action is a means of survival! But it's more than that too—moving through survival, faithful obedience becomes a source of joy. The word “delight” in regard to the Law appears no less than ten times.

Contemplation blossoming into righteous action proceeding into a disposition of holy joy leading once again into contemplation. At points, the Church has seen this psalm as a paradigm of how daily life ought to be understood. One classical scheme of arranging the psalms for the Daily Office—including the Tridentine Breviary of Pope Pius V—assigned the entirety of Psalm 119 to be read throughout the Little Hours that punctuated the day. Thus it would be begun shortly after the sun's rise, then would be recalled three more times until the late afternoon and the sun's wane, each and every day. Reminding and reforming those who prayed that their daily labor ought to be intertwined and entangled with the contemplation and incarnation of God's Law and Word. A vestige of this theology remains in the first psalm selection of our current Noonday Prayer.

Psalm 119 is long. It is repetitious. But these are the qualities that invite us into a spirit of contemplation. It issues an invitation to dive into the Word and—yes—into the Law, to roll ourselves in it, to lose and loose ourselves within its depth and breadth and height and width. To find hope. To find delight. To learn to say with the psalmist, echoing the spirit of the true Psalmist, the great paradox of Law and Gospel: “I will run the way of your commandments, for you have set my heart at liberty.”

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. His full-time calling of keeping up with two adorable preschool girls and his wife, a priest in the Diocese of Atlanta, is complicated by his day-jobs as a database programmer and an adjunct professor at Emory’s Candler School of Theology where he teaches in homiletics, liturgics, and New Testament. His blog is Haligweorc.

Biblical storytellers

By Greg Jones

Many of us know that story time is essential with children. I love the time I spend reading and inventing stories with my daughters. I cherish it. But as the brightest minds have begun to ‘rediscover’ – stories are not just for kids anymore. Studies show in fact that story-telling is the most effective way of communicating a complex of ideas – about truth, about culture, about expectation, about social norms, about values – to any person or group of people. Scholar Harold Cole explains that story telling is defined as transferring a picture in the mind of one person to the minds of others through the full-bodied experience that embraces the mind, the imagination, the emotions and the human will. Anybody who has heard a good sermon, seen a good play, or heard a great ballad understands this.

And, because it is so effective – being indeed the fullest communication a human is capable of perhaps – it works in all environments and settings. When I was a missionary in Honduras, I wasn’t particularly effective at explaining the systematic theology I had read with my illiterate parishioners. Notably, I am still not particularly effective at explaining it with my college-educated North American parishioners. But in both contexts, when I simply told my story and how it was a part of God’s story – in the local language – everybody connected.
It’s that simple – and that brilliant.

And this is why the Bible is filled with stories – shaped and influenced by the inspired telling of thousands of faithful human beings across centuries, nations and languages. Amazingly, they all seem to speak of the same things: the loving God who made us, redeemed us, and sustains us – if only we abide with Him.

The live telling of sacred stories forms the oldest foundation of the biblical tradition. The utterance of the Word was first and foremost an oral communication, only to be written down and put into a finalized form at long last. As such, the heart of the bible is story – story upon story upon story. All of which fit together into a master story, an overarching narrative which encompasses the whole bible.

Thus, part of the magic and mystery of the Bible is that it is telling a universal and eternal story – through many small stories – and we may find ourselves within that story of God and Creation which is the Bible.

It is quite clear that human beings, and Christians especially, are ‘story-formed people.’ The importance of stories and storytelling cannot be underestimated, and in non-literate cultures oral story telling is a highly developed art form. Even for most of the history of the Hebrew Bible, for centuries after it was finally fixed in written form, the vowels were intentionally left out. The bible was not intended to be read silently by literates, but vocalized and intoned and read aloud in a community setting – wherever two or three or more were gathered.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ("Greg") is husband of Melanie, father of Coco & Anna, rector of St. Michael's Raleigh, and author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004). He blogs at fatherjones.com.


by Ann Fontaine

Is there life after death and if so what will it be? In a Woody Allen movie, a man (played by Allen) converts to Christianity. His mother screams and goes to her room. The father asks why he would want to do that. Allen’s character replies by asking his father, “Aren’t you worried about you know, ... after?" The father says, "No, I don’t worry, I will be dead!"

Philosophers and religions discuss death and afterlife extensively. Some religions do not profess any concept of life after death; others such as Christianity have extensive belief systems and writings on subject. I tend to agree with the father in the movie – “I will be dead.” All I can really do anything about is here and now.

Currently I am intrigued by the concept put forth in the trilogy His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. Note: The daemons in his trilogy are an externalized part of the human's spirit embodied in an animal form. A daemon is capable of shifting species to reflect the emotional state of their human companion until puberty when the daemon's identity become fixed.

Lyra, the heroine of the trilogy says, "When you go out of here, all the particles that make you up will loosen and float apart, just like your daemons did. If you've seen people dying, you know what that looks like. But your daemons aren't just nothing now; they're part of everything. All the atoms that were them, they've gone into the air and the wind and the trees and the earth and all the living things. They'll never vanish. They're just part of everything. And that's exactly what'll happen to you, I swear to you, I promise on my honor. You'll drift apart, it's true, but you'll be out in the open, part of everything alive again." (The Amber Spyglass, page 335)

"Even if it means oblivion... I'll welcome it, because it won't be nothing, we'll be alive again in a thousand blades of grass and a million leaves, we'll be falling in the raindrops and blowing in the fresh breeze, we'll be glittering in the dew under the stars and the moon out there in the physical world which is our true home and always was." (The Amber Spyglass, page 336)

"To know that after a spell in the dark we'll come out again to a sweet land like this, to be free of the sky like the birds, well, that's the greatest promise anyone could wish for." (The Amber Spyglass, page 532) 

Many funeral sermons talk of reunion with loved ones or life continuing in some improved version of what we know now. The Scriptures give a mixed message. The letters of Paul give some suggestions. Much of our imagery comes from Revelation with its metaphors of streets of gold and lakes of fire describing what awaits us. Some Christian denominations have a highly developed idea of afterlife and others leave it to the category of mystery. Some branches of Islam tell of living in gardens of pleasure. Most of Judaism does not have an afterlife theology. The most one can read in The Bible is that there will be some sort of ongoing life in God but even that is unclear. As I age and more and more friends die, it is comforting to imagine that I will be in an improved known life but I wonder. I think it more likely to be nothing like anything I know but I trust that it will be in the hands of God if it is anything at all.

What I do care about is life now, making the kingdom of God present in the world. As it says in the Lord’s Prayer, I pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.” I care about leaving the world having contributed to making it a better place for all people. I hope that our children and grandchildren and their children will have a place to live on earth, that they will find meaningful lives, and contribute in their time.

Mary Oliver wrote in “When Death Comes” 

…When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

The people I look to are those who have not just visited with their time here on earth. They have delighted in their time here and brought joy as a primary gift to those around them. They have spent their days making space for others.

In the end I hope that death will be as Pullman describes it, "The first ghost to leave the world of the dead was Roger. He took a step forward, and turned to look back at Lyra, and laughed in surprise as he found himself turning into the night, the starlight, the air... and then he was gone, leaving behind such a vivid little burst of happiness that Will was reminded of the bubbles in a glass of champagne." (The Amber Spyglass, page 382)

Philip Pullman web site -- http://www.randomhouse.com/features/pullman/
Movie website -- http://www.goldencompassmovie.com/ Fall 2007

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

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

Africa and The Bible

By Greg Jones

Just a century ago, in all of Africa, there were merely ten million Christians, and most lived in three countries: Egypt & Ethiopia with their Christian communities dating from antiquity, and South Africa, with its large European population. Today, there are roughly four-hundred million Christians in Africa. Christian growth in Africa has occurred in a context of horrific death, disease, war and oppression. In contrast, since the last major Western wars and economic depressions ended a half-century ago, Christianity in Europe and North America is fighting major decline.

But, lest we assume the Bible is a novelty in Africa, we must remember that Africans have been reading the Bible for a long time! Indeed, Africans have been engaging the Word of God in the Bible for millennia.

Africa is not only mentioned in the Bible, it has long been a place where biblical interpretation has flourished. Indeed, many of the Church’s fathers were Africans in the first four centuries of Christianity. Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian of Carthage, Origen of Alexandria, and Augustine of Hippo – were all Africans.

It is easy for us today to forget that just over thirteen centuries ago, Christianity was the dominant religion among civilized folks in Northern Africa and into the Horn. But, with the conquest of those lands by Muslim Arabs in the seventh century, all that changed nearly overnight. Most Christian Africans converted to the new religion, and only a handful of Christians survived to modern times. Apart from pockets in Egypt and Ethiopia, Christianity did not thrive in Africa between the Arab conquest and the early modern period.

When Europeans began to colonize sub-Saharan Africa in earnest, in the 19th century, they brought missionaries with them, to help with the project. As such, the incoming missionaries brought not only the Bible to sub-Saharan Africa, they brought also their modern Western worldview – a worldview more like Thomas Jefferson than Origen of Alexandria.

Most modern Africans have mixed thoughts about the way they received the Bible from the West. On the one hand, it is clear they appreciate having been given the Word of God in the Bible. On the other hand, they remember and resent the patronizing modern Western mindset which came along with it. On the one hand, they admire the way so many Western missionaries ended up living, suffering and dying in Africa for the sake of spreading God’s Word. On the other hand, they remember the way in which those same missionaries disparaged and condemned the African’s culture and traditions. On the one hand, they are aware that Africa figures in the Bible itself, and on the other they know it was only recently that most Africans have received it.

Desmond Tutu describes the mixed feelings with this parable:

When the white man arrived we had the land and they had the Bible. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ When we opened our eyes, they had the land and we had the Bible. And we got the better of the deal.

Tutu makes a poignant and multi-layered observation here. On one level, the parable tells the painful story of African exploitation and domination by Westerners. The plain meaning is, “We were duped by men carrying bibles.” The second meaning, which goes deeper, is the pride modern African Christians take in their grasp of the truth of the Word of God in the Bible, despite the duplicitous way in which it was first given to them.

Ironically, when the missionaries finally made good translations of the Bible into African languages, the Bible and its message could be heard on its own terms, apart from the dominant modernism of Western missionaries. The fruit of this engagement with the Word of God in the Bible by Africans on their own terms, has been the explosive growth of African-founded churches, institutions and organizations which have merged African culture and tradition with their own readings of the biblical story. Rejecting the West’s demonization of African culture, the newly liberated African Christians followed the biblical principle of upholding all that is beautiful in a culture, and doing away only with those cultural traits which plainly distort the Gospel. The inculturation of the Bible into a truly African context was the thing that needed to happen – just as it had happened in Europe many centuries ago.

As a result of this inculturation of the Word of God, in fairly recent times, denominational differences in Africa don’t mean much. Importantly, outside of South Africa perhaps, there is not a distinctively Anglican approach to the Bible in Africa. African specialist and Episcopal priest the Rev. Dr. Grant Le Marquand tells me that “Western denominationalism doesn’t make a lot of sense in Africa. In East Africa, for example, all the various churches pretty much look the same – if you had a blindfold on you might not tell the difference.” But, he says there are some distinctives in African biblical engagement, in general.

First of all, Africans are generally critical of modern Western approaches to the Bible, including those of the 19th century evangelists who brought them the Bible. Africans identify very much with the worldview of the Bible – finding it reminiscent of their own traditional African worldviews. They believe the modern Western worldview, bereft of mystery, spirits and supernaturalism, doesn’t truly resonate with the biblical worldview. The typical African sees a universe steeped in mystery – a cosmic landscape dotted with spirits, sorcery, animal sacrifice, ancestor worship, and so on – much like the one they find described in Scripture. When Africans were freed from Western interpretations of the text, and Western disparagement of African culture, they could read the Bible themselves. And, importantly, the world Africans encountered in Scripture was closer to their own world than the world of the missionaries. “When they would encounter passages about sacrifice, tyranny, blood, suffering, spirit, healing, etc. – they could deeply grasp it as of their own worldview," Le Marquand writes. "The African noted how closely connected that their world and the biblical world are.”

In addition to identifying more closely with the Bible’s own supernaturalist worldview, Africans also identify with the Bible’s communal vision of humanity. Africans are surprised by Western individualistic approaches to the Bible. They do not believe individuals are equal to the task of biblical interpretation. Ubuntu is the African notion that a person’s identity depends upon her relationships. Whereas the modern Western mindset seems to be, “I think therefore I am,” the ubuntu mindset is, “I am because we are.”

Finally, in addition to a worldview steeped in mystery, and a communal understanding of human identity, Africans engage with the Word of God in the Bible from within their context of suffering and pain.

With few exceptions, modern Africa is a study in pain, death, disease, war and oppression. Independence from colonial rule did not bring ‘the true law of liberty’ to Africa. As such, all African Christians read the Bible in light of brutal circumstances. It is perhaps this last distinctive which draws them so deeply into the biblical story – which is about suffering and deliverance, oppression and liberation, bondage and redemption.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ("Greg"), rector of St. Michael's Church, Raliegh, N. C., is on the board of his alma mater, the General Theological Seminary. He blogs at fatherjones.com.

Third Way Biblical engagement

By Greg Jones

The desire to engage with Scripture as a means of communicating with God has been a part of the Anglican tradition since Christianity came to the British isles in apostolic times. Even after the modern period began, with all its concern for historicity, objectivity and science, leading Anglicans like Samuel Taylor Coleridge proposed a 'third-way' of engaging the Bible for modern people, who are simultaneously open to the mystery and power of the Word of God in the Bible. Though Coleridge is primarily remembered today for his poetry, in his own time he was a leading Christian thinker and influential layperson. He was avowedly modern in his willingness to explore new ideas, but he also argued against the materialistic and rationalistic trends of his time.

In the late 1790's, Coleridge read some of the latest critical studies of the Bible coming out of Germany. Coleridge shared the historical understanding that the Bible was not dictated letter-by-letter by God himself. He knew the Bible was a collection of writings originally composed as all books are – by human beings. But as practicing Christian, Coleridge also experienced and believed that the Bible is not like all other books.

He argued that modern people should read the Bible with modern eyes – of course. He said, "to be rightly appreciated the Bible must be read like any other book." But, he said, "the reader with his mind thus open will soon come to realize that in reality it is not like any other book, since more fully than any other does it meet the needs of man's spiritual being."

Coleridge argued that the transformational power of the Word of God in the Bible is lively and active and will offer to open minded readers an experience of engaging with God in real life. In other words, for Coleridge the final evidence of the Bible's spiritual power to transform lives in a unique way is given experientially. He says, "I have perused the books of the Old and New Testaments, -- each book as a whole, and also as an integral part. And need I say that I have met everywhere more or less copious sources of truth, and power, and purifying impulses; -- that I have found words for my inmost thoughts, songs for my joy, utterances for my hidden griefs, and pleadings for my shame and feebleness."

It has been seen as prophetic that Coleridge was already calling for the Church to look beyond modernism's attitudes and approaches toward the Bible. Given that he was among the first of his generation to become acquainted with the critical methods which would prevail for the next two centuries, it is astounding that he was able to identify the shortcomings of the modernist approach so early.

Nearly two centuries later, in 1974, a Bible scholar in the United States named Walter Wink wrote a small book called The Bible in Human Transformation, arguing much the same way. The then shocking first sentence was, "historical biblical criticism is bankrupt." Wink argued that the prevailing method of engaging the Bible – across the protestant mainline at least – was "a form of scholarship gone to seed but which by sheer abundance of seeds, flourishes everywhere." Wink saw his critique of the modernist vision of the Bible as belonging to "a chorus of voices raised in the name of God and humanity."

To be clear, Wink acknowledged there was much of value to be taken from historical criticism of the Bible. But Wink's essential point was that the method itself was not particularly valuable for the primarily spiritual practice of communicating with the Word of God in the Bible. And it is this primary work of transforming human beings and the world in relationship with the living Christ that is the first business of the church.

Just as Coleridge decried the materialism and rationalism of his day, many Christians in recent generations have decried the imperialism – intellectual and physical – of Western Civilization in general. In the late 20th century a host of non-Western and feminist approaches have challenged the old certainties of Western modernism. Christians and newly empowered women around the world have begun to read the Scriptures through their own experiences of Christ in community, and they have offered a new vision and approach to the Bible that goes beyond rationalism. Certainly, William Stringfellow as a gay man in the 1950's and 1960's, who dedicated his work for the marginalized, and Verna Dozier an African-American woman, offered important perspectives on the Bible as they engaged it in faith. All of these prophetic voices – from Coleridge to Dozier -- pointed out deficiencies of the prevailing norms of Bible study in our church.

Well aware of these deficiencies, many believers in recent decades have sought to fill in the gaps left by the unliving and inactive vision of the Bible put forth by the guild of rationalist Bible scholars and clergy in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Many of us have looked to non-Western Christian practices to fill in the gaps, and some have looked to pre-Modern and even pre-Christian practices – in an effort to form a new-old synthesis. This explains why so many Episcopalians who are intentional in their practice of the Christian faith are drawing upon Celtic Christianity, the monastics, the early church, Judaism, African Christianity, and other far-ranging resources.

Some call this contemporary fascination with things both ancient and modern "postmodern" or "postcritical." I tend to see it as simply the natural variety of a Body of Christ which I believe is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. I believe the contemporary Episcopalian is called to draw upon all the resources of our ancient, global, multicultural and inclusive faith tradition – and that to do so will likely enrich our spiritual engagement with the Word of God in the Bible so long starved by the too dry attitudes of Western rationalism and modernity.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ("Greg") became a member of Christ's Body at St. Columba's in Washington, D.C., and he was educated at the University of North Carolina and the General Theological Seminary, where he is on the Board. He is the author of Beyond Da Vinci (Seabury Books, 2004). He blogs at fatherjones.com.

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