Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Although I know that the beginning of the Church Year was a month ago on the First Sunday of Advent, I am making a series of New Year's Resolutions that were prompted by a very unlikely source, at least for me, an essay, What I Have Learned These Past Five Years: Reflections in Advent, 2008, by the Revd Dr. Ephraim Radner, Senior Fellow at the Anglican Communion Institute and Professor of Historical Theology at Wycliffe College in Toronto. I recommend the essay and here are the resolutions that arose out of my reading it:
  1. I won't insist, or even expect, to have my own way.

  2. I won't make disagreements in the church battlegrounds.

  3. I won't be so foolish as to think that I and those who agree with me have the solution to the church's problems.

  4. I won't demonize those with whom I disagree.

  5. I will be patient, trusting that God will handle everything in God's own time.

I pray that with God's help I will be able to keep these resolutions,

I am thankful for Dr. Radner, even though I have not often agreed with him in the past. Reading his essay reminded me that God can speak to me through the most unlikely people.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Magi

And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. [Matthew 2:12 (KJV)]

Although the King James Version of the Bible is not one that I use regularly, I very much like how that translation concludes the story of the visit of the magi. I realize that the literal meaning of the text is that the magi took another route back to their own country, but I find in the words "another way" an invitation to consider how we are changed by our encounter with Jesus. Is it impossible for us to go about our lives in the same way as before? I hope so, but I am very much aware of my own resistance to being changed, of my strong desire to have things my way and not another way, not God's way.

During Christmastide I find myself confronted again with what J. B. Phillips described as the "almost frightening quietness and self-effacement," the "devastating humility" of "God’s intervening into human history" in the Incarnation. God chose to become one with us in our humanity, to become vulnerable like us, that we might become partakers of the divine nature, spirit-filled people, alive with the power of God's love. I cannot avoid the challenge that the Incarnation places before me. Will I allow the love which created the universe, the love which led Jesus to the cross, will I allow that love to become flesh and blood in me? Will I return from Bethlehem transformed, journeying on another way?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


We are nearing the end of what my friend Mary Stengel calls the Hunger Holidays, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas when Americans respond to the needs of those who are very often called less fortunate. Having worked for a number of years as the Executive Director of our county's Commission on Homelessness, I am thankful for the generosity of so many people during November and December each year. But I have a major problem with the idea that the people we are helping are less fortunate.

Calling someone less fortunate perpetuates a great lie about poverty in the United States, the lie that poverty is, if not the poor person's fault, at least a product of the mysterious power of fortune or luck. Nothing could be further from the truth. Luck has little if anything to do with whether a person is poor. What has a great deal to do with it is privilege.

We don't like to think about privilege, about the privileges that we enjoy, much less the privileges that are denied to others. Unexamined privilege is one of the most dangerous features of American life. When we are unaware of the privileges that we enjoy, we come to a very faulty conclusion about ourselves, the assumption that we earned it all. That assumption often, maybe inevitably, leads to the conclusion that those who are poor or homeless are that way, not because they are less privileged than we are, but because they are lazy or simply the victims of bad luck.

During the past twenty years or so, I have frequently taken an inventory of the privileges that I enjoy, privileges that have made it possible for me to live a fairly comfortable life. My grandfather and both my parents attended Ivy League universities. There were plenty of books in the house as I was growing up. There was never a question about my attending college or going to divinity school. My sexual orientation was never an issue when I was being considered for ordination. And, most obviously, as a white male I have privileges that have been, and are still being, denied to men and women of color. To borrow a phrase from the late Ann Richards, I was born on first base, but thank God I know I didn't hit a single.

In about a month our country will have its first African-American President. I am pretty sure that Mr. Obama has made his own inventory of the privileges that he has received. The time is right for all of us to make our own inventories and to stop thinking of those who are less privileged than we are as less fortunate.

Monday, December 8, 2008

I Baptize With Water

John the Baptist is often portrayed by artists as pointing to someone just outside the picture frame. The someone, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth who would come to John to be baptized in what Christopher Duraisingh calls a "solidarity plunge" with all of us. Jesus, the Word of God Incarnate, casts in his lot with us, becomes Emmanuel, God with us. In that sense the artists got it wrong - the One to whom John pointed is not outside the picture frame of our life in the world - he is in the very heart of it, transforming the world with the power of love.

It is no accident that the inaugural sermon that Jesus preached - as recorded in Luke's account of the good news - has as its text Isaiah 6:1-3:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

I take this list to be evocative rather than prescriptive, encouraging us to discern for ourselves in these times what actions of ours - as the Body of Christ - would serve "to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor...." In each context in which the Body seeks to live faithfully the answer will be somewhat different. In one place, the Spirit may move the community to house the homeless. In another, God's people may be moved to raise moneyto build a school in Pakistan. In another community, the call may be to work to end legal discrimination against gay and lesbian people. For others the call may be to be present with those who are dying.

The promise of Emmanuel is that we will never be left alone, that God will always be present with us - in us - as we face the challenges of living in these difficult and even dangerous times. The Incarnation, God's choosing to become one with us in our humanity, speaks powerfully to me of God's desire to be God only in realtionship with us - and not only the "us" that we find acceptable, but with all people.

Many years ago, my narrow understanding of God's love was challenged by a poem by the Victorian poet Robert Buchanan. At the end of "The Ballad of Judas Iscariot" Buchanan wrote these lines:
'Twas the Bridegroom stood at the open door,
And beckon'd, smiling sweet;
'Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Stole in, and fell at his feet.
'The Holy Supper is spread within,
And the many candles shine,
And I have waited long for thee
Before I poured the wine!'
The supper wine is poured at last,
The lights burn bright and fair,
Iscariot washes the Bridegroom's feet,
And dries them with his hair.
May our love be so transformed by God's love that we might rejoice to welcome even the likes Judas Iscariot to the feast.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Church's Mission or God's?

A new friend observed that my latest blog entry was several months old. Someone on sabbatical should have time to continue with a blog, right? Apparently not, at least if the sabbatical is spent at the Episcopal Divinity School, a place with an embarassment of intellectual and spiritual riches.

When I began planning for the sabbatical last spring, I set for myself two goals: to discover more about how congregations have dealt with diveristy of convictions among their members; and to rethink my own understanding of the Atonement. While I have spent some time on both of those projects, other opportunities for study have taken much of my time.

As I approach the end of my sabbatical, I am aware that in spite of the time I have spent these past few months studying liberation theology, the role of the Church in social movements, the Episcopal Church's sharing in God's mission in the world, and post-colonial ecclesiology, I have so much more to learn. Most of all, I need to learn how to engage myself in God's mission, to become part of what God is doing to heal us and our world.
That learning will require, most of all, that I listen - to my family and friends - to the mebers of our parish - to my colleagues in ministry - and to Episcopalians and Anglicans who don't agree with my convictions about sexuality. What I have just begun to discover is that being a Christian within the Anglican Communion means being grounded both in my local community and in a web of relationships with Anglicans everywhere. Staying grounded in both those contexts requires work and patience. I believe that it also requires that I learn to live without certainty about anything other than God's love incarnate in Jesus the Christ, that I learn to hold everything as provisional, even my own deepest convictions. If I can hold onto that love and let it be incarnate in me - even a little bit - and listen widely and carefully, then there is some chance that I can do my little part in God's mission.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Unexamined Privilege

About a month ago I had a conversation with a friend. I'm not sure how it came up, but he commented about a same-sex couple that he had seen at a concert in a church, and said that he was offended when one of them put her arm around the other. When I looked puzzled, he said that he would never put his arm around his wife in a public place.

I didn't seriously challenge his statement simply because I couldn't think of what to say except that it didn't bother me when couples showed affection in public. It was only later that I realized that my friend was ignoring one important fact - that he could show affection to his wife in public without anyone taking offense. He and I and all married heterosexuals have in our society the unearned and far too often unexamined privilege of showing affection to our spouses in public. Like so many other pieces of privilege, this is usually unexamined until we see someone else who is not like us doing the privileged thing.

I believe that we are called by God to examine the unearned privileges we take for granted. Not that we necessarily have to give them up, but that we might see how important it is for others to be able to enjoy the same privileges.

Several years ago I was given the opportunity at a conference to identify some of the privileges that I as a heterosexual have that gay and lesbian friends don't have. As I thought of the privilege of marriage, of celebrating at our wedding the love which my wife and I share, tears began to form in my eyes as I thought of the gay and lesbian couples that I knew who had been denied that privilge and joy.

That situation is changing, slowly. I overheard a couple at coffee hour after church during my vacation this summer mention their three weddings. I asked them why three and they told me that the first and most important was an exchange of vows and rings with just the two of them and God present. The second was a civil ceremony in Canada, and the third was a glorious "high church" celebration in their parish.

I am so thankful that things are changing. I'm writing this while on sabbatical in Massachusetts, where same-sex couples can be married. I will return in December to the parish in East Aurora, New York, a state where the Governor has ordered that all state agencies must recognize all legal marriages. I pray for the day when the Episcopal Church which I love will decide that the covenant of marriage is for gay and lesbian couples, as well as for folks like my wife and me.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The President Just Doesn't Get It

When the President of the United States speaks at the United Nations and makes no mention of the Millennium Development Goals, the kindest thing that I can say is, not that he doesn't care, but that he just doesn't get it. I will not argue that terrorism, the subject of his speech, is not a problem. It is, but the problem of poverty throughout the world, with all of the attending problems of inadequate education and health care, is so much more important. Rather than using his "bully pulpit" to address the threat of terrorism, how much more encouraging would it have been for him to use the opportunity to call for renewed and deeper commitments to the MDGs.

But if the President doesn't get it, at least some of us in the Church - and elsewhere - do get it. As a Christian I understand that my work towards the meeting of those goals is a way that I can participate in the missio Dei - God's mission in the world. And because God is not limited to calling only Christians to this work, I can work with sisters and brothers from other faith traditions, or no faith tradition, to accomplish these goals. It's God's work and it is not my place to tell God who can and cannot be called to share in that work.

Beginning at least with Jimmy Carter, former Presidents have made significant contributions to this country and to the world. I pray that when President Bush is no longer carrying the burdens of the office that he would see the world not simply as the battleground for a war against terrorists, but as a place where women and men of all sorts and conditions are working together to meet the Millennium Development Goals. And when he gets it, I pray that he will commit himself to the work of meeting those goals. That may seem like an impossible prayer, but in a week when Christians remember the calling of Matthew, a tax collector for the hated Romans, I am encouraged to believe in and expect miracles.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Lambeth Conference

I have been encouraged by what I am hearing from US bishops who are attending the Lambeth Conference, as well as by the comments of Brian McLaren who addressed the bishops on the challenge of making disciples. (Susan Russel has posted on her blog Bishop Kirk Smith's comments on McLaren's presentation.) There appears to be a recognition, even a celebration, of the diversity of the bishops of the Anglican Communion.

What is discouraging is both the exclusion of the Bishop of New Hampshire and the boycotting of the Conference by leaders of the GAFCON movement. Bishop Robinson has been taking his exclusion with his usual graciousness. The GAFCON response to the presence of US bishops who consented to or participated in Bishop Robinson's consecration has been far from gracious. Not only have many of the bishops involved in GAFCON boycotted the Conference, others who are attending refused to receive Communion at Sunday's Eucharist. Both actions are quite literally communion-breaking.

Andrew Goodard of the Anglican Communion Institute has written a scathing critique of the GAFCON response to the proposed draft of the Anglican Covenant. After reading Dr. Goddard's analysis of the GAFCON response, I have come to the conclusion that the leaders of GAFCON have no interest in a covenant that would help to hold the Anglican Communion together, but only in creating an “Anglican Communion” that is confessional - with a confession that is reflective only of their theology and understanding of Scripture.

I pray that I am wrong about that, as I value my relationships with Anglicans from the Global South, with Anglicans from all over, especially with those with whom I disagree. I value being part of a Communion that is not theologically monochrome, a Communion where we can disagree in love about important matters. If there are those who are unable or unwilling in such a Communion, I pray that they will find a place where they can grow in Christ, but I believe that the Anglican Communion will be poorer without them, and I suspect that their lives will be poorer without us.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Risk-taking God

The RCL lessons for the past two Sundays (July 13 & 20) underscored the very risky nature of God's mission. A sower who scatters seed on good soil and bad without distinction and a land-owner who allows weeds to flourish among the wheat - what a revelation of God's profligate love for us! And what a challenge to the Church to be as wildly risk-taking in sharing the Good News with others.

There is no support in the parable of the sower for applying cost-benefit considerations to the Church's work. We are called to share the Good News as freely with those whom we would judge as "poor prospects" as we do with those who appear most likely to respond. And we are to resist the temptation to judge whether folks are wheat or weeds, leaving that judgment to God. I am even tempted to see in the parable of the weeds among the wheat a hint that perhaps growing up with weeds all around is good for the wheat! Certainly practicing what John Stott once called "rabbit hole Christianity" is not faithful discipleship. Isolating ourselves from anyone who is not a Christian - or our kind of Christian - for fear that we will be soiled by contact with them seems to indicate a lack of faith in God's ability to protect us from the evil one. (John 17:15)

I believe that the Church is being called to take risks in its ministry and to trust patiently the One who has called us.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Recommended Reading

Tobias Haller, BSG has written a wonderful essay about the importance of meeting with those with whom we disagree. He ends the essay:

As to the Gospel, it is in how we relate to those with whom we disagree that we reveal our likeness to Christ, who came to us and was among us while we were yet sinners, who was in fact most commonly found meeting with the sinners as opposed to the righteous. The “mind of Christ” which we are called to have in and among ourselves was the mind that brought him to us empty of glory, in order to save. Christ himself did not delay his coming to us until we were suitably redeemed: the whole point of his coming among us, while we were at odds with God, was to bring us what we lacked — unity in him, and forgiveness. It is not the healthy that need a physician, nor is it the unanimous who require a meeting.

During my upcoming sabbatical I will be visiting congregations in New England to learn how Episcopalians are learning to treat with respect those with whom they disagree and are continuing to meet at the Lord's Table.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


Bishop Wright wrote two responses to the GAFCON declarations for the Fulcrum website. I responded to the second which was much less glowing than the first. I also submitted a comment about the discussion of the Presiding Bishop's response to GAFCON. Read Bishop Wright's comments - and perhaps his earlier comments as well - before reading my response.

I applaud Dr. Wright on his taking another look at GAFCON, but I disagree with his assessment of the crisis in the Anglican Communion. As one who applauded the action of the 2003 General Convention of the Episcopal Church in consenting to the election of Gene Robinson, I know that my views may be in the minority in this forum, but the Anglican Communion will not survive this crisis if we refuse to listen to one another.

From the beginning I thought the crisis was, like the crisis over the ordination of women, a crisis of choice. By that I mean that traditionalists chose to make the ordination of a partnered gay bishop a communion-breaking issue and have viewed those who disagreed with them as unfaithful to the Gospel. Oddly, few have seen disagreements on other ethical issues as communion-breaking. I am still willing to be in communion with Anglicans who seem to ignore the Gospel's concern for the poor, or who disagree with me about capital punishment or the war in Iraq.

Making this one issue the litmus test for orthodox faith was a choice, perhaps a conscientious choice, to be sure, but a choice nonetheless. As a lifelong pacifist, I have been enriched by being in communion with those who do not share my convictions, with many who served faithfully in the military. I have been enriched by the diversity of convictions on many matters that exist within the Anglican Communion, within the Episcopal Church and my diocese, and within the parish I serve. It was a Provost of Coventry Cathedral who wrote, "If everyone in the Church were just like, what kind of Church would that be?" My answer is that the Church would be impoverished.

What GAFCON is proposing is, I believe, an impoverished Church, a Church where no dissenting or prophetic voices will be heard, a Church which will ultimately define itself over against the "wicked revisionists." Such a Church is fissiparous and we can expect to see divisions over other issues. Dr. Wright has already identified the ordination of women as one issue, but there will be others in time and those issues may well result in further divisions between the truly orthodox and those no longer orthodox enough.

Even though I don't agree with many of the comments that are posted in the Fulcrum Forums, am often confused by the acronyms, and don't understand the Church of England all that well, I have found it valuable to read the comments.

Monday, July 7, 2008

You May Be Mistaken

"I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken." (Oliver Cromwell)

Although this comes from what for me is a very unlikely source, Cromwell's advice is worth heeding. In the debates that are going on within the Anglican Communion, I often sense that some folks on all sides are not open to the possibility that they might be mistaken. I also sense, in me at any rate, a dangerous desire to define myself over against someone else: I am a progressive and not one of those terrible traditionalists!

Avoiding that danger, I see myself as one who is defined by God, who is becoming what God wants me to be - a beloved child of God formed in the likeness of Christ. And that means that I am by definition a sinner wh0m Christ came to save. And if a sinner, then most of the time - maybe all the time - mistaken in my understanding of the Good News.

Acknowledging that I might be - am likely to be - wrong does not mean that I don't stand upon my convictions, that I don't act as I believe God wants me to act. But I hope that I stand and act with a certain modesty, open to the strong possibillity that I'm mistaken and that I will need to stop and go in a new direction.

Monday, June 16, 2008

For while we were still weak

During the summer between my first and second years at the Episcopal Theological School (now the Episcopal Divinity School), I was a student chaplain at a state mental hospital. One day I was passing through a ward on my way to the ward to which I was assigned. I was walking quickly, chiefly because I was late, but also because I was aware that I was intruding on the living space of the ward's patients. Before I could make my way to the exit, a man approached and asked if God could forgive him. Not wanting to spend too much time in conversation, I asked him if he ever murdered anyone. He looked shocked and told me that, of course, he never. I replied that it was certain that God could forgive him, because God had forgiven Paul, who, at the very least, had conspired in the murders of the first Christain martyrs.

Paul understood the nature of sin and that it is in our human weakness that we fall under the power of sin. Paul knew that humans could not, by their own strength, escape from the power of sin. Having discovered for himself how God deals with sin and with sinners, Paul preached the Good News of forgiveness and reconciliation to Jew and Gentile alike.

Roman Catholic priest and theologian James Alison has suggested that the experience of the Resurrection for the disciples on the first Easter was the experience of being forgiven. All of them had, in one way or another, been unfaithful to Jesus - Peter in a very public way, but all of the rest in less public ways. When Jesus appeared to them, he didn't dress them down or chew them out for having failed him - something which most of us would do - but he simply said, "Peace be with you." Peace - the gift of being forgiven, the gift of being reconciled with Jesus, reconciled with God.

Alison has also suggested that God understands sin as that which can be forgiven. Far too many Christians think that God's attitude to sin is best reflected in the bumper sticker, "Jesus is coming back and he's pissed." But that certainly isn't the way that Jesus came either in his ministry or in his Resurrection. Jesus came with forgiveness and the power to transform us , and why should we expect that in his coming again it would be any different?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Death of the Adverb

I understand that the English language is changing and that it is foolish to think that we can speak and write as our parents and grandparents did. But I still fight against the death of the adverb in spoken English here in the US.

This morning I heard a student from one of the best high schools in the country say that she was "real excited" about volunteer work she was doing. Real excited, not really excited. Up until the past year or so, I thought that that kind of obvious mistake would mark the speaker as uneducated, but no longer.

Some would say, and rightly so, that there are different standards for written and spoken English. The problem is that over time spoken English influences written English, and influences it for the worse. The subjunctive is hardly ever used in spoken English and it is disappearing in written English. The transitive verb "to lay" is quickly displacing the intransitive verb "to lie," and were I to say, "I lie in the road," one might think that I meant that I was not telling the truth to a member of the Highway Patrol.

Compared to much else that is wrong today, these are, I admit , minor concerns. This is not, as my mother used to say, a ditch in which I am willing to die. I am willing, however, to resist this tide of change, to use adverbs gladly, to say "lie" when I mean "lie," and to say "If I were president" and not "If I was...."

Thursday, June 5, 2008

By Stages

And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb. (Genesis 12:9)

I recall standing in the driveway of our home when I was 10 waiting, but not at all patiently, for it to be time to go to the town fair. Fifty years on, I still struggle with my impatience. When I want something, I want it now.

But that's not the way important things happen in our lives. Like Abram, who "journeyed on by stages," we move towards life's important goals and events by stages, at times, it seems, by baby steps. A wise friend once told me that healing may come quickly, but growth takes time. God's promises may come to us in an instant, but the securing of those promises usually takes time.

Abram was promised that he would become a great nation, a nation that would in future generations be given a land in which to dwell. It was years before Abram and Sarai would have the son, Isaac, who was the promised heir, and it would be hundreds of years before the children of Israel would possess the land. When we read the story of Abram and Sarai in Genesis, we read of moments when Abram's faith in God wavered, when he seemed not at all sure that God would keep the promise. But in the end, Abram "believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." (Romans 4:3)

This past weekend our son Matthew graduated from law school. He has a diploma and a job that will begin in September, but much of his time during the next two months will be spent preparing for the bar exams, and he expects that he would not be admitted to the bar before next February. Like so many graduates, Matthew will journey by stages towards his goal. Like so many graduates, he will have moments when we wishes that the goal could be achieved in an instant. And like his father before him, he may struggle with impatience. In the end, however, I believe that he will trust that God has called him and has been preparing him for this vocation , and he will travel by stages towards the realization of God's promise.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Pay Attention!

Eugene Peterson paraphrases Matthew 6: 34 - "Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now..."

We live in very anxious times. It seems clear that the old phrase - "God is in his heaven and all is right with the world." - no longer rings true, if it ever did. There is so much that is wrong in this world, so much evil, so much death and destruction, so much that can produce in us, if we are paying attention, a lot of anxiety, a lot of worry. And in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to pay attention, to focus on what God is doing right now.

That isn't easy and it certainly doesn't mean that we should ignore all the anxiety-producing events in the world. A colleague once rewrote the words of an old Gospel hymn. He suggested that when we turn our eyes upon Jesus and look full in his wonderful face, the things of earth will not grow strangely dim, but will be clearly see, in the light of his glory and grace. When our focus is on what God is doing, we see the world in a new way, we see in lots of places, in what Celtic Christians call thin places, signs of God working, and working through people like you and me. We see God at work and we are not anxious.

We can see it Myanmar, not in the intransigence of the generals, but in the persistence of those who want to help. How much easier it would have been for them to have walked away when the generals said, "We don't need your help." And that refusal to walk away, that persistence, is a sign that God is at work.

Jesus could have walked away from us. During what we now call Holy Week, Jesus lamented over Jerusalem - "How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing." How easy it would have been for him to have taken all those refusals and betrayals and denials as clear indications that we weren't worth loving and saving. But he didn't.

If we can but pay attention to what God is doing right now - in Myanmar, in China, in our own lives - we can let anxiety go and trust God to be God.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Of Boycotts and Girlcotts

I have been musing on the question of boycotts recently. Some prominent people have said that they will boycott the opening ceremony at the summer Olympics in Beijing. Others are still planning to attend. The Dalai Lama has asked people not to boycott the games. What is a person of conscience to do? And what is an appropriate and effective response to injustice?

In 2005 I wrote a commentary about the "girlcott" of Abercrombie & Fitch for one of Buffalo's public radio stations. I believe in boycotts and girlcotts even when I suspect that they will not bring about significant change. I believe in them because they are a way of saying that I will not participate in or support something which I believe to be unjust. They are a way of responding to what St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome. Here's how J.B. Phillips translated Romans 12:2:

Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.

My Quaker activist mother would have liked "Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould," my activist mother who used to tell me, "You may not be able to change the world, but you better work to keep the world from changing you."

I know that the absence of world leaders or even some athletes at the summer Olympics won't convince the Chinese government to change its policy in Tibet. It will take much more than a boycott to do that. I also know that the International Olympic Committee's hope that China would improve its human rights record in the lead-up to the games has not been fulfilled. Neither the awarding of the games nor a boycott of the games has or will convince the Chinese government to change.

If I can't change the world - or even the Chinese government - I'd better work to keep the world from changing me. I'd better work to make sure that I don't support - even indirectly - something that I believe is unjust. I'd better work to keep the world from squeezing me into its mold. Others may choose to tune in to the games this August, but I won't.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Way to the Father

The placing together in the Revised Common Lectionary of the story of the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:55-60)and Jesus' statement, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6) presents us with the temptation to see ourselves as superior to the Jews who crucified Jesus and stoned Stephen. These Jews, after all, rejected the one who is the way, and the truth, and the life, and we Chrsitians have embraced him.

Resisting that temptation - indeed, rejecting it forcefully - requires first that we remember that the conflicts that are reported in the Gospel accounts and in Acts are conflicts within the community of God's chosen people. As a Christian I am not part of that community. As a Christian I know only too well that my embracing of Jesus as the way, the truth and the life is not something that I have done of my own accord. It is pure grace, an undeserved gift of God that I have been able to say yes to God's invitation to follow Jesus.

But if we get beyond using these texts as an excuse for anti-Semitism - and we know that they have been used in that way - we are still faced with the temptation to use the words of Jesus' as an excuse for denying that there is any truth to be found in other religious traditions. I received a gift to help me in standing against that temptation in a quote that a colleague sent me:
"Jesus said, 'I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.' Your western ears hear Jesus saying that he is the only way to God, but that is not what he says. He is an eastern mind speaking to eastern minds. They hear the emphasis being on the Father (Abba). What Jesus is saying is that he is the only way to come to know God in personal relationship similar to that of a child to "daddy". This does not weaken a sharing of the gospel, as you might think. Instead it allows a Christian to say to someone of another faith, that Jesus offers something unique, a close relationship to God." (Dr. A. B. Masilamini, a Baptist theologian and evangelist in India)
Far from being a denial of any truth that there is in other religious traditions, these words of Jesus simply affirm something that is central to our faith as Christians. We are able to call God "our Father" with boldness and with thanksgiving. God has claimed us as God's very own children and we are, in the words of our Baptismal liturgy " marked as Christ's own for ever."

I pray for the day when Christians will stop using texts like these as weapons against other people of faith and will focus on following Jesus in the way.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Year of the Gate

There was an interesting story on the blog Father Jake Stops the World about a "prophecy" that the Bishop of Pittsburgh had been sent by a preist in the Church of England. Apparently Bishop Duncan saw that "prophecy" as supportive of realigning his diocese with the Province of the Southern Cone or some other "orthodox" province of the the Anglican Communion. When I read the "prophecy" I found in it, surprisingly, encouragement for those who are in favor of what the Rev'd Gray Temple, Jr. calls "sacramental equality" for all Episcopalians. Here are three of the sentences in the "prophecy" that I found encouraging:
There are new beginnings ahead for those who have been waiting patiently for their moment to come. Obstacles are being removed. The Father is breaking his children out of a sense of captivity to past restrictions.
I believe that we are at a time when "new beginnings" are possible for Episcopalians, a time when we will see the removing of the obstacles that we have placed in the path of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered members of our community. God has alredy begun to sweep away some of those barriers and, in the words of the "prophecy" sent to Bishop Duncan, " The anointing for new beginnings is on many in this year. The time of frustration and exile is coming to an end. This is the Lord’s time for his people to rise up and follow him through the gates of opportunity."

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

You Break It - You Pay For It!

In the ongoing debate about the war in Iraq, we need to remember the sign we often see in gift shops - "You Break It - You Pay For It!" Iraqi society is broken and the US is responsible, although not alone, for breaking it. Many Iraqis and people in Syria and Iran have their share of responsibility for the broken Iraqi society, but the US must take its share of the blame. However bad Sadaam's regime was - and it was very bad - the US invasion and the gross mistakes of the Bush Adminstration have made life in Iraq in many ways worse that it was under Sadaam.

As much as I wish the US could simply walk away from Iraq, I know that the Iraqi people deserve better from us. Continuation of the current Bush policy will not, I believe, make the situation any better, but walking away could make it much worse. I think that the US needs a new strategy, one that includes both military disengagement and smarter diplomatic engagement, one that sees Iraq's neighbors Syria and Iran not as our permanent enemies, but as potential allies in cleaning up the mess that all of the parties have made.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Thomas in Community

I was privileged in 2002 to watch part of the satellite downlink of the Trinity Institute, held at Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York City, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. One of the two addresses that I heard was by Parker Palmer. In the question and answer period following his address, Palmer spoke of the need for community and identified two kinds of false communities that are present in our society.

They are death-dealing counterfeits of the life-giving community that God wants us to experience.

The first false community is the kind in which everyone has to think alike, to adopt the party-line or they're out. We saw this in the Soviet Union with its Gulags for dissidents and we can see it in some Christian communities where members are required to adopt a particular interpretation of the Christian faith.

The second false community is the kind where you can believe anything you want because no one is really paying attention to you or taking you seriously. If you want to struggle with your doubts and fears, don't bother to do it in this kind of community, because no one really cares.

When Thomas came back to the community of the disciples on the Sunday following the Resurrection, he didn't find a false community that demanded that he accept Simon Peter's or anyone else's understanding of what had happened on Good Friday and Easter. Nor did he find a false community that didn't care if he had doubts. He found instead a community of unconditional love that accepted him as he was - doubts and all - and provided him a place where he could struggle with those doubts and come to faith.

Jesus had formed a community of unconditional love around himself in the months before his death by reaching out to all sorts of folks, even those who were unacceptable in the eyes of the religious establishment. When he breathed on his disciples on Easter, inviting them to receive the Holy Spirit, he gave them the power to create the same kind of community of unconditional love. And that's what they did, and it was that community that Thomas found when he met with the disciples a week later.

We are called to be a community of unconditional love, to welcome all sorts of people with all of their doubts and uncertainties and to provide a space where together we can come to deeper faith.

Are we willing to be that kind of community?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Senator and the Pastor

I have been angry the past few days about the controversy over some of the sermons of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., the former pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, the church to which Senator Barack Obama and his family belong. As a preacher I would be angry if reporters and talk-show hosts were expecting members of my congregation to defend or denounce everything I have ever said in a sermon - especially if what I had said was taken out of context as a sound-bite. But I am also angry because I value the tradition of prophetic preaching, a tradition which has flourished more in African-American churches than in predominately white churches.

I hope, however, that some good comes out of the controversy. First, that Senator Obama affirms the tradition of prophetic preaching while being clear about where he stands on the issues that Dr. Wright addressed in his preaching. Second, that Christians of all political persuasions rise up in defense of the freedom of the pulpit. I suspect that no attack, however vicious, would stop Dr. Wright from preaching, but I worry that more timid souls among us preachers will look at the current media frenzy and decide to play it safe, preaching "Peace, peace, when there is no peace." (Jeremiah 6:14)

Thursday, March 6, 2008


Within a little more than a week it will be Holy Week and on Palm Sunday we will be invited to “enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby” God has “given us life and immortality….” Those mighty acts are, of course, the death and resurrection of Jesus. Not just one or the other, but both of them together.

At the core of the Gospel is the proclamation of a crucified and risen Savior, Jesus, who was most certainly dead but is now alive forevermore. But as we ponder the passion, as we think about what it means for us to have faith in, to put our trust in, and to follow our Lord and Savior, we need to take care that we do not forget what kind of person was crucified on Good Friday.

The Gospel according to Matthew, the one from which most of our Gospel readings are taken this year, provides us with some significant reminders of what kind of person Jesus is and why he got on the wrong side of the civil and religious authorities. Matthew tells us that immediately after entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Jesus “drove out all those who were selling and buying in the temple and…overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold doves” (21:12), an action which may be seen as a dramatic retelling of a statement that Jesus had made earlier, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” (9:13) A few chapters later, Matthew gives us one of the most challenging teachings of Jesus. In the Parable of the Last Judgment, we are challenged with Jesus’ statement that what we have failed to do for the least of his brothers and sisters we have failed to do for him. (25:31-46)

Jesus challenged – and challenges – religious and social complacency, the very idea that we are doing just fine. Our own worship can just easily fall into empty formalism as did the worship of the temple. And the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters are still hungry and naked and homeless, not only in what we call the Third World, but also here in our own country. Jesus constantly challenges us to move beyond words to action, to translate our faith into service of others. Jesus does not – and for this I am very thankful – expect us to serve all of the least of his sisters and brothers, but he does call us to serve those we can, to give ourselves in service of others, just as he did.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Between Two Trees

We have taken a break at our Sunday morning adult class and are watching four videos that we will be using to introduce the Episcopal Church to visitors. The first video, "Trees," uses an intriguing metaphor for the Christian life - we live between two trees, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 2 and 3 and the tree of life in Revelation 22.

The first chapters of Genesis tell the story of humankind's rivalry with God and with one another. Adam and Eve want something that God has and eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to wrest that knowledge from God. That rivalry becomes fratricidal in the next generation as Cain wants what Abel has - God's favor - and murders his brother to wrest from him God's favor. Human history at its worst is the playing out of this fratricidal rivalry. We desire what others have and, far more often than we would want to admit, we allow those desires to rule us. Some of us manage to get that which we desire, and not always without violence. Others simply allow the desire to become an obsession. In the Fourth Gospel, we are given a picture of Jesus who is no one's rival.

In John 5:19, Jesus describes his relationship with the Father in terms in which there is no hint of rivalry: "Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise." Jesus invites us to enjoy the same kind of relationship with him and with the Father. In John 5:20, Jesus says, "The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished." These words are echoed in John 14:12: "Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father."

In Christ we are freed to live without rivalry, with God or with anyone else, freed to love as Jesus lived, doing what we see the Father and Jesus doing. In Christ we are freed to lay down our lives for one another in unconditional love.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Old Dogs - New Tricks

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you." (Genesis 12:1)

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night... (John 3:1-2)

In both of these two readings for the Second Sunday in Lent, we find old dogs beingn invited to learn new tricks. Abram, whose body Paul later called "as good as dead" (Romans 4:19), packs up and heads out for an unknown land, trusting the One who called him. Nicodemus, who must have been old enough to be a leader in the Jewish community, is invited to consider the possibility of being born anew, born from above, born of the Spirit.

I am reminded of two stories, one factual, but both true.

Some years ago a Baptist minister found himself dreading clergy gatherings. He would go to a meeting and hear the succcess stories of colleagues and return home depressed. One day a minor revelation came to him and he began to see clergy meetings through what I would call an Abraham lens - if God was working miracles in that man's church, God could certainly work miracles in mine!

An older parishioner once told his priest that his life's work was finished. The priest replied, "If you're still alive, God still has work for you to do."

It is never too late for us to respond to God's call to go to an unknown country, to move out of our comfort zones and to experience a new birth.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Crisis in San Joaquin

A friend sent me a link to a blog by someone in the Diocese of San Joaquin ( It outlines, from the bloger's perspective, the controversy about the status of members of the San Joaquin Standing Committee. The members in question had all, as far as I know, voted to remove the Diocese of San Joaquin from the Episcopal Church and to affiliate it with the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone. There were also reports that these members were organizing themselves as the Standing Committee of this new Southern Cone diocese. The blogger criticizes the Presiding Bishop for writing to the members to inform them "that I do not recognize you as the Standing Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin."

I find the controversy perplexing, to say the least, and would only fault Bishop Katharine for not being absolutely certain about the members' intentions before writing to them. As far as I can tell, she based her letter on what appeared to be accurate information about the votes of the members on taking the diocese out of the Episcopal Church and reports that they had constituted themselves as the Standing Committee of the new Southern Cone diocese. I think that what was/is needed is clarity about the intentions of the members of the Standing Committee. If it is certain that they intend to stay within the Episcopal Church and be part of the Diocese of San Joaquin, I think Bishop Katharine should recognize their authority. If, however, they cannot give assurances that they want to remain in the Episcopal Church, one might reasonably conclude that they are trying to have it both ways, i.e., to exercise authority as the Ecclesiastical Authority after Bishop Schofield is deposed, as seems inevitable, while exercising similar authority in a diocese of the Southern Cone. I don't believe that having it both ways is an honest option. Having read their response, what I found most offensive was, not their protestation of innocence, but their listing of counter-charges against Bishop Katharine. In my experience that tactic is usually used by one who is guilty as charged.

One of my prayers this Lent is that all of us in the Episcopal Church will seek wisdom in living through these diffucult times, and that we will, unless it would violate our own convictions, do nothing that would lead to further division.

Remember That You Are Dust

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

I have, probably since I first went to Ash Wednesday worship as teen-ager, been uncomfortable with these words from the Liturgy for Ash Wednesday. I don’t like to be reminded of my mortality or my insignificance. And yet, as we have begun our Lenten journey, it is precisely that reminder that we need.

We are mortal. Time for us is not infinite, it is not, no matter what Mick Jagger may say, going to be on our side forever. There is an urgency about Lent – we need to get on with it and not assume that we will have plenty of time to deal with ourselves tomorrow or the next day or the next. Now, as Paul reminds us in his letter, “now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” We are called to begin now, to begin the work of setting our lives in order, the work of repentance, the work of reconciliation.

But this reminder is not only about our mortality, about the inevitability of our death. It is also about our insignificance, our weakness, our inability, on our own, to do anything about setting our lives in order. The task is too big and we are but dust. But there is one who can set our lives in order. There is one who waits eagerly to do just that. It is the God whom we see in Jesus the Christ who can order our chaotic lives, and all that God asks of us is that we offer those lives at the foot of the Cross.

“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.” All that is within me. Hold nothing back. Let God have it all. Our angers. Our frustrations. Our prejudices. Our pettiness. Our sins. As well as our joys. Our satisfactions. Our accomplishments. Let God have it all.

Far too often we make the mistake of leaving all the nastier parts, the more shameful parts at the door when we come to worship. But if we can’t bring those to God in our worship, where can we bring them?

I love to pray the psalms, not only for the beauty of the language, but also because in the psalms everything is brought to God. Everything is proper conversation with God. Nothing is held back. Not the psalmist’s rage or vindictiveness. Not the psalmist’s despair or sorrow. And certainly not the psalmist’s joy. All of it comes into the holy space of conversation with the God of Israel. And there, in that holy space, all of it is redeemed.

Lent is a holy space where we can bring everything to God, laying it at the foot of the cross. Hold nothing back. Let God have it all. And let God redeem it there at the cross, redeem it and so order our lives that we might, by God’s grace and mercy, receive that perfect gift, the Easter gift of resurrection life.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Fishing in a Divisive Climate

A few years ago I was speaking with a Canadian friend about the "climate" in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada. We hadn't seen one another in a couple of years and in that time the climate in both churches had become more contentious. Disagreements, which had always been there, were becoming acrimonious. We were being infected, I concluded, as North American politics had, with the virus of a dismissive and demonizing rhetoric. Those with whom we disagree were no longer friends or sisters and brothers in Christ, but the enemy and not worthy of our respect.

Paul, in the Epistle lesson for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany (1 Corinthians 1:10-18), seemed to be dealing with this same problem in the First Church of Christ in Corinth. Divisions were threatening the life of the congregation, with members breaking up into factions on the basis of which person had baptized them. I suspect that Paul saw nothing wrong with folks having some affection for those who had brought them into the Church, but Paul knew that one person who really mattered was Christ and he could not be divided.

Whether our divisions now are based upon personal history, e.g., who was rector when we joined the parish, or upon our deeply held convictions, we put the ministry of the parish in peril when we let those divisions become a roadblock to our working together. Like the not at all solitary work of fishing in the Sea of Galilee, our work in ministry is a communal affair. Even when one of us appears to be working alone, e.g., at a hospital bedside, that work is supported by the prayers of the community and flows out of our sharing in the life and worship of the community.

I believe that God is calling us to "fish" together in this divisive climate, to refuse to allow disagreements to divide us, and to persevere in working together to proclaim, in words and in action, the Good News of God's love incarnate in Jesus.

My Friend, and Not a Stranger

My friend Otey died last week and yesterday we had a grand celebration of his life. I am not sure how tall Otey was, probably about 6'7", so no matter where he was in Church on Sundays, you knew he was there. One Friday last year Otey noticed that our Office Administrator had to stand on a pew to change the numbers on the hymn boards and he volunteered to do that each week, something he could do standing on the floor.

What was important about Otey wasn't so much the things he did, although we appreciated them, but that he was our friend. He understood that Jesus, who calls us friends, has called us to be friends with one another. Being a friend doesn't mean that we always agree with one another or that we always approve of what a friend does. It means, as it meant for Otey, that we are committed to one another for the long haul, that we are there for one another, as my mother used to say, come hell or high water.

I will miss Otey. He was my friend, and, if I'm not wrong about friendship in Christ, he is still my friend and will be my friend forever.

Friday, January 4, 2008

A Light to the Nations

Matthew begins his account of the Good News with these words: "An account of the genealogy (or birth) of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham." The first chapter ends with Joseph naming the child Jesus, as he had been told to by the angel who appeared to him in a dream. By naming the child, Joseph, a descendant of David, claimed for Jesus that same lineage.

But son of Abraham is another matter. John the Baptist would later challenge those who heard his preaching but did not take it to heart: "Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham." To be a child of Abraham is to be the inheritor of a promise: "I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice." All the nations of the earth are to be blessed by the offspring of faithful Abraham.

To make that point perfectly clear, Matthew goes on in chapter two to tell the story of the Magi, who are not descendants of Abraham, but are foreigners, gentiles, and who come to Bethlehem to worship and to be blessed. In this holy Child will God's promise to Abraham. In this Child will all the peoples of the earth find blessing. Sadly, the Church has far too often claimed the blessing only for itself. Far too often we have hid the Light, not under a bushel basket, but behind walls of prejudice and arrogance and triumphalism. Far too often we act as if the Church was in business to serve us, rather in the business of serving others, of proclaiming and spreading the reign of God, of being a blessing to all the nations of the earth. The promise to Abraham means that the nations have a claim on us, have a right to expect that through us they will receive God's blessing.

When Jesus began his ministry, Matthew tells us that his first sermon was simple: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." The reign of God has begun and we are called to repent and become a blessing.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008


My wife and I went to see the movie on New Year's Day. Near the end of the movie, as the Mujhadin were beginning to shoot down Soviet helicopters, I suddenly thought of the young men who were flying in those helicopters. They had not chosen to go to Afghanistan, they had been sent there to kill and to die, like young men - and now young women - in countless wars. As we were leaving the theater my wife said that she would have liked the movie more if it had been fiction.

But the story isn't fiction. And because it isn't fiction, we are called to work and pray for peace.


(An excerpt of a sermon by Karl Rahner set these thoughts in motion.)

We are the beginning a new year, the year of Grace 2008. Of course for the Church the new year began four weeks ago with the first Sunday in Advent and this is the beginning of the secular year. As much as we might like to live in the Church or in the cloister, we ae called to live out our discipleship in the world, just as Jesus was called to live out his Passion in the world. We only have to look at the beginning of the 2nd chapter of the Gospel according to Luke or the beginning of the 3rd chapter to see that the story of Jesus’ birth is set in the world. We find mention of Emperor Augustus and Quirinius and Emperor Tiberius and Pontius Pilate and Herod and Philip, secular rulers, before we even find mention of two religious leaders, Annas and Caiaphas. It was in the world that Jesus shared the Good News with fishermen and tax collectors and lepers and prostitutes and even, when pressed, with a Syrophoenician woman and her daughter.

In the Church Year this day is the Feast of the Holy Name. In the history of salvation, names are important. The Divine Name, which we out of respect for our ancestors in the faith will rarely say, means something like, I am who I am or I will become what I will become. Perhaps another way to understand it is as God’s way of saying, “You can never really know who I am, so stop worrying about it.” The Name of Jesus, however, tells us something important about this One whose Name we can never really know. It tells us that this One is One who saves. We know that we can’t save ourselves. We’ve tried and we’ve failed. But here in Jesus we meet the One who saves. In Jesus we can confidently claim the name of sinner. We can, in a phrase from Roman Catholic priest and theologian James Alison, embrace the joy of being wrong.

We are called to live this year of Grace under the sign of the Holy Name of Jesus, to live in faithful trust in the One who saves.