Saturday, November 29, 2008

Eye on the sparrow

“Why feed those damn sparrows
and finches?” My neighbor groused.
“They’re just ugly little
Dun colored things. Might as well
Feed the grackles, too, while you’re at it.”

And I do, for I believe in the God of Small Things.
One small bird cannot fall
Without notice, so who am I
To set up a velvet rope and a bouncer at the feeder?

This is the God of the uncut grass
Bowing obeisance to the summer wind
Seed heads bowed, nodding like somnolent watchmen
Thankful for the smaller gifts of wind and rain.

This is the God of cottonwood leaves
Applauding to the exhalations of
Exhausted hurricanes. This is
The God of infinite detail in a hazelnut universe.

This is the God of love without reason.
Surely we receive as much grace as sparrows.
Frantic beggars, they just hope for food.
Frantic beggars, we just hunger for God.

Every creature of God is good, praising with each breath,
Even as winter want implacably awaits.
Eckhart said, “Every creature is a book about God.”
It is given to us to read it, and be led back to love.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Fort Worth, Quincy, Pittsburgh, San Joaquin: A problem of love

Today the Episcopal Diocese of Ft. Worth under +Jack Iker announced that it too is leaving the Episcopal Church and aligning itself with Archbishop Venables and the Southern Cone. This is now the fourth diocese to cast off its ties to the Episcopal Church over disputes which ultimately are about conservative versus progressive interpretations of the Scriptural witness to us as Christians.

Ultimately, this dispute is all about love. That means that, for many of us, this is a dispute about the very nature of God.

I think most of us (with perhaps the exception of +John Shelby Spong) would agree that we are called to live according to the precepts handed to us in Scripture as one part of the infamous three-legged stool that Anglicans use to craft our understanding of our faith and theology. The difference sadly, boils down to these two questions, and these questions alone:

Is God a loving God, or is God a judging God? Does God call us to love or condemn?

These questions are vital to one's theology literally as well as figuratively. I would actually state that these questions are vital to how we live our lives, which is what theology should be.

One of the flashpoints for conservative displeasure and censuring of the Episcopal Church has to do with homosexuality and its status in the interpretation in Scripture. One could even make the case that the anger of the conservatives is over the call of some people to love those of their own gender. So this dispute is literally about love, one could say.

Conservatives ultimately interpret the Scriptural witness in four or five specific verses to mean God wishes to judge and exclude homosexuals. Progressives interpret Scripture not based on specific verses but on Christ's action in sitting at table with the most marginalized and despised of his times to mean that God loves all and Jesus is sent to all in love. Ultimately, the dispute is about strict interpretation of the Bible versus loose interpretation of the Bible, similar to political disputes about the interpretation of the US Constitution.

We could rehash all the particulars of this dispute, but that's been done better by others elsewhere. I myself have great unease about +Gene Robinson's path to the bishopric in particular, but it's not his homosexuality per se that troubles me, as I have explained previously, and listen, defenders of Bishop Robinson, we are just going to have to disagree about that. Then there's the dispute many of these conservatives have about the leadership of women in the Church, but this point merely reinforces the definition of the problem.

But what troubles me more than anything else is the anger that radiates from those who are leaving the Episcopal Church, and their Global South counterparts who are welcoming the self-exiled into their diocese and provinces. They seem to lack any love for their fellow Christians save those who agree with them theologically. They are full of rage, bitterness, judgment, and vindictiveness. To them the Church is only a Church if it is an exclusive club and I mean both meanings of the word "club"-- as a group and as a blunt weapon.

Any cursory examination of the words and actions of Jesus instructs us to act otherwise. The one recorded instance in Scripture when Jesus showed anger was directed at those who had used literal interpretation of Scripture to defile the sacred sanctuary of God. Jesus clashed with the conservatives of his time over their wrong intent justified upon isolated bits of scripture and tradition. This sounds familiar.

We are called to proclaim Christ crucified, a Christ who loved us so much that he was willing to suffer and to therefore witness to us through that love. Jesus loves us despite our pettiness and brokenness.

It is love that joins us together.

It is love that calls us to a personal relationship with God.

It is love that calls us to be the Body of Christ in the world in fellowship to each other.

Love calls us into unity, not division.

How wonderful and wondrous! How miraculous! All else pales into insignificance.

And I must ask: where is the witness of love in this current dispute?

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The use of masculine language in worship: All language is political

A recurrent topic that has been debated in a theological community to which I belong concerns the language that is used on corporate worship. Some of us have been substituting the word "God" for masculine pronouns when chanting the Psalms and canticles during the daily office. Some other members of the community felt that the lack of everyone using the same words at the same time was distracting and wanted everyone to pray using the words in the prayer book verbatim. We had a meeting over this issue to discuss the topic openly. Those who did not support the use of inclusive language stated, variously, that when we pray together we are as a choir, and thus a choir should use the same words; and that masculine words are of course understood to be inclusive of both male and female.

I will admit that I am one who feels excluded and diminished by the very masculine concept of God that is put forth in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. As a historian, I understand the definition and rights of fatherhood that was in effect at the time and place of the Holy Land in the biblical era to be those that I really do not apply to my understanding of God. In biblical/Middle Eastern societies, the father was given the right at birth to either take the child that was newborn into his arms or not. To accept the child was not only to welcome it as his acknowledged offspring but to allow it to live; a newborn that was not accepted by the father was often then abandoned or exposed to the elements to die. As a mother who has given birth, I know what it feels to have a child grow beneath one’s heart and to have thoughts and hopes and dreams of that child constantly on one’s mind for the better portion of a year as it is part of you. In the societal systems in place in the biblical era, the parent who had no actual point of physical contact had the power of life or death over the child; the parent who had already nurtured and loved that child was at the mercy of the other parent’s whim, but it was a whim with lasting repercussions. To use this model, then, as a way to name the Divine brings to mind, for me, a vengeful, unloving deity who holds absolute power over humans and wields it in a capricious manner. But this discussion really goes beyond the use of "Father."

Beyond this objection, however, I simply do not believe that God has a gender, and I grow frustrated with the repetitive masculine pronouns that are used especially in the canticles and the psalms. This is just not who I understand God to be. Since all language is metaphor, of course no way of speaking about God is really going to be precise, but it would help if the language didn’t set out to be exclusionary as a deliberate choice. Let me be clear: I do not believe that God is female either. I believe that God has placed in both male and female persons qualities and characteristics than in our experience and acculturation have become categorized as male and female, and that these same characteristics may well be of divine origin. It is human nature to try to use conceptions of God based upon human experience and understanding, and of course a personal God is often envisioned “in our image” if only for the sake of satisfying our limited understanding—we see only dimly in a mirror now, but someday we shall see face to face, as St. Paul reminded us.

However, the very least we can try to do in the meantime is to be as precise as we can in our language (since it then influences and shapes our thinking and understanding). This doesn’t mean that claiming that masculine words and images really stand for both male and female will simply make it so. Masculine words and the images that they call forth from both the conscious and unconscious mind can not be merely default terms utilized for convenience but are instead culturally preferred because of the image of power and privilege that is subsumed within their meanings (If this were not the case, why else would many men insult one another by calling each other “girls” and “ladies?”).

It would be ideal if we could all use the same words when we pray to God and that those words would have the same meanings for everyone. (At this point I could ask, then why the objection to the use of the word "God" by all?)

But when we pray to God, we pray using our own native tongues. Therefore, I believe that the never-ending hymns of praise and petition that ascend to God in a heavenly and earthly chorus already are not using common words or common tongues. I merely seek to pray to God in as honest and fluid a way as possible from the depths of my being and my admittedly limited understanding. As I struggled with my preparation for this discussion, I was surprised at how deeply I really felt about this issue, since I consider myself not to be a radical feminist. This conversation within myself was difficult but precious, and would not have happened if I had not been a member of this community and if I had not felt valued enough to have our opinions sought and for them to be shared openly.

In the end, the decision was made that we would occasionally use material from Enriching Our Worship (an Episcopal alternative service manual), but that most of the time those of who were bothered by the masculine language would perhaps just say "God" quietly to ourselves instead of aloud while community prayer is ongoing. A comment was made about not making "political" statements during corporate worship. Even though this observation was made by someone whom I greatly admire and love in Christ, it rankles nonetheless.

I believe the connotation of the word "political" as it is used in this comment is comdemnatory, and implies that my concern is a petty political concern. As I have been at pains to explain, there are three things to keep in mind here. First, language shapes thought. Second, language is by its nature metaphorical and imprecise. Third, words have historical meanings, emotional meanings, and literal meanings.

For instance, take the word "political." This word's etymology comes from the Greek word "polis" which refers to the city-state or community in which one lived. Thus things that are political are things that affect the community. Turning back to our immediate problem of gender-exclusionary language, the insistence on using masculine language is not seen as "political," but using gender-neutral language is. Yet both usages affect the community. Therefore, this entire debate has been political. Asking me to pray part of the time quietly to myself during common worship time is a political request as well.

All language about the community is political language.

My use of the word "God" in place of "he" was not meant to distract from others' worship, but I can see how it does, even though I have been trying to just say it quietly. The problem is, since there are several women in the group who do avoid the use of the masculine, I guess it ends up that those who are praying the office as written are surrounded by people praying otherwise. And we are being asked to be quiet--even at times-- during corporate worship. THAT is certainly a political request.

I am beginning to think that the only solution is for me to not pray aloud at all, which certainly, if we continue the metaphor of the "choir," diminishes the choir. Perhaps I should not even show up for choir practice, since my voice distracts. I am certain that this is not the intent. But to expect me to pray contrary to my understanding of God is certainly a political choice, and by that I do mean to use the condemnatory sense of the word.

Further, these words are not just ways of speaking about God-- these are ways of anthropomorphizing God-- something which I think is a grave mistake. That is why I do not say "she" when I speak of God, either. God has qualities of male and female, and we humans have been given those qualities each to each according to our function and our needs. There are also qualities that God has that we as finite beings do not have. But the insistence, nonetheless, is to use "he." If God is "he," and I am not "he," then I am not created in God's image. I think I've heard this before from Tertullian.

And if we continue in this vein, no doubt the next charge that could be levelled against those who say "God" is that we are being argumentative, which is always a favorite response when someone tires of a discussion rather than finishing it. It comes right before "Because I said so" in rank of utility.

I am not making these points in bitterness but in honesty, not just to make a point but to try to pray authentically to God as I understand God. To use a light-hearted example: if I was in an actual choir, and the choir chose to sing Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, I would not be able to hit that high note when the word "me" is sung at minute 4:04, and probably not the "let me go's" that precede before that either, since I am somewhere between an alto and a mezzo soprano in my singing voice. But wait, not everyone sings the same notes in this song, nor do they actually all sing the same words at the same time.... All well and good. I don't mind dropping out from time to time. Perhaps some of my fellows ARE praying their understanding of God as "he." But do I want to belong to that choir? If the choir to which I belong insists on picking music that I can't sing, what good am I doing in that choir?

Or perhaps both sides are a bit tone deaf to the effect our words have. There's another extension of the metaphor for you.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Dear Judge Charles Spurlock: What's wrong with this picture?

Makes me wanna holler.
A Franciscan priest from New York pleaded guilty to raping three teenage boys during overnight trips to Boston in the 1970s and 1980s and was ordered Tuesday to serve time on probation.

The Rev. Frank Genevieve avoided prison time as a Suffolk Superior Court judge sentenced him to a suspended sentence of eight to 10 years, with five years' probation.

Genevieve was also ordered to have no contact with the victims or any minors, to register as a sex offender and wear a GPS device to monitor his whereabouts.

Prosecutors said Genevieve, 52, met the first victim in 1977 through St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Troy, N.Y., where he served as a Franciscan brother and was later ordained as a priest. During an overnight trip to Boston, prosecutors said, Genevieve shared a bed with the boy at a rectory and sexually assaulted him as he tried to sleep.

Genevieve was accused of attacking another teen in 1981 in the back room of a church during an overnight trip to Boston to celebrate the boy's confirmation. The third victim, prosecutors said, was attacked in Genevieve's car after a day trip to the New England Aquarium.

"We're grateful that these three victims disclosed their abuse to us, we recognize their bravery and that they were willing to testify, had it been necessary," Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley said in a statement.

Genevieve had ties to Massachusetts as a former teacher at Christopher Columbus High School in Boston. He also served as an assistant priest at a Cape Cod parish from 1998 to 2000.

Genevieve was indicted by a Suffolk County grand jury in 2006. Prosecutors said that because Genevieve returned to New York after each visit to Boston, the Massachusetts statute of limitations did not expire.

The Franciscan Province of the Immaculate Conception, which oversees Franciscans, said previously that Genevieve was removed from active ministry in June 2002. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany said it did not supervise the priest because he was a member of the Franciscan order.

Probation and a suspended sentence. I'm sure the victims feel much better, and that'll make child rapists think twice. That Judge Spurlock sure did a great job protecting society. Good Lord.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Vicar of Dibley could now be bishop....

News from the Church of England General Synod: once again, +Tom Wright's knickers are in a twist, and this time over possible women bishops:
The Church of England's move to accept women bishops further roiled an already troubled Anglican communion Tuesday, infuriating conservatives and complicating efforts to promote unity with the Roman Catholic Church.

The Church of England's ruling body on Monday night voted to back women becoming bishops without giving traditionalist supporters of male-only bishops the concessions they had sought.

The Right Rev. Tom Wright, the bishop of Durham and conservative leader, said the General Synod's decision was muddled, just like one reached at a meeting of bishops in May.

"We should have pulled that debate then and there. It was the wrong time," Wright said.

Monday's decision also caused consternation at the Vatican.

It's "a further obstacle for the reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Church of England," said Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity.

More than a dozen of the 38 national Anglican churches worldwide have authorized women to serve as bishops, but only four have appointed or elected a woman to the job.

The Episcopal Church, the Anglican body in the U.S., is led by a woman, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

Disagreement on the role of women has for years been quietly tolerated within the worldwide Anglican Communion, a 77 million-member family of churches that trace their roots to the Church of England.

But the long-standing divisions over how Anglicans should interpret the Bible erupted in 2003 when the Episcopal Church consecrated the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

Conservative Anglicans from Africa and some north American and British churches are outraged at what they consider a "false gospel" that has led churches in the U.S. Canada and elsewhere to accept gay relationships.

The Anglican Communion is under intense pressure in the buildup to this month's Lambeth Conference, a once-a-decade gathering of all Anglican bishops. Some traditionalist Anglican bishops are boycotting the meeting, which opens July 16, because bishops who consecrated Robinson were invited.

The communion is the third-largest grouping of churches in the world, behind Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians.

In the Church of England, both sides conceded that the tradition of male-only bishops would be changed. The lengthy debate Monday centered on what accommodation would be given to dissenters.

Hundreds of traditionalists have threatened to leave the British church if sufficient safeguards were not put into place for those who objected.

Advocates of women in the episcopate argue that any concessions would make women second-class bishops.

Monday night's vote authorizes a group to draft a code, which will be put to a vote by the General Synod in February. Further revisions requiring a vote could happen in 2010.

Then a majority of dioceses in England would have to agree to having women as bishops, which would lead to a further vote by the General Synod in 2011 or 2012.

The synod rejected forming a third Church of England archdiocese led by men and voted down another proposal for male "super bishops" who would assume oversight of parishes that reject female priests or bishops.

The Archbishop of York John Sentamu said the Church of England was wasting time on internal politics and ignoring the problems of the world outside.

"So I am praying very hard the Holy Spirit of God will breathe a fresh spirit of understanding into the Church," he said.

The Archbishop of Canterbury said he did not want to limit the authority women bishops had within the church.

"I am deeply unhappy with any scheme or any solution to this which ends up, as it were, structurally humiliating women who might be nominated," Rowan Williams said Monday.

Church of England officials say it is unlikely that any woman would be consecrated as a bishop before 2014. The church has ordained women as priests since 1994, but hasn't allowed them to become bishops.

Wow. Women bishops are "'a further obstacle for the reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Church of England?'"

Ouch. That one stings. But women clergy is certainly not the only thing standing in the way of unity between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, and if we were to hold our breaths until real, open, dialogue were to take place between our two churches, we'd all have turned blue and lost consciousness by now, much to my very real sorrow. But it has been my sad experience that "ecumenism" to the Papal Curia means, "Admit you were wrong and do it MY way."

I think this decision was already inevitable in 1994. But welcome news, nonetheless.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Misunderstanding the word "atheist"

We heard the first part back in February, but now we read that one in five American atheists believes in God. What this really means is that the number of atheists in this country may be actually OVERSTATED. Here's a sample:
Although a majority of Americans say religion is very important to them, nearly three-quarters of them say they believe that many faiths besides their own can lead to salvation, according to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The report, the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, reveals a broad trend toward tolerance and an ability among many Americans to hold beliefs that might contradict the doctrines of their professed faiths....

The nationwide survey, which is based on telephone interviews with more than 35,000 adults from May 8 to Aug. 13, 2007, is the second installment of a broad assessment Pew has undertaken of trends and characteristics of the country’s religious life. The first part of the report, published in February, depicted a fluid and diverse national religious life marked by people moving among denominations and faiths.

According to that report, more than a quarter of adult Americans have left the faith of their childhood to join another religion or no religion. The survey indicated that the group that had the greatest net gain was the unaffiliated, accounting for 16 percent of American adults.

The new report sheds light on the beliefs of the unaffiliated. Like the overwhelming majority of Americans, 70 percent of the unaffiliated said they believed in God, including one of every five people who identified themselves as atheist and more than half of those who identified as agnostic.

“What does atheist mean? It may mean they don’t believe in God, or it could be that they are hostile to organized religion,” Mr. Green said. “A lot of these unaffiliated people, by some measures, are fairly religious, and then there are those who are affiliated with a religion but don’t believe in God and identify instead with history or holidays or communities.”

Ummm, Mr. Green, I believe that, actually, the word "atheist" means one does not believe in any sort of God, by whatever euphemism one might employ. Glad I could help.

Read the whole thing.

If you've taught school, you may shake your head at this confusion, but you can't be surprised.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Prayer for Unity

This might be a good prayer for the bishops at Lambeth to consider as they settle down to business next month:

"Fill us, O Lord and Father of us all, we beseech Thee, with Thy gentle Spirit, and dispel on both sides all the clouds of misunderstanding and passion. Make an end to the strife of blind fury. Arise, O Christ, Thou Sun of righteousness, and shine upon us. Alas! while we contend, we only too often forget to strive after holiness which Thou requirest from us all. Guard us against abusing our powers, and enable us to employ them with all earnestness for the promotion of holiness."

-- Huldrych Zwingli, opening prayer at the Marburg Colloquy, 1529

Friday, June 13, 2008

In dog I trust

I have been doing morning prayer on the front porch in the midst of my weeds with mosquito accompaniment-- I mean "garden"-- each day this summer. I burn incense to confuse the mosquitos-- there's a lovely Arabian Jasmine that I like. I have sparrows, finches, robins, and one wee, gray, timorous, cowering, mouse with white feet as companions who splash in the fountain or birdbath or gorge on birdseed as I pray.

Sometimes, when I come out in the morning, my eyes are bleary. Sometimes, it is sticky or-- all too often this spring, getting ready to rain. But I enjoy the shaping of my heart through my morning ritual, and I blunder on.

I recite the familiar words from the Venite:
"In God's hand are the caverns of the earth;
and the heights of the hills are God's also.
The sea is God's, for God made it,
and God's hands have molded the dry land.

Come, let us bow down and bend the knee,
and kneel before the Lord our Maker.

And at just that point my Chocolate Lab flops against my feet. Who can be upset or troubled when there's a warm dog sighing and indolently lolling against one's ankles? His worshipful "Love ME!" eyes remind me of how needy I am before God. I want to revel at the feet of God and be comforted by God's nearness.

I once heard a priest brag about how he had never blessed an animal, and he was proud of that. Okay, whatever-- but how sad that he doesn't understand that he's got it wrong. Our animals bless us even when we refuse to bless them. But "in my Father's house there are many dwelling places"-- and I pray that at least one of them has a dog, some birds, and even a wee mouse in it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Blessed and Broken

As I have been doing the daily office this year, I have been reading from Matthew. Yesterday, I read further along, to chapter 15, concerning the feeding of the thousands. Seven loaves and a few fish feed a multitude-- perhaps ten thousand people. Until the bread was blessed and broken, it did not fulfill its purpose. It had to be broken to be shared and to fill the people until they were full.

This is, I think, a symbol of our life in Christ. In answer to our brokenness, we have faith in God. It is that faith that leads us to the blessing of being aware of God's love for us. It is during "the long dark night of the soul" that we feel the presence of God resting with us, abiding with us. Contrary to those who think that God should fix all the problems of the world, if everything was wonderful, we would have no need for God. It is our brokenness that creates a bridge for us to abide in God's kingdom.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Restraining Orders in Ordinary Time

A woman in Minnesota has been served with a restraining order to prevent her from bringing her son to Mass at the Church of St. Joseph in Bertha Minnesota. Here was the story on May 19:

The mother of a 13-year-old autistic boy who was banned by a court order from attending services at a Roman Catholic church in Bertha, Minn., woke up Sunday determined to take her son to mass.

But Carol Race changed her mind when Todd County Sheriff Pete Mikkelson met her at the end of her driveway Sunday and told her she would be arrested if she brought her son, Adam, into the Church of St. Joseph.

Instead, Race took Adam and her four other children to mass at Christ the King Church in nearby Browerville, Minn. "It occurred to me that if I step foot in [St. Joseph], they will arrest me and I won't end up going to mass anyway," she said.

A court hearing on the matter has been continued until June 2 so that Race can hire an attorney.

The dispute has drawn attention to what Race and advocates for the disabled say is a lack of education and understanding about autism. Race said that even though her son, who is home-schooled, sometimes acts up in church, the experience benefits him.

"He has a sense of the routine," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about the Catholic mass for autistic individuals, its routine."

The Rev. Daniel Walz, who did not return calls left at the Church of St. Joseph parish office, wrote in court documents that Adam's behavior was "extremely disruptive and dangerous." He alleged that Adam, who is more than 6 feet tall and weighs over 225 pounds, spits and urinates in church and has nearly injured children and elderly people.

In an affidavit, Walz wrote: "The parish members and I have been very patient and understanding. I have made repeated efforts through Catholic Education Ministries, Caritas Family Services, and most recently, sought to try and mediate the matter with the family to ask them to voluntarily not bring Adam to church, but it has been to no avail." The Diocese of St. Cloud said in a statement that the restraining order, issued May 9, was "a last resort."

Race said Walz's descriptions of Adam's behavior illustrate that he understands little about autistic behavior and how to address it. She said that Walz used language like "urinate" to describe an incontinence problem that Adam sometimes has which is no worse than that an elderly person or a young child might have.

Adam's parents sometimes tie his hands and feet with fabric restraints, which Race said is a technique used by other families and school personnel who work with autistic children. At Sunday's service in Browerville, Race said Adam participated in the service, kneeling with the congregation and accompanying family members when they went up front to take communion.

Carol Race said that her husband, John, attended mass at St. Joseph's on Saturday evening without his family and had stayed home Sunday morning because the family wanted to ensure that one parent would be available to care for the children if Carol were arrested.

The restraining order will remain in place for one year.

The Races haven't decided whether they will attend another parish. "My primary focus is to do the right thing, according to what God wants me to do," Carol Race said. "Without church every Sunday, my family life would have fallen apart. This is what sustains us."

Sheriff Mikkelson said he sent deputies to Sunday's service in case the Races tried to violate the restraining order.

"It was an uncomfortable thing, and we didn't want to get involved," he said. "She heeded our warning. Now, hopefully, this will get resolved through our courts."

Then, yesterday was this update:
Carol Race thinks it's important for her 13-year-old son to be in church on Sundays for Catholic Mass.

Leaders of the Church of St. Joseph once felt the same way, but not anymore. They say Race's autistic son Adam is disruptive and his erratic behavior threatens the safety of other parishioners.

The northern Minnesota church has obtained a restraining order to keep Adam away, an action that has been deeply hurtful to the Race family and has brought them support from parents of other autistic children.

"My son is not dangerous," Carol Race said. The church's action is "about a certain community's fears of him. Fears of danger versus actual danger," she said.

In court papers, church leaders say the danger is real. The Rev. Daniel Walz wrote in his petition for the restraining order that Adam _ who already is more than 6 feet tall and weighs more than 225 pounds _ has hit a child, has nearly knocked over elderly parishioners while bolting from his pew, has spit at people and has urinated in the church.

"His behavior at Mass is extremely disruptive and dangerous," wrote Walz. "Adam is 13 and growing, so his behaviors grow increasingly difficult for his parents to manage."

Carol Race said Walz's claims are exaggerated.

"He's never actually injured anyone," she said. "He's never knocked down anyone. He's never urinated on anyone or spit on anyone."

Carol Race was cited for attending church May 11 in violation of the restraining order, and faces a hearing Monday. She says she can't afford a lawyer and will defend herself in court. A lay mediator is scheduled to meet with her and church board members on Wednesday.

Autism is a developmental disorder that affects a person's ability to communicate and interact with others. It is more severe in some people than others. Adam has limited verbal skills.

Walz did not return calls seeking comment, but Jane Marrin, who works for the Diocese of St. Cloud and is acting as a spokeswoman for the parish, said the church board tried working with the Races to find "reasonable accommodations." That included offering a video feed of Mass that could be watched in the church basement.

The family refused all suggestions, she said.

"It's a difficult issue," Marrin said. "There are no easy answers."

Carol Race dismissed the church's suggestion that Adam watch a video feed in the church basement, saying that "does not have the same status as attending Mass. Otherwise we could all just sit home and watch it on TV and not bother to come in."

"It's considered a sin in the Catholic church not to attend Mass on Sundays and every holy day of obligation," she said. "And that's what this is about. I'm just trying to fulfill my obligations."

Adam is one of five children. The family's home in nearby Eagle Bend has separate study rooms so the other children can read books and use crayons that Adam could otherwise destroy.

Carol said Adam has two favorite spots in the house, the prayer room and the kitchen table. "He likes to eat," she said, laughing.

Adam is prone to anxiety attacks. Carol said some of those outbursts force members of the family to sit on him to calm him down, or restrain his hands and feet with a strip of felt.

In his court petition, Walz said that after one service Adam got into another family's car, started it and revved up the engine while there were people in front of the vehicle.

"Adam's continued presence on parish grounds not only endangers the parishioners, it is disruptive to the devout celebration of the Eucharist," Walz wrote. "I have repeatedly asked John and Carol to keep Adam from church; they have refused to do so.

"In fact, Carol told our parish council that she would have to be dragged from church in handcuffs if I tried to keep Adam from attending Mass," he wrote.

The Races have received support from other parents, including Chris and Libby Rupp, who brought their autistic daughter from St. Paul on Memorial Day weekend and sat in the church's back pew normally occupied by the Races.

"I think this case is mostly about not understanding autism," Libby Rupp said. "I wanted to show them another example. Ultimately, we just need more people to truly understand autism."

Rupp met the Races and said she could see why some people might be uncomfortable around Adam, but she added: "Never at one point did I feel that anyone was in danger."

This is an incredibly difficult situation. There are two competing problems for the priest in this situation: acceptance and shepherding his flock. The Christian ministry to the outcast and downtrodden is delineated in Matthew 25: 34-46:
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' "The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

There is also Jesus' command to the apostles to allow the children to approach him when they would have prevented it (Matthew 19:13-14 but also Luke 18:16).

On the other hand, there is the responsibility of a pastor to take care of his congregation. How guilty would you be if you allowed a dangerous situation to continue until someone was hurt? We cannot kid ourselves that culpability and responsibility are also matters of legal importance: what if someone was seriously injured by this young man while at church? I was in a situation where the priest of my church banned a woman from the premises after she took advantage of one of my fellow-parishioners and managed to obtain several hundred dollars from her. This woman didn't actually attend services-- she would hang around the outside of the church on Sundays and approach people to ask for money. Sometimes, she would come into the sanctuary during the benediction to make it look like she had attended the service. I once offered her a ride home, and was astonished when she pulled out a cell phone and began talking away-- and this was at a time when cell phones were pretty expensive. Nonetheless, her asking us repeatedly for assistance was all fine-- until she hurt one of the members of my congregation. At that point, I had to agree with my priest when he asked her not to return-- we have to care for everyone in our parish and try to protect them, too.

When my children were very small, I took them to a small service on Saturday evenings. It was my very great fortune that the people who regularly attended this service with us (including the priest) agreed with my assessment of my children as the most beautiful and precious children ever. If the baby cooed or babbled, they insisted that I stay in the sanctuary rather than take them out. If the baby was really crying, I would take her outside, and someone would come out and take her so that I could have communion. But that was a baby, not a very large child whose own family has so much difficulty controlling him that they sometimes sit on him or TIE HIM UP. (!!!-- And I'm sorry, but WHAT?)

The shame here is that each side feels it has been driven to an extreme position. I am sure that this family is exhausted from the demands of taking care of this young man constantly-- and since he is home-schooled, they probably get no break. Now some have suggested that the family should just go to another parish to worship. However, many Catholic bishops enforce residency requirements (usually when they have some less than dynamic priests in parish ministry, from my experience) in parish boundary lines, and forbid parishioners to "church-shop," so that wherever you live, that's where you go to church. In this case, however, it appears that the family would have to travel to another town in order to attend a different Catholic parish.

As a teacher, I have had experience with children who have disabilities along the autistic spectrum-- either diagnosed or, sadly, undiagnosed. I appreciated how the other students learned to welcome these kids and become friends with them. There was one, however, who was extremely unpredictable. When he would have a violent outburst, he was known to punch teachers, kick his aides, or throw himself against the walls or furniture. He even pushed on of his aides down a hill. To me, this crossed the line. A person's right to attend school ends when he has demonstrated a danger to others at the school, and his or her right should be suspended until he or she can no longer endanger the safety of those around. I actually would usually also say that when a student's behavior in a classroom substantially disrupts the learning environment, then that student's rights do not trump the rights of the other students in the class room to a free education in the least restrictive environment possible. However, a school is not a church.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this about attendance at Sunday Mass under the subheading "Precepts of the Church":
The first precept ("You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation.") requires the faithful to participate in the Eucharistic celebration when the Christian community gathers together on the day commemorating the Resurrection of the Lord.

To not do so without a compelling reason incurs what is called "a mortal sin." I am sure the phrase "participate in the Eucharist" is why the mother refuses the video hookup option. I don't know if this was offered, or even if it is a possibility, given the shortage of priests (many rural priests serve more than one parish), but could those who wanted to have attended another Mass?

But here's another question: what does it take to take part in the liturgy (which literally means, "the work of the people")? Must we be physically present? If I am home with a broken leg and am watching a prayer service on television, and I am praying with them, am I participating in worship? Christianity is not a religion one should, and I would even say CAN, practice in isolation: we are called into community with each other as the Body of Christ. Adam Race is certainly a member of that Body just as much as any other Christian is. But our membership in that Body is not active only when we are sitting in a sanctuary. We are called to act as the Body of Christ wherever we are, to the utmost of our abilities. Nonetheless, the inability to behave peaceably in church probably constitutes that "compelling reason" that the Catechism mentions. So I am not sure that the mother's claim that the church's exclusion of her son from the regular worship service is forcing her to commit a grave sin actually holds water.

The mother's refusal to take seriously the fears of the parishioners, many of whom are no doubt elderly, could also be reckoned a sin, as well-- and certainly, the fact that she does not feel endangered doesn't mean that others share her confidence. I'm assuming that this parish has had thirteen years of accommodating this young man's situation, and have gotten alarmed by his size and strength as well as his unpredictability, which promises only to increase as he continues through adolescence.

It is truly a shame that the parish felt it was compelled to solve this situation through a restraining order. It certainly doesn't appear to be a Christ-like action. I have to assume that this option was utilized only after repeated requests for the family to be accommodating to the needs of others in the parish-- just as they expect their needs to be accommodated. The members of this parish apparently feel that they're not just being inconvenienced-- they feel endangered.

Should people be excluded from worship services? In extreme situations, yes-- such as when they endanger others. But we still need to try to minister to them. Let's remember, though, that some people will not accept our ministrations to them, either.

Some things are just not possible for some people, and this is a message that our society strongly resists. It is apparently not possible for this young man to attend Mass without having an anxiety attack. Perhaps his behavior is an attempt to communicate this to his family. If they can't help him overcome his anxiety so that he actually can participate in the Mass, then they need to accept that message. And if they occasionally resort to tying him up, then they obviously need to be presented with some other behavior modification options. Wow.

Saturday, May 31, 2008


It's probably obvious that I am in full spring fever mode. We got a new couch for the front room that we never really used because the old couch was a) ugly, b) excruciatingly uncomfortable, and c) faced away from the window. So when it's rainy, which has been often, I sit on the new couch and look out at my front garden.

When it's sunny, I sit on our new bench on the porch, light some incense to keep the mosquitos away, and listen to the burbling of the fountain and enjoy the flowers and the birds flocking about splashing in the water while pretending that I am a large rock instead of a potential predator. Since I am the shape of a large rock, this is not that hard for the birds to believe.

Sometimes, I bring out the guitar and play a bit and maybe sing a few tunes. It's wonderfully relaxing, and occasionally passersby will stop by and make a request, like "Why don't you shut the hell up?" "How about some Eagles?" or "Do you know any Joni Mitchell?" --which is, of course, a silly question, but one that launches a bit of musical nostalgia.

I find it wonderfully relaxing and spiritually uplifting to enjoy my garden and the flowers and the breeze and the incense. Sometime I say Vespers out there.

But then there's my neighbor across the street. I was just blissing out, breathing in the mildly humid air, when out came the wife. She is a tiny little thing, very quiet, but she's always seemed to be nice enough. She did a bit of yard work, but then the garage door opened, and I started listening to her husband, who is an incredibly large, toadlike man with the foulest mouth for several miles. He immediately began to berate her quite profanely for not doing something he wanted done quickly enough. A few more f-bombs and I felt my stress levels rise, and I retreated into my house. I mean, Robert Frost would have loved this guy (Good fences make good neighbors, you know.)

Then I had a thought: "Love your neighbor as yourself." I find this person's behavior so mean and disturbing, that I feel like the lawyer did when Jesus expounded this commandment in Luke 10:25-37: I want to ask, "Who is my neighbor?" All the while I'm hoping, "Please don't let it be him, please don't let it be him, please don't let it be him..."

But of course, that is the entire point of the commandment. We aren't promised that we should only love those who are nice, or only those with whom we agree, or only those who love us too. We are to love our neighbors, and our neighbors are anyone whom we can help. Our neighbors may be people who stress us out. Our neighbors may be people with whom we dispute frequently. But we still should love them as we love our own selves.

I certainly fail to meet this standard much of the time. This is a hard but precious teaching, but just imagine what would happen if we tried to live this. What if +Peter Akinola actually took this seriously and loved +Gene Robinson as his neighbor? What if Jack Iker loved +Katherine Jefferts Schori as his neighbor? Wow, what if Fred Phelps and his band of followers would love... I don't know, anyone else in America without screaming that homosexuality should be a capital crime and so on? And expanding beyond the religious sphere, what if George Bush really loved the poor?

Who is my neighbor? The person I feared it would be.

Friday, May 30, 2008

A day like this calls for haiku

Spring thankfulness

My heart will wait upon
the red joy of new flowers
that dance with the wind

Singing bowl

A call to prayer
comes from the lacy shadows
of sunlight through leaves


If you cannot fall
without God's notice, perhaps
I'll fill the birdbath

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day

This is not a political pawn. This is someone's child. This is our brother or sister.

This is someone who has given an entire universe of tomorrows in service to us.

Our country is us.

This person has died for us- and for what we have allowed our government to do.

"No one shows greater love than when he lays down his life for his friends."- John 15:13.

And we can show no greater honor than to demand that no one else dies in vain.

Cross-posted at A Shrewdness of Apes.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Praying for who we want to be

The Lord's Prayer, or the Pater Noster if you prefer, is one of the most commonly prayed prayers prayed by the Church. Yet, maybe I'm alone in feeling a lack of resonance and worthiness when I pray the Our Father-- a disconnect, if you will.

Here's the Rite I version:
Our Father, who art in Heaven,
hallowed be thy Name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on Earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.

The New Zealand Prayer Book has this version in its Night Prayer service:
Eternal Spirit,
Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven:

The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by all the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.

With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
now and forever. Amen.

I really like the way that that last stanza was reimagined. I really do get tired of the insistence of the prayer book on the masculine forms of address of God. For me, God is really both Father and Mother. The limitations of the English language make trying to avoid masculine forms of address awkward, yes, but let's remember that 1979 was really not a very progressive time in terms of using inclusive language, and, as the saying goes, "Praying shapes believing." New Zealand revised their prayer book in the late 1980s, and boy, does it show-- not to mention the fact that in New Zealand it is necessary to have even more inclusive language since there is also sensitivity toward not seeming to favor those of European descent over those who are Maori or Polynesian.

In another vein, I also know that as one of my manifold faults I have a problem with forgiveness. When I pray "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us," I wince inwardly. Dear God, I try so hard to forgive others, but I admit I struggle with holding a grudge or being wary and aloof from those who have hurt me. Please, dear God, forgive me BETTER than I forgive others. Otherwise, I am doomed.

Here is what I am praying today:

Eternal Creator of Life and Love, abiding with us always,
exalted and holy be your Name.

May we build your kingdom of peace and justice here on Earth,
and may we conform our every breath to your Will
as Heaven was and is and shall be.

Satisfy our hunger with bread for body and soul,
nurturing us with all we need.

May we forgive those who hurt us
just as we own and mourn the pain we cause others,
and help us dedicate ourselves to loving our neighbors
as much as we love ourselves.

Strengthen us in evil times as well as good,
and help us see and feel your love in times of pain as well as joy.

We worship you in your kingdom, your power, and your glory,
asking to abide with you forever and ever. Amen.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A. J. Jacobs' A Year of Living Biblically gets the thumbs up

After my last post, I did go out and buy The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs. And I've got to say that I haven't been able to put it down. This man is really honest about the changes that were wrought in his life, but with a totally self-deprecating sense of humor. His wife is obviously a saint to put up with him, too.

His habit of obsessively googling his own name makes me laugh, too-- I did that once and found myself discussed on several students' Facebook pages. Last time I'll do that. But notice that I've titled this thing in the attempt to give him a thrill. And I'm not a blogger in Singapore, either.

The book is very worthwhile read. I will write more when I finish it. But so far he does a great job of explaining the background to several biblical laws. I loved it when he stoned the mean man who claimed to be an adulterer and when he taught his toddler the Ultimate Four-Letter Word.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Fight Against Modern Pharisees: the Limits of Biblical Literalism

I just got finished taking a brief tour around the Episcosphere, and ran across several posts talking about the visit of Archdiocese of the Southern Cone Archbishop Gregory Venables to Ft. Worth on May 3. Many of those who now call themselves "orthodox Anglicans" (which just shows how much they know about the history of the Anglican church!) were trilling rapturously about how the Episcopal Church is going straight to hell for its refusal to abide by Biblical prohibitions against homosexuality (see here and here and, of course, right here (pun intended).

"Look at what the Bible says! You must obey all of the Bible!" The fact is, though, that this is an impossibility. Much has been made of how one cannot be a "cafeteria Christian" in the use of the Bible as the Word of God.

Let's just totally leave aside the question of whether homosexuality is a sin, and look at the broader picture of whether it is possible to follow every verse of Holy Writ.

A.J. Jacobs (a favorite quote of his? "I’m officially Jewish but I’m Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant.") has written a book about his attempt to live according to the rules embedded in the Torah-- and that's a whole lot shorter than the Christian canon.

But here's what he found, and I shall quote at length since people need to take themselves a whole lot less seriously:

At the beginning of the year, I wrote down every rule, every guideline, every suggestion, every nugget of advice I could find in the Bible. It's a very long list. It runs 72 pages. More than 700 rules.

Some rules were wise, some completely baffling. Some were baffling at first, then wise. Some were wise first then baffling. Here, some of the highlights, broken down by category.

Keep the sabbath. As a workaholic (I check my emails in the middle of movies), I learned the beauty of an enforced pause in the week. No cell phones, no messages, no thinking about deadlines. It was a bizarre and glorious feeling. As one famous rabbi called it, the sabbath is a "sanctuary in time."

"Let your garments be always white" Ecclesiastes 9:8. I chose to follow this literally - I wore white pants, a white shirt and a white jacket. This was one of the best things I did all year. I felt lighter, happier, purer. Clothes make the man: You can't be in a bad mood when you're dressed like you're about to play the semi-finals at Wimbledon.

No gossip. When you try to go on a gossip diet, you realize just how much of our conversations involve negative speech about others. But holding your tongue is like the verbal equivalent of wearing white. I felt cleaner and untainted.

No images. If you interpret the second commandment literally, then it tells you not to make a likeness of anything in heaven, on earth, or underwater. Which pretty much covers it. So I tried to eliminate photos, TV, movies, doodling. It made me realize we're too visual in this culture. It made me fall in love once again with words, with text.

Give thanks. The Bible says to thank the Lord after meals. I did that. Perhaps too much. I got carried away. I gave thanks for everything - for the subway coming on time, for the comfortableness of my couch, etc. It was strange but great. Never have I been so aware of the thousands of little things that go right in our lives.

You shall not wear a "garment of cloth made of two kinds of stuff." (Leviticus 19:19). At first, I thought this applied to any mixed fiber. So I cleared my closet of all polycotton T-shirts. But it turns out the truly forbidden combo is mixing wool and linen. Sadly, my only good suit - my wedding suit -- contained both wool and linen. So I had to embargo it for a year.

If you are in a fistfight with another man, and his wife grabs your private parts, you "shall cut off her hand." (Deuteronomy 45:11-12). Another rule you won't find engraved outside many courthouses.

If you suspect your wife is cheating, you shall bring her to a priest, who will mix a potion of barley, water, and dust, which the woman shall drink. If she's cheating, her stomach will swell. (Numbers 5:11-20).

If you set your slave free after six years, but he decides to stay, then you shall bring him to the doorpost and bore a hole in his ear. (Exodus 21:5).

You shall not marry your wife's sister (Leviticus 18:18) It helps that my wife doesn't have a sister.

You shall not plant your field with two kinds of seed (Leviticus 19:19). I did plant some cucumber seeds in some pots. But I kept it purely cukes.

You shall not eat eagles, vultures, black vultures, red kites, black kites, ravens, horned or screech owl, gull or any kind of hawk, the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, the white owl, the desert owl, the osprey, the stork, any kind of heron, the hoopoe and the bat.

Do not become a shrine prostitute. (Deuteronomy 23;17) I didn't become any kind of prostitute.

You shall not trim the corners of your beard (Leviticus 19:27) My rabbinical beard became wildly uncomfortable, plus I was subjected to every beard joke in the history of facial hair, with about 412 ZZ Top references.

You should not lie on a bed where a mensturating woman has lain, and you can't sit on a chair where she has sat (Leviticus 15:20). That knocks out all subways and restaurants. See the Handy Seat section for my attempt to follow this.

You shall smash idols. The ban on idolatry is such a huge part of the Bible, I figured I should try to smash something. I ended up smashing my wife's fake Oscar statuette. But it felt like a hollow gesture, and it annoyed my wife by getting gold flakes all over the rug.

Put to death men and women who commit adultery. Though I did manage to figure out a way to stone adulterers. One adulterer in particular. A grumpy seventysomething man I met in the park. I used pebbles.

You shall not covet. This is like asking someone not to breathe. Especially in New York. New York is a city that runs on coveting. On a typical day, I covet everything from Jonathan Safran Foer's speaking fee (allegedly $15,000) to our friend's sprawling backyard in the suburbs.

You shall not lie. Once I started keeping track, the number of lies was astounding. I lie to everyone - strangers, my wife, my three-year-old son ("No, we can't watch TV. It's broken.")

You shall stand in the presence of the elderly. I did try to follow this at certain points in my journey. Like the time I ate dinner in a Florida restaurant at 5 p.m. That was the highest concentration of elderly people in America. So I stood up from my chair every time a white-haired person entered the room, which meant I was bouncing up and down like a pogo stick.

You shall not utter the name of another God. English is filled with the names of pagan gods - even the days of the week are named for them: Thursday, for the Norse god of thunder Thor.

Be slow to anger (Proverbs 19:11). My anger isn't of the shouting, pulsing, vein-in-the-forehead variety. It's more of long-lasting resentment. I never fully got it under control, but the best method for putting the brakes on my anger came from the story of Jonah. (See the book for details)

I've gotta read that book. When summer comes....

This argument about the authority of scripture and literalism is, ironically, as old as the New Testament itself, for Jesus certainly spent a lot of time arguing with the Biblical fundamentalists of his day-- the Pharisees (see Matthew 12 for more detail). If you are a Christian, by the way, you believe that Jesus was right and the Pharisees were wrong. The Pharisees insisted that everyone make a big display of following all the laws of the Torah-- and the interpretation of the Torah that had developed over the centuries.

So, let's just take a cursory look at a few problems inherent in attempting to take every word of the Bible as true: In Romans 16:1-2, Paul praised Phoebe for her work as a "diakonos" of the Church. Opposed to this is I Corinthians 14:34-35, in which women are admonished to be silent in Church (and by the way, there are more instances of Scriptures honoring women's contributions than of muzzling them). And then there are the prohibitions against divorce, touching menstruating women, and the controversy over slavery. Meanwhile, King David is not only an adulterer but engineered the death of his pregnant girlfriend's husband for being too faithful to his cause and refusing to come home to sleep with his wife so that David's crimes could be covered up. Lot offers his two virgin daughters to a ravening mob rather than betray Middle Eastern rules of hospitality (Genesis 18), and these two daughters later get their father drunk and have sex him and bear him children (Genesis 19).

Matthew 6:5-7 basically puts every televangelist out of business (hey!....). Jesus at times ignores his family (Matthew 16) and then makes sure his mother is taken care of in the midst of his passion (John 19). Ever pledged money to the Church and then not been able to follow through? Acts 5 may not be very comforting to you. Are you married? Oh well, if you must, although Paul makes it clear you will live a kind of shadow life in the faith since you couldn't resist the lure of sex and worldly things. Are humans created by God on the sixth day after the creation of plants and vegetation (Genesis 1:26), or on the third day before there were any plants on the Earth (Genesis 2:4-8)? And we could play this game all day.

The Bible DOES contain all things necessary for salvation. But leaving aside scattered verses here and there, the message of Jesus is love: love for God and love for neighbor. The Biblical fundamentalists too often demonstrate very little of either one. They get so wrapped up in demanding adherence to verses that support their own prejudices that they lose the Spirit of the scriptures. Just like the Pharisees did.

No one follows every single word of Scriptures. We are all "cafeteria Christians," choosing which verses and proscriptions we like and studiously ignoring those that challenge our basic preferences and prejudices. Jesus insisted on honoring the original spirit of the Law. This eventually led him to be brought up on charges by those who insisted on following every jot and tittle of the Torah at the expense of living a sanctified life that truly honors and loves God. Which side are we on, anyway?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A word from the Archbishop of Sudan

From the sermon on the Sunday after Ascension Day:

"What is happening in Africa? Wars! What is happening in the Middle East? Wars! Terrorists all over! Where are we? What is our message to them? What is the message of us to the world? It seems that we are not doing our job. We are being challenged, brothers and sisters in Christ. That’s why Jesus was praying: “Forgive, Lord! They don’t know what they’ve done.” When we come together in love as a Church, as a family of God, from different backgrounds. When you are a Christian you are not marked in our colors…. Whether a black or a white or a red or a yellow, we are disciples of Jesus Christ. He never prayed for a particular people, but he prayed for his disciples. And we are the ones. Are we proving to the world now that we are good disciples? When we come together in love as the family of God, we change the world….

We are not able to challenge the world because we are divided by our own differences as humans… Our foundation is Jesus Christ; we stand on him, and where we make our message is from Jesus Christ, and no more…. We have to love each other, encourage each other, serve each other, accept one other, teach each other! That is what Jesus Christ prayed for. Are we doing that?

But the world today, I tell you, has given us a new phrase, which says, 'Mind your own business.' That’s a new phrase we are now learning. That is not a phrase from Jesus Christ.

We are to stand with those who are suffering, near and far, as Christians."

Amen. Amen indeed.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Is the Church THAT desperate for priests?

Oh, goody. Former New Jersey governor James McGreevey's divorce from his wife is in front of a judge again, and maybe we'll get to stop hearing about his alleged three-way sexual adventures and his affairs with/sexual harassment of aides and whatnot.

But I do wonder: is this the kind of person who has demonstrated the stability one would hope would be expected of a priest of the Episcopal Church? Do we really need someone who lies repeatedly, who makes vows he cannot keep, and who gave government jobs to his secret lover, and who, until these scandals broke, was an already once-divorced Roman Catholic? This man was received into the Episcopal Church on May 2, 2007, and immediately embarked upon the discernment process and entered General Theological Seminary. How did he get this sudden burning interest in the Episcopal Church and the priesthood?

He is obviously going through turmoil in his personal life. I have nothing but sympathy for people who have endured such personal trauma, even the self-inflicted kind we've seen in this situation-- but the last thing they need to be doing is ministering to anyone but themselves. Should entering the priesthood be even considered until his head stops spinning?

And I don't care if he's gay or straight. But let's ponder a question: would a straight man who had engaged in such behavior be allowed such latitude? Would someone who was not in the public eye in the same situation be allowed to jump into the process?

I doubt it. Is the Church THAT desperate for priests? Not from what I have seen. And let's also not forget how flighty and unhinged this makes the Episcopal Church appear.

One would hope that a requirement for Holy Orders would be that a person refrain if at all possible from unethical or hateful behavior, that he or she would "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." I'm serious here. Priests are not saints (most of 'em), but I don't think that that standard is too high a bar for anyone. Religion should be about more than just beliefs-- it should be about behavior. We are called to walk in the footsteps of Jesus-- ordained or lay, all of us-- and I don't think Jesus ever used the excuse of "She knew I was having affairs because she was in on it, so that makes it okay."

Saturday, May 3, 2008

On Prayer, part II

Over at RevGalBlogPals, there is such a timely Friday 5: So how do you wait and pray?

1. How do you pray best, alone or with others?
I pray best with others right now. I have been known to spontaneously whip up a prayer on the spot when the chips are down. I am working on praying more by myself. There have been a few times when I have been meditating that I have seen a glimpse of something deeper, but it has been fleeting. I am still working on it.

2. Do you enjoy the discipline of waiting, is it a time of anticipation or anxiety?
I am learning to appreciate waiting. I am trying to learn how to focus more. There's always so much waiting to be done, it's almost like I have to give myself permission to be still, and then there's the problem of finding a place where I can be still without being interrupted. I have been getting up an extra thirty minutes early to do morning prayer every day, and that has been helpful.

3. Is there a time when you have waited upon God for a specific promise?
Well, there was one time when I made a left turn right in front of a car that came speeding out of nowhere at me and was getting ready to T-bone me in a horrific way. Somehow, my cry of "Help me, Jesus" was the last thing I remember, and then I was in the parking lot that I had been turning into without a scratch on me. I am telling you, there is NO WAY that car should have missed me. I still can't figure it out.

4. Do you prefer stillness or action?
I prefer action. I am an action kind of gal. I want to feel like there is a before and after picture like in those ads. I need to get over this, and get over myself.

5. If ( and this is slightly tongue in cheek) you were promised one gift spiritual or otherwise what would you choose to receive?
Very seriously, I am praying for the gift of discernment right now. I have felt called to serve God officially and unofficially throughout my life. I feel called to holy orders, but I went to a discernment conference last year that I still in my head call the "discouragement conference." If you'd have asked me a year ago, I would have said that I would be in the formal discernment process by now. But life intervened. It seems the hurdles are insurmountable sometimes, and yet I do feel I have gifts in teaching and ministry and pastoral care and liturgy. I just have to tell myself, as is written in Revelations of Divine Love: "but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

On Prayer, part I

For several years now, I have thirsted for the chance to create a small still place for myself to engage in contemplative prayer and meditation. Life as a mother, daughter, teacher, and all the other hats that I (and so many others) wear means that when I DO finally sit down and try to still myself I usually wake up a few hours later with a start.

But in my ESM class we are studying spirituality and prayer this summer, so at last I can at least claim that I need some quiet time for school. This is hopefully going to be less stressful than last summer's assignment, which was preaching. Even though I speak and teach for a living, preaching is an entirely different experience, fraught with insecurity. What do I know, after all? What do I have to say? What if something heretical flies out of my mouth? What if the fans overhead blow the text of my sermon all hell to breakfast? These were just a few of my fears that I had to overcome.

In a way, it's the same thing with prayer. I am trying to move beyond the Oh God! definition of prayer, when God tells John Denver that he won't say anything to him from now on, but he'll be listening. I admit that I am more comfortable with music going on; silence can be disconcerting and twitchy. I don't want to just rambling on and on with God, and I don't want to make prayer a laundry list of wishes and wants with God as the big Sugar Daddy.

So I am reading Thomas Merton, and Julian of Norwich, and Kenneth Leech, and the Dalai Lama. I want to try to sink into the silence and listen to the Love that is God. And of course, I'll be trying to not fall asleep. And then trying not to beat myself up about it if I do fall asleep.

Monday, April 28, 2008

I now know...

how good the acoustics are in our church-- apparently, people in the back of the sanctuary could hear the gentle soughing of the snores of the choir member who fell asleep in the middle of the service.

Good to know.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Some thoughts from Kenneth Leech, so apropos for an election year

"So the test of spirituality is a practical test, and particularly the test of attitude toward the poor.

It is you who have devoured the vineyard, the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? (Isa. 3.14-15)

Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression,
to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey! (10.1-2)

And this test is repeated throughout the prophets.

Christian spirituality is the spirituality of the Poor Man of Nazareth who took upon himself the form of a Servant. To know God is to do justice and to plead the cause of the oppressed: to know God in Christ is to share in his work for establishing justice in the earth, and to share in his poverty and oppression. For in Christ, God becomes a little poor man, a member of the oppressed race, an exploited class, a colonized nation... To follow the Kingdom is therefore to follow him who fed the hungry, healed the sick, befriended the outcast, and blessed the peacemakers.

... The Gospel demand is a practical demand, It is useless to worship the God who is present everywhere, and ignore his presence somewhere. To fail to recognize Christ in the hungry and thirsty, in the stranger and the naked, in the sick and the prisoner, is to deny the Incarnation. Equally prayer which does not have this direct human and social application is not Christian prayer." (True Prayer, pp. 73-74).

If you read the news, you know that there are riots breaking out throughout the world over the inflation of food prices. Our government has currently pledged to increase its commitment for food aid this year. Hopefully this is not all we can do.

But even here in America, there are millions of poor people. Approximately 12.4 % of Americans are living in poverty, as of the 2000 census. How can we call ourselves Christians, if we constantly blame the poor for their situations? Christ didn't care why people were poor. The prophets didn't care why people were poor. We are commanded to care for them. But instead of addressing this repeated commandment throughout scripture, we argue about whether a woman should be allowed to be ordained or whether medical procedures should be made illegal.

Do people really believe that every poor person is lazy?

Let me put this another way:

Do you believe that every rich person is hard working?

There is a certain amount of luck involved in being rich, in most cases. There is also a certain amount of bad luck involved in being poor, in most cases. You weren't born in the right family, the right gender, or the right country. You married the wrong person. You have been injured or have a disability or have had a catastrophic illness.

We are called to act to alleviate suffering in the world, and not just our own suffering, but the suffering of others. That's a very important point. The Gospel message is a message of love, love for our neighbors as ourselves. Matthew 25: 24-40 makes this very clear to us. Christ comes to us in each creature who is hungry, or thirsty, or afraid, or persecuted. We cannot allow ourselves the luxury of only acknowledging Christ in the faces of those we love. We have to acknowledge Christ in the faces of those in need, if we wish to be obedient to the Gospel. When we spit in their faces, we spit in the face of God. Amen.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bishop Blues

So what is it with these (often young) bishops who resign and go gallivanting off hither and yon?

First there was the Rt. Rev. Johncy Itty in Oregon. He's been bishop for something like four years, and now his family is living in New York. For the geographically challenged, that would be-- all the way across the continent.

And then there is the Rt. Rev. Anthony Burton, who is leaving Saskatchewan in the Anglican Church of Canada to become rector of Church of the Incarnation in Dallas. Which is, once again-- all the way across the continent. I sense a pattern here.

What is going on?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

We are called to be One. One in Faith and One in Deed.

The body [of Christ] is an organic unity which cannot be divided without damage to the whole. Life flows from the stem to the branches, from the head to the members. Christ is the vine, he is the body. We are incorporated in him. A branch cut off withers and dies. A member cut off ceases to exist. To belong to Christ is to belong to his Church. In the perspective of the New Testament, a Christian living in isolation is unthinkable-- a contradiction in terms.

Again, the life of the body implies diversity in unity. This is Paul's dominant thought in both Rom., ch. 12, and I Cor., chs. 12 to 14. There are many gifts and corresponding functions. God is the giver. Therefore, no one can pride himself on his gifts nor disregard the gifts of others. And fullness of life is attained only when all members of the body are healthy and contribute to the life of the whole.

We are here given some precious instructions as to the life and structure of the church. There is a diversity of ministries, that is, of "services." If there is a hierarchy of functions, it can only be according to the measure of the Spirit that God bestows. Those who are leaders should consider themselves as those who serve, in all humility and love. (See Rom. 12:3-11; I Cor. 12:4-31; Luke 22: 26.) And of all gifts, the greatest-- without which all others are of no avail--is love. This ios the recurring note in all the apostolic letters, as in the sayings of Jesus himself. (See I Cor. ch. 13; Phil. 2:1-8; I John, chs. 3:14-18, 4:7-12; John 13:34.)

The very insistence in these letters on "mutual subjection," on forbearance, each counting others better than himself and seeking their interest rather than his own (Eph. 5:21; Phil. 2:3-4), shows that failure to fulfill the law of love has been one of the stumbling blocks of Christian communities from the very beginning. But it was also considered as the decisive test of their discipleship. The danger in taking pride in one's own gifts while disregarding those of others was always looming on the horizon, as is shown by the chaotic assemblies at Corinth. Paul firmly reminds the churches that "God is not the God of confusion but of peace" (I Cor. 14:33; see also the entire chapter). Every gift must be used for the building up of the church.

Furthermore, the unity of the church is seen at the same time both as something given and as a goal to be attained. Unity belongs to the very essence of the church! "There is one body and one Spirit,... one hope... one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all." (Eph. 4:4-6). The passage is probably referring to the unity of Jews and Gentiles, but the truth it states remains the same for the church throughout the world. It is not in our power to make the church one, for the unity is God-given. We can only manifest this unity in word and deed.

-- Suzanne de Dietrich, The Witnessing Community, 1958.

These words were written fifty years ago in the context of the strengthening Ecumenical movement throughout the world. As I read them, I think of so many of our leaders who would profit from contemplating the truth expressed here.

How committed, truly, can the Episcopal Church, or certainly the Anglican Communion, be toward the goal of unifying the visible, human-wrought fractures within the body of Christ, to the spirit of ecumenism, if we cannot even speak to each other without wanting to cull, to exclude, to build a fence around our little corner of heaven?

On August 23 this year, Christians worldwide will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the World Council of Churches. Anglicans proudly played a prominent role alongside so many others in founding this noble body, and yet if we look at the crises facing the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion in 2008, how can we hold up our heads without shame?

If you listen to the debate between the two sides of the current schism in San Joaquin or elsewhere, all one is likely to hear is a prettified version of "You started it!" "Did not!" "Did TOO!" What's next? Catcalls and Bronx cheers? Of course, to be fair, when the United States has been led all too willingly for nigh the last decade by people who engage in the same kind of playground idiocy, but on a global scale resulting in the death or exile of millions, I guess we shouldn't be too surprised. But it is time to put away childish things-- more than time, indeed-- and attempt to really live the message of the Gospel, not just random bits of scripture plucked from the margins of the message of Christ, ignoring the centrality of this truth:


There certainly is no love in the hearts of most involved in this scandal. If there was, we certainly wouldn't be in the mess in which we find ourselves. There may be love at the base of all this dissension, but it's love of self and love of station and love of victimhood and love of privilege.

Call me naive-- I care not. But if the actions of Christians are not rooted in love, then they are not rooted in Christ, and ought not to be countenanced.

When I was in school, I had an English teacher who claimed to be the most confirmed of Christians, and she had the opportunity through the curriculum of the public schools to teach the Old Testament as literature. Unfortunately, as she force-fed us sermons by right-wing evangelists and hounded the Jewish kid in the third row, most of us noticed how very small her love of her fellow-man seemed to be. Her face set into a perpetual scowl, she regaled us with stories of death and destruction, of a vengeful God smiting in righteous anger. She saw nothing wrong with a God who would send a couple of bears to eat up a bunch of kids for making fun of the bald pate of a prophet. I'm sure this lady thought she was saving our souls from eternal damnation-- but her mien did more to turn some classmates from the message of Christ than she ever even knew. I will acknowledge having loads of fun asking her exactly on what day man was created and who Abel married and other sorts of smart-ass adolescent mockery which really was not very nice. But there was certainly no love in her faith.

And it's the same now. We are called to be one body. We are called to labor for the love of Christ, to name the grace that has touched and transformed us like a bolt of lightning. The words are simple, but the action and the fulfillment strain us to the utmost. It would help if we would try.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, both sides of the disagreement over slavery found ample Biblical support for their positions. In the 20th century, the Pauline epistles were used -- and are still used, if the current controversy in Wales or in our own Diocese of Springfield, Illinois is any example--to both support and condemn the ordination of women. The heart of these disputes lies in the fact that the Biblical canon is seen as both the inspired Word of God and is acknowledged as having been assembled by very human men several centuries after Christ. None of the Gospels is coterminous with Christ's ministry. Epistles by Paul made the cut even if the authorship was dubious, while other epistles, such as those by Clement, fell by the wayside, however important they had been in the early life of the Church. We have to acknowledge that Scripture is a part of our tradition, and look at what the overarching message of Christ is through his example and his presence in our hearts.

Of course we all struggle with this love of those who oppose us or argue with us or condemn us. But at the very least, can't we recognize this fault in ourselves and try to overcome it? And I certainly need to do this as much as anyone else. Lord, make me an instrument of your love. Amen.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The proverbial proverb

This one reminds me of family Thanksgivings:
Better a dish of herbs when love is there,
than a fattened ox and hatred to go with it. (15:17)

And this one is good advice for principals everywhere:
Expel the mocker and strife goes too,
dispute and abuse die down. (22:10)

Friday, April 4, 2008

Let justice roll down like waters

Forty years gone. And still we wait. From his speech on April 3, 1968:

Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?" I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God's children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn't stop there.

I would move on by Greece and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon. And I would watch them around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality. But I wouldn't stop there.

I would go on, even to the great heyday of the Roman Empire. And I would see developments around there, through various emperors and leaders. But I wouldn't stop there.

I would even come up to the day of the Renaissance, and get a quick picture of all that the Renaissance did for the cultural and aesthetic life of man. But I wouldn't stop there.

I would even go by the way that the man for whom I am named had his habitat. And I would watch Martin Luther as he tacked his ninety-five theses on the door at the church of Wittenberg. But I wouldn't stop there.

I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a vacillating President by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But I wouldn't stop there.

I would even come up to the early thirties, and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation. And come with an eloquent cry that we have nothing to fear but "fear itself." But I wouldn't stop there.

Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, "If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy."

Now that's a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That's a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.

Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee -- the cry is always the same: "We want to be free."

We want to be free. While any of my brothers or sisters is not free, I am not free. As John Donne reminded us:

"The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that this occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God.

Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

If we want peace in the world, we must demand justice. Justice today. Justice always.

(Cross-posted at A Shrewdness of Apes)

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Does the existence of suffering mean there's no God?

That's what Bart Ehrman concludes in his new book: God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer.

I am about halfway finished with the book right now. It's a very simple read, but I can't say that I believe that God really promised to swoop in and fix all of our problems. I also cringe whenever I hear my mom and others say "It was God's will," to some tragic event, on the other hand. Professor Ehrman states in the book that one of the reasons he lost his faith is precisely the problem of suffering. Ehrman basically concludes that if God is powerless to end or prevent suffering, God isn't much of a God.

You know, it must be a really interesting position to be in, to be a scholar and teacher on the Bible and to lose your faith. It seems akin to a vegetarian running a hotdog stand, or a person who is tone deaf working as an orchestra conductor. I mean, basically, since his field of study is textual criticism of the Bible, without faith his work seems to be that of an English professor rather than a professor of religion.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Snow falling on prayer books 3

From my continuing and occasional foray into church-related haiku:

Sixteen songs, three days,
fingers afire: guitarist
during Holy Week

"Small sacrifice"
Forty seven days
With no Pepsi; headache plagued
but four pounds lighter

"First Communion"
The wafer? Okay.
But that wine? His little mouth
puckered in protest

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

From this morning's epistle: What is this?

So in between yesterday's epistle reading from 1 Corinthians 15 and today's epistle reading, there is this verse caught in the middle (1 Corinthians 15:29):

"Else what shall they do that are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them?"

What in the world is that about? This is another of those Nephilim moments. That's the term I use for something in the Bible that makes NO sense whatsoever.

What does "baptized for the dead" mean?