"then wilt thou not be loath to leave this Paradise, but shalt possess a paradise within thee, happier far. Let us descend now therefore from this top of speculation; for the hour precise exacts our parting hence" Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines585-590

Thursday, September 11, 2014


I think almost everyone who was around on this day thirteen years ago was shocked and
bewildered at witnessing the collapse of the World Trade Center towers in NYC and the destruction at the Pentagon in Washington, DC.  Civil Aviation came to a grinding halt and many across the United States wondered if their cities might be next.  I still vividly remember sitting in front of a television at work, disbelieving and wondering about the fate of friends living in New York.  It was a terrible tragedy, to those who died in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania and their families especially so, but also to those of us who could only stand in silent witness, confronting our inability to do anything to affect this unfolding horror in our midst.  As a priest, today, I will remember those lost in our prayers during Eucharist, and beseech God to continue the work of un-hardening hearts that we might know peace.

And as searing as that tragedy was, looking from the perspective of more than a dozen years later, I confess I am unsettled at how Fear has become the predominant lens through which so many choose to see the world.  I don't wish to take away from the tragedy or sense of loss of that day, but those who perpetrated this tragedy and their successors are not an existential threat to the United States. Undoubtedly, if left unaddressed, these terrorist groups could wreak great havoc on our people and economy.  It is right that we should be vigilant and even proactive where we can to prevent and nullify the threat they represent.  

But I am concerned that our perspective of fear puts us in danger of entanglement with evil.  In the Episcopal church, each week we do confession together as a congregation.  This is done, not only in order to inject a little necessary humility into our lives, but also because it is symbolic of the ways we are all entangled together in systems of sin.  In one form of that confession, we say to God that we "repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf."  Our fear, and its resultant crippling of our ability to realistically assess the danger and respond accordingly, sends us ever further into being complicit to the evil done on our behalf.  Not only in the far greater tragedy of constant war, but in the loss of confidence in liberty here at home.  

In Federalist 8, Alexander Hamilton wrote; 
"Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates. The violent destruction of life and property incident to war, the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free."
We are threatened, but the the existence of our nation is not.  We have lost confidence in ourselves; it is stunting us and hardening our hearts against the world and each other.

Moreover, as followers of Christ, we are called forth as agents of love and reconciliation.  This requires more of us than words and feelings; it demands also our vigorous action, including action in the civic and political spheres.  It demands that we proclaim that fearfulness is contrary to what we believe to be fundamentally true and right, and that we then act and live into that belief.  The Apostle Paul wrote this to the nascent christian community in Rome, a community that knew a thing or two about suffering and fear;
"Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."

Bless, do not curse.  Reconciliation is hard work and often, initially, unsatisfying work.  But the alternative is ever increasing fear due to escalating cycles of retribution.  An eye for an eye isn't justice, it is merely limited injustice.  Let us not settle for such.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Who Belongs?

In my office, I keep the parish registers, which record the baptisms, confirmations and deaths of everyone who has ever been a part of the life of the parish I serve.  The oldest book goes back to the founding of our parish in 1902.  Incidentally, we are one of the "younger" Episcopal Churches in West Virginia.  Everyone who has ever been a member has their name recorded in these books.  Its not exactly the Book of Life, but it is one for which I am accountable.  And every year I am called upon to fill out a Parochial Report where I dutifully record the number of "members" as well as those associated with the parish.  Anguish over the membership of the parish as well as the wider church is hard to avoid.

And our standards for membership are pretty low really.  You have to be at least 16, baptized and recorded in the parish register.  To have a voice in parish decisions there's an additional qualification to have been present  at worship and be "known" to the priest.  I'll be honest that after a little while here, I eliminated nearly a hundred "members" from the roles because I had no idea who they were because they'd either dropped out, moved away or died.

So here's a question.  Is the Samaritan woman Jesus meets at the Well of Jacob a Christian?  Their exchange is recounted in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John.  Quick recap:  Jesus meets the woman and after a short exchange (which is Jesus' longest recorded conversation, I believe) she goes to her village and recounts her encounter and as the gospel says "Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony."

She obviously, in this passage, comes to believe that Jesus is in some way the chosen one of God and she goes out to share with any who will listen, her encounter with Him and its impact on her life - so that their lives might be made whole as hers was.  She is, it would seem, a dedicated follower of Jesus - and a pretty effective evangelist as well.  But she hasn't been baptized, and she certainly hasn't participated in communion - since Jesus hasn't given that particular gift yet in the story.  So, is she a Christian or not?

Because I think she illustrates something important about "membership" in the church and some important ways that membership separates itself from being about following Jesus.  It isn't primarily about formal affiliation with a congregation, or participation in a particular style of worship, or even participation in the sacraments - primarily it is about love of Jesus and a willingness to share our encounter with him with others.

But as church, as an institution charged with guarding the integrity of Christ's message, how do we make space for the many and varied ways that people actually connect with Jesus and his story?  How do we gauge the commitment of people to the mission of the gospel and how might we structure our congregations to empower people to be evangelists in the way that the Samaritan woman was?

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Missing the Point

So I was driving today and while stopped at a red light there was a pickup in front of me that had... well see for yourself

So there's the fish which represents Christianity and there's a silhouette of a buxom woman which represents...  I have no idea.  I'll take "what is sexual objectification for 800, Alex."  Maybe?

I'll be honest and say that these two images represent such differing perspectives on the world as to be wholly incompatible to me.  Perhaps they're being ironic, you might say.  Perhaps, but I doubt it.  And really let us just assume their sincerity.  They love Jesus and hot girlies.  Hey I like beautiful women and Jesus too.

And yet, there is something about this particular representation of feminine "beauty" that seems to anonymize that beauty, to make it impersonal, to make it an object.  Girl=Hair+Butt+Boobs.  Oh, and preferably naked because that silhouette is assuredly naked.  And naked is better because then we can make the leap from mere object to sex object - something that exists solely to serve as a means of pleasure.  So, the ideal woman represented here, nay the ideal Christian woman, is a woman whose very existence is wholly devoted to the pleasure of another.  I have to say that doesn't fit with my understanding of Jesus' mission, which involves upholding the dignity of all persons.  All of Jesus' actions served to undermine systems of subjugation and oppression, to break open the false belief that their is a hierarchy of love, rather than the unconditional love God has for every human person.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The dance of Trinity

This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, which means it's a
Sunday set aside to celebrate the doctrine of God
being three persons but still one God.  What, celebrating a doctrine sounds strange?  Well, probably because it is.  What makes it even trickier is that, as a preacher, almost anything I say on the subject will likely contravene the doctrine.  Because... well because it's an extremely convoluted doctrine and its underlying reality is so confounding to our experience and logic.  How can three separate things really be one thing? 

The idea of the Trinity developed over centuries of debate revolving around the scriptural witness, the experience of believers and the traditional interpretations handed down by Jesus' disciples.  There's also probably more than a touch of Greek philosophy thrown in as well, those old church dudes (and they were mostly male) loved their Greek philosophy.  In some ways, the development of the doctrine of the Trinity resembles a group of grumpy blind men trying to create a Renoir painting - lots of arguing over things that can't really be understood.  All analogies fall short eventually because they're, well, analogies - not descriptive reality. And there's no way to really describe alot of what God is or is about short of analogy, thus our understanding is always incomplete. People, mostly, hate ambiguity though.  Thus, lots of heat is generated by religious types claiming their analogy is the Truth. 

At the same time, their is something about the human experience of God which leads to seeing God in distinct forms.  The eternal God whose will underlies all of the Cosmos, existing outside of time and space, somehow remote and distant, Jesus of Nazareth who walked and talked and had to do all the things human do (yes, even those things) and yet in whose life and resurrection from the dead the earliest disciples experienced the divine, and all of the ways in which the divine purpose intersects our lives and makes its presence known to us; all three of these point to "God" and yet we cannot get over the feeling of separateness in them while somehow recognizing their unity of purpose and direction. 

There is to mind, very little to say about the Trinity other than saying "in this mystery I believe and trust."  But there is still much to be said about our experience of God, both in transcendence and in our relationships with others.  I became a Christian not because of the beauty of it's arguments on behalf of God's existence or because of the internal logic of its theology (which it isn't).  I became a Christian because of experiences I had whose explanation defied rational examination and the story of God as contained in the Christian tradition made the most sense, even if not perfectly. 

To me, Christianity is an ongoing examination of the world around us and a testing of tradition and scripture in light of that experience.  Faith is not about learning some arcane set of facts and holding fast to them in the face of contrary evidence.  It is a journey of discovery and reconciliation of our experience of God with others' experiences so that all together we might discern and live into the one underlying truth of God; that our universe is founded upon the twin principles of love and relationship.

Friday, June 6, 2014


Recently I received a Facebook friend request from my childhood best friend, someone I not had seen or spoken to in something like 35 years.  Of course, I accepted right away.  We had been inseparable before his family moved away.

And then he sent a message:
"I have one question for you...Just why couldn't I have my crystal radio set back? (I say that with a smile but I know you've grown up a lot since then I'm sure - but I do remember we had a fight over that.)"

So I replied: 
Honestly I don't recall. Now that you mention it, I remember using it in the basement where it probably still is. I'd be happy to return it now. I suspect I was reluctant to let too many things go.

But he messaged me again:
LOL - u don't remember much. I came and got it. We had a fight. You punched my chest and burst my blood blister that was on my chest. I think that was the last time I talked to you. I played with it for awhile. I think it was a $5 toy. I was just wondering why you were being so mean about something so trivial.

At this point, I have to be honest, I felt really bad.  Not only had I treated my friend terribly so long ago, and though it had obviously stuck with him, I had forgotten.  I was uncomfortable coming face to face with my 12 year old self and felt ashamed.

So I wrote back:
Probably because I was angry that you were leaving and didn't have anywhere to direct that anger except on you 

And it probably is true.  I was a pretty angry young person and looking back I think I had reason to look at the world as unfair and to be angry.  But at the same time, I can also recognize that anger wasn't an effective means to build a life.  And as I grew up, I was often my own worst enemy, my anger and stubbornness driving me to self-destructive behaviors and choices.

But somewhere along the way, I discovered the power of being loved which led me to begin to believe that there might be something like a loving God.  And slowly, my anger ebbed away.  Its not that I don't ever get angry, but its not the perspective from which I see everything around me anymore.

I've found redemption, I've cased in my anger for hope, my frustration for faith.  And in something as simple as Facebook friend request, God has again given me an opportunity to experience redemption, the redemption of a friendship derailed by anger.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

missing the mark

St Paul talks about the multiplicity of gifts/abilities expressed individually by members of the assembly which, together, express the reality of Christ present within the Church.  His vision for the christian community, the Church, seems to be just this joining together of the many into one "body."  But, at the same time, Paul is very clearly the one in charge, and he seems to be appointing people (eg; Timothy) to exercise his authority vicariously and to guide and develop the nascent christian assemblies he has formed.  So, the community exist, seemingly, as both egalitarian/inclusive and hierarchical/exclusive.  It's authority and power, what's right and who decides.  I have a thesis that this intersection of authority and power is at the heart of the struggles of the people of God, but without getting into that too much I am interested in a particular expression of that conflict

In my tradition (Anglican) we have ordained persons who provide spiritual leadership.  These people are "called" or identified within particular congregations, but then confirmed and tested by the hierarchical leadership beyond the specific congregation where their specific gifts were first recognized.  Ideally, it is a nice balance between the inclusive and exclusive push/pull of the Church.  In reality, it can be a difficult and wearying experience almost wholly at the whim and mercy of the hierarchy.  There seems little willingness to trust in the discernment of gifts by the congregation.  I suspect this is a hard-learned lesson involving situations where people weren't willing to be truly honest with one another.  I generally assume good intentions of others, but let's be honest; anyone who spends some time in church knows that its full of difficult people (including clergy) or perhaps worse, people who don't know that church isn't reserved to the good and gracious.

I've met enough bad clergy persons that I can appreciate the hierarchical concerns regarding quality of candidates presented by congregations.  At the same time, I've known good people who've become good clergy not because of hierarchical support but in spite of it.  I don't have any solutions really, except this.  Gifts and call and the action of the Holy Spirit is a crazy, a-rational thing that probably cannot be neatly fit into a "process."  Identifying, discerning and preparing people for vocational ministry isn't like making widgets with a known raw material, a measurable process and an expected outcome.  God can't be pinned in like that.  I think it is far more like art, sculpting perhaps - which is more a process of stripping away the unneeded to find the true figure previously hidden within the stone.

Friday, March 1, 2013

the tie that binds

For the amusement of serious Episcopal Church geeks only!

At General Convention last year, a resolution was passed that directed, more or less, the sale of our Church HQ building in New York City, fondly known as 815 (because that's its address).  Somewhat surprisingly (or not) the people who work there submitted a report to the Executive Council that said, "thanks, but no" and then gave some self-serving reasons why they thought General Convention didn't really mean what it said and everything should stay just like it is.

I have to be honest here and say, I'm not really sure what benefits, if any, come to my parish because of the work of the 815 staff.  I don't doubt they exist, but I don't know what they are.  I know what Episcopal Relief and Development does.  I know what the Church Pension Fund does (and thank you!!!!).  I even know what the Episcopal Church Foundation does and the National Association of Episcopal Schools do as well.  I can clearly articulate their mission and how it affects me, but 815.... nothing.  And so my question is this - what do they do and how does it help me spread the Gospel in southern West Virginia?

And since I love to make grand suggestions for change, allow me to indulge my fancy for a moment.  Let's get rid of it, just to see what happens.  Let's try to just hang together based on the Prayer book, General Convention, and support of those groups and networks (and those like them) mentioned above.  To draw on the analogy of my family, we remain so based on a shared history, some physical resemblance, and mutuality of relationship and frankly not spending too much time in each other's business.  I'm all for hanging together as a church on the thinnest of threads because if Jesus is in it, it will all work out and if he isn't... its just as well it goes away.