Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Thoughts on Community #1

November 28, 2011

So many things have had me thinking about community in recent weeks. Perhaps the way in for me has been a book called Disrupting Homelessness: Alternative Christian Approaches by Laura Stivers (Fortress, 2011). She uses the ethics of a liberationist called Traci West of Drew University to explore issues of homelessness. Along the way she articulates various attitudes that ‘society’ has taken to the homeless criticizing what she calls “assimilate or criminalize.” She looks at various models that have been widely used including the Rescue Mission Movement and Habitat for Humanity. She appears to have some admiration for the ‘Housing First’ Movement which seeks to put chronically homeless people into their own apartments rather than tr to move them through a “continuum of care”, but which still seems to be about assimilating homeless people into societal norms. (It is my understanding that those prepared to provide and care for the men of the in the event that the Task Force for the Homeless wither step aside or are evicted are focused on the Housing First model.)

Set against this work is an idea that never quite gets articulated to my satisfaction but which appears to be that ‘the homeless’ are a constituency or community in themselves who need to be addressed as a collective and legitimate ‘other’. We read things like this: “Using prophetic-disruption methodology entails not simply deconstructing oppressive ideologies but also identifying and addressing power, privilege, and social domination.” (p.116) Or again: “So long as Habitat emphasizes changing the conscience of the rich, it will not adopt a structural critique.” (p.117) This ‘prophetic-disruption refers to “our Christina calling to confront, just as Jesus did, that which denies human well-being and community.” Stivers writes “For as long as humans have been around, domination and oppression have been used to gain power and privilege, and Scripture and theological rationales have been used to justify the status quo of inequality.” (p.7)

Stivers’ research and descriptions of the current reality of homelessness in America makes clear that there is a structural problem in that there is simply not enough low cost housing or adequate shelter and other services for those in need. We know this to be true anecdotally in Atlanta as Shirley Franklin’s first class efforts to engage the whole community in addressing the challenge of people living on the streets ended up being seriously underfunded after the recession of 2008.

The homeless people that we address at All Saints’ are not the majority, those who are invisible, the women and children, and so on. We address the ‘chronically homeless’ m any of whom refuse to live at the Peachtree Pine shelter which they describe as “being like a prison” and yet who resemble many of those who do choose to live there, some of whose lives have been transformed by some sense of kindness and community. They raise the question for me as to whether ‘the community’ is allowed to develop norms of behavior, violation of which puts someone outside of the community and therefore in need of ‘help’ in some way. The behavior of some disrupts the ‘wellbeing’ and ‘community’ of others. Is it criminalizing poverty to say that someone may not engage in drug use and prostitution on the All Saints’ campus and the ability of some of the homeless to regulate their own behavior has meant that we will no longer be a welcome place at night when we are closed? This is undoubtedly a decision of ‘power and privilege’ in one sense, but also a vision of community that is not governed by those who find inconvenient the norms which inevitably become rules when they are violated often enough.

Descriptions of the ‘Occupy Movement’ make clear that even in a ‘leaderless democracy’ the behavior of some is eventually curtailed or limited for the wellbeing of the many. I have more thinking to do about the ‘homeless advocates’ who seem to use the homeless to promote ‘disruption’ and be ‘prophetic’ without apparently wishing to challenge those they allegedly serve to abide by norms of the larger community. They become terrorists for a community that, however defined, finds it difficult to adjust to societal ‘norms’. Should assimilation not be the goal if community means that everyone thrives?

Thursday, November 17, 2011


November 16, 2011

There is really no reason that you would have heard of the IALC, otherwise known as the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation. Since the last General Convention the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM) has been working on developing a rite or rites for the blessing of same-sex unions. At the annual Presbyters Conference of our diocese w were taken through the process of by which such a rite is being developed, including various theological principles underlying the potential and to-be-proposed rites without being allowed to look at the rites themselves. This all amounts to painstaking politics, apparently covering every base so that those who do not like and do not want to see such rites developed in the first place cannot engage the old game of attacking the process. I suppose it is necessary, but it is dull beyond words for those who have made peace with what is happening one way or another (some by leaving the Episcopal Church altogether) and have moved on.

The primary complaint that led to the development of the proposed Anglican Covenant was that The Episcopal Church did not ‘consult’ with official Anglican bodies of varying kinds at varying levels on the place of homosexual people within the church before proceeding to ordain and consecrate Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. This complaint offered in spite of the wide and long standing conversation with Anglicans throughout the world who were willing to engage such a conversation.

So back to the IALC, a group made up of representatives of many, but not all Anglican provinces, with a predominant Western and professional academic representation. Our own Bishop is a part of that group and attended the most recent gathering of the Consultation in New Zealand last August. The main agenda was to be about marriage rites and particularly the thorny issue of whether or not we should be contracting a marriage as well as celebrating it. Bryan Spinks of Yale reports (in The Living Church, October 23, 2011 p.24-26) that our friend Mdimi Mhogolo of the Diocese of Central Tanganyika presented a paper lamenting the suppression of indigenous marriage customs through laws modeled on those of the United Kingdom. Into this mix those overseeing the agenda shoehorned a conversation about our proposed rite for the blessing of same sex unions and it is clear that from Dr. Spinks’ perspective this was unfortunate. Those who really don’t want any such rite and really don’t want to talk about it and certainly don’t want to imply any imprimatur from the IALC beg for a consultation (in the words of Dr. Spinks) in a “serious, charitable and fully informed manner across the communion”. This sounds good and would be if the communion wanted such a consultation. Dr. Spinks report suggests that this is precisely not the case and so perhaps a single morning of consultation within a consultation is the best we are going to do before the General Convention is asked to act next year.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Thoughts on tax policy and other matters

November 15, 2011

I know that I am not a social conservative and in matters like abortion, sexuality and the like I tend to a libertarian position. Not so much with economic policy. It seems to me that we determine common goals in and through a democratic process and then argue about ‘fair share’ for meeting those goals. I think schools are important and that we should all participate in paying for them. I think that to do so through a sales tax is essentially regressive, meaning that it contributes to the mechanisms by which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. In other words this is not the fairest way to fund schools that. My conservative friends tell me that public schools are mostly used by poorer people anyway and that the rich pay more sales tax because they spend more money, having more to spend. This seems to me an appropriate political argument, where making a case about any tax that government is “too big” is destructive of communal values that have been put in place and affirmed over time. The desirability or otherwise of government creating and maintaining a system to ensure that our citizens can retire with some measure of security and dignity is a reasonable conversation, as is whether the military budget needs to be large enough to fight two or more unpopular wars indefinitely. What does not seem reasonable is ‘line in the sand’, ‘my way or the high way’ type tactics we have seen from this congress. I’m also therefore among those who are glad that President Obama has avoided the temptation, urged upon him by many of his own party, to ‘creative a narrative’ that is the opposite and equal of his opponents. I prefer a more vigorous defense of what we should and do have in common, and why.

With that in mind I have a couple of modest proposals that overcome the ‘having it both ways’ problem that played a role in bringing down the banking system (selling bad paper and then making money again by betting that it will go wrong) and that plagues the political debate about matters of importance (government is too big for what you think is important but what I think is important is sacrosanct.)

1. Any time we go to war with the support of congress, we automatically institute a draft until that war is ended.
2. The top rate of tax for our alleged ‘job creators’ (individuals or businesses) is tied to the unemployment rates. Unemployment goes down, so does the top-tax rate.
3. Increases or cuts in taxes to pay for entitlement programs are, above some reasonable level, tied to similar increases or cuts in the military budgets.

These things should stay in place until the current climate changes and sanity is restored.

Into Difference

November 12, 2011

One of the questions I have been asked with some regularity since returning from a visit to the Diocese of Western Tanganyika is why we are in this relationship in the first place. Are we helping the needy? Building an orphanage? Bringing some kind of expertise? The answer is ‘none of the above’. We are engaging in what Titus Presler calls “Reconciling Mission in a World of Difference.” That is the subtitle of his book Going Global with God (Morehouse, 2010). At All Saints’ we say that we are a community centered in worship and that we grow in faith as we engage God and our neighbor. It is that engagement of God and neighbor that is mission “into difference” with the reasonable and holy hope of “reconciliation” as a result of our opening ourselves to whatever it is that God has to teach us in the world of another.

Jennifer Vanderbes’ second novel is Strangers at the Feast (Scribner, 2010). At a recent gathering of our Novel Theology group we discussed the differing worlds of characters who appear to be in the same world as they are from the same family. Beyond that we saw what happened as they “engaged difference” with their eyes closed and how deathly violence was the result. As some of the members of the group shared about what was happening as they chose to live in ‘transitional neighborhoods’, we heard how difficult it can be to live in a world in which we displace each other for all kinds of ‘innocent’ reasons.

There is something about traveling across the world and wrestling with the suspicion that for our hosts, ‘unity in Christ’ and the ‘fellowship of the gospel’ are quite secondary to whatever monetary gifts we might release that opens our eyes to worlds of difference closer to home. We went with some clear instructions about how our gift was to be used and ended up coming to terms with the reality that partnership means that we must trust those with whom we are in relationship. Whatever financial gifts we can release to assist in the work of proclaiming the gospel in DWT will have to be used by those who live their in the way they think best even as they understand our particular interest in strong education in Africa as a primary means of their finding a sustainable future.

As we think about this ‘mission into difference’, we are already addressing what one reviewer declares missing from Dr. Presler’s helpful book. Ian Douglas, a former faculty colleague of Presler and now Bishop of Connecticut reviewed Going Global for The Anglican Theological Review (Fall 2011, Vol.93, #4 p.734-6) and says he “does not adequately offer a power analysis in his consideration of difference…how disproportionate power allows some to cross borders from positions of privilege while others experience that crossing as targets of oppression.” In DWT we are guests and we are dependent on our gracious hosts in so many ways, but we come from privilege and have to be careful about instincts we have to be ‘helpful’ without really and deeply understanding the world in which we are privileged to be visitors.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


October 26, 2011

A few years ago I was able to hear Hans Reinders, a Dutch theologian and ethicist, talk about a friend of his with profound mental disability. As I remember the lecture, his point was that his friend, who had to be dressed and taught anew each day to eat along with other basic functions, was made a person by the community around her. People would stop and comment on how nice she looked or how they had missed her if she was not sitting in the corridor of her nursing home or make a comment to her about the weather. I was struck by the idea that we are, in a sense, made human by community.

I found myself recalling this lecture during a recent ‘transformational journey’ to the Diocese of Western Tanganyika. I had not previously noticed that there are no mirrors to speak of in that part of Tanzania. What was an insignificant inconvenience while shaving in cold water from a bucket or brushing my few remaining hairs and hoping I looked OK, became quite significant as members of our team enjoyed taking pictures of people on digital cameras and then showing them to their subjects. I will not soon forget one elegant and older woman being shown what she looked like by Della Wells. It is likely from her reaction of what looked like a combination of awe and amazement, it seems likely that she was seeing what she looked like for the first time in her life.

What would it be like to grow up and live in a world without mirrors? I realize that people have long been able to see their own reflections, but it is my impression that in the Western part of Tanzania, that is a rare experience for most. How would it be if we were really dependent on each other in order to enjoy a sense of who we are? I know that I don’t think I sound to the world like I do when I hear myself on a recording. I wonder if I know what I look like to other people, what assumptions they make about me, how I act based on their responses and so on? In a way, it is already the case—mirrors or no mirrors—that we are creatures of our villages, our communities and our tribes.


October 26, 2011

A few years ago I was able to hear Hans Reinders, a Dutch theologian and ethicist, talk about a friend of his with profound mental disability. As I remember the lecture, his point was that his friend, who had to be dressed and taught anew each day to eat along with other basic functions, was made a person by the community around her. People would stop and comment on how nice she looked or how they had missed her if she was not sitting in the corridor of her nursing home or make a comment to her about the weather. I was struck by the idea that we are, in a sense, made human by community.

I found myself recalling this lecture during a recent ‘transformational journey’ to the Diocese of Western Tanganyika. I had not previously noticed that there are no mirrors to speak of in that part of Tanzania. What was an insignificant inconvenience while shaving in cold water from a bucket or brushing my few remaining hairs and hoping I looked OK, became quite significant as members of our team enjoyed taking pictures of people on digital cameras and then showing them to their subjects. I will not soon forget one elegant and older woman being shown what she looked like by Della Wells. It is likely from her reaction of what looked like a combination of awe and amazement, it seems likely that she was seeing what she looked like for the first time in her life.

What would it be like to grow up and live in a world without mirrors? I realize that people have long been able to see their own reflections, but it is my impression that in the Western part of Tanzania, that is a rare experience for most. How would it be if we were really dependent on each other in order to enjoy a sense of who we are? I know that I don’t think I sound to the world like I do when I hear myself on a recording. I wonder if I know what I look like to other people, what assumptions they make about me, how I act based on their responses and so on? In a way, it is already the case—mirrors or no mirrors—that we are creatures of our villages, our communities and our tribes.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Anglican Imagination

October 24, 2011

A recent book on John Betjeman by Kevin Gardner is called Betjeman and the Anglican Imagination (SPCK, 2010). It is less illuminating about Anglican imagination than it is about an imagination shaped by the Church of England in both rural and urban settings. Betjeman’s poetry (of which I am a fan) is riddled with ecclesiastic allusion, references to church architecture and to the sacramental life of the community. But it is very, very English.

I found myself thinking about my recent experience of Anglicanism in Tanzania and whether there really is such a thing as ‘the Anglican imagination’. I did not worship in Dar es Salaam on this trip, but know from the past that some of the worship in the Anglican cathedral could be mistaken for pre-Vatican II Rome. In the Western part of the country I have been treated to a North end celebration of the Eucharist with the presiding priest wearing cassock, surplice and tippet. Clearly the church reflects the predilections of the missionary societies that worked in different parts of the country.

If there is such a thing as Anglican imagination it must have something to do with imagining unity that transcends difference, without minimizing the importance of those cultural, historical and ecclesial differences. It is one thing to visit the Diocese of Western Tanganyika and affirm that in Christ there is neither slave nor Greek; that we are one in a communion of prayer and mutual concern; and at the same time face very different challenges and opportunities that can make each other’s lives more difficult. Our affirmation of gay and lesbian people is somewhere between astonishing and absurd for our friends in DWT. It also has the potential to leave them in a vulnerable position in respect to their rigidly moralistic and expansionistic Muslim neighbors. We have to listen to the Archbishop of Canterbury visiting Harare assuring people there that the Anglican Communion does not support homosexuality. (and if the Covenant process continues together support, one day he might be able to say that honestly having excommunicated those who make a lie out of such pronouncements today—namely the Episcopal Church and others.) At the same time we have to be gracious guests among Christians who have massive needs and yet who cannot seem to allow the development of real power for women. The Mother’s Union is impressive in DWT but seems to be a sleeping giant whose hands are somewhat tied by pretty rigid adherence to traditional gender roles. Bishop Makaya does a good job of reminding us that it is a sign of respect when a woman kneels to a visitor (or indeed just about any man) but it is profoundly uncomfortable to see that while being barraged with requests for money when one of the greatest resources for development is being restricted to traditional roles.

My ‘Anglican imagination’ suggests that maintaining a consistent and committed friendship across all of these differences will eventually lead us to a place in which difference matters only to the degree that the people in the next village use incense and we do not.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Remembering what is of Ultimate Worth

October 19, 2011

At All Saints’ we talk about worship as ‘remembering and turning toward what is of Ultimate Worth, such that our lives are transformed in to the image of Christ as we live more freely, more graciously and more generously tan we did before. In a way, a pilgrimage or transformational journey can be a prolonged act of worship.

The morning of the recent departure of our small team to visit the Diocese of Western Tanganyika (DWT) I was discussing a slightly dated article by John Snow, formerly of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. I was with a class of students from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University who are engaging in and reflecting on their contextual education in congregations. The article is called “The Hedgehog and the Fox” and is from Snow’s book The Impossible Vocation (Cowley, 1988). Snow introduces the concepts from psychology of transference and counter-transference by looking at the kinds of encounter we have with people in need of financial assistance. His point is that in such interactions various aspects of our own personal histories are somehow ‘hooked’ or ’triggered’ and become part of the interaction. One student worked as a security guard for a church in his undergraduate years. He told us that the church had a clear policy about people who came begging for financial help but that every one of the six clergy with whom he worked treated the policy, and so the street people differently from each other. Even as our class conversation became slightly heated, it became explicitly clear that our personal histories were shaping our interactions.

So that night I began the two day journey to DWT. While there I’m not certain I had more than a handful of interactions that did not include either a covert or overt request for money or other expensive support. “Some of our clergy receive less than $20 per month and some months do not get paid at all.” “Please greet our visitors who have paid their own ways from America where they belong to one of the largest churches there.” “How can I get a scholarship for study in America?” “A senior priest will never really be able to function as he needs to until we can get him a diocesan vehicle that is suitable for our roads.” And so it was day after day during our visit. Intellectually I know that we were merely being introduced to the needs and challenges of proclaiming the gospel in a part of the world where 90% or more of the people exist by subsistence farming. The diocese borders Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo in some places and is home to refuge camps from natives of all three. WE did not go into any of the camps on this trip but in the past I have been struck that life in the amps is not noticeable different from life outside.

I found myself getting quite angry and feeling as though I and we were looked at as human ATMs. I felt as though our hosts would rather we had stayed home and simply sent the money that we spent on our tickets. But one night, as I lay awake, it came to me that I was being silly. I had woken up from an anxiety dream about how tings were at home, about my personal finances, about my feelings about my friends in Tanzania and probably much else besides. But in the small hours of that night I remembered that we were there because we wanted to be in relationship with people who are the recipients of money we set aside for the Millennium Development Goals, that real gifts flow from relationship and that we were hoping to achieve a ‘memorandum of understanding’ that would guide our relationship with DWT going forward. I realized that I was getting ‘hooked’ by a functional (i.e. neither rational, nor intellectually chosen) theology that assumed it is my job to fix problems. How foolish is that? Of course that is not something I can do. There is no way that All Saints’ can begin to meet the needs of DWT. What we can to is learn to recognize, understand and appreciate differences between us of culture and theology. We can remember that we can love even in the most intractable of circumstance in Tanzania or Atlanta. We can remember that the job of ‘saviour’ has already been filled and get on with the work of furthering our relationship through honest conversation, even as we also remember that we are made one in Christ.

This remembering what really matters in life in the dark of the night, miles from home and from anything familiar, was a gift of divine origin, and one that is still with me today. The consequence of that renewed gift will still have to become clear because the ‘transformation’ that comes from a transformational journey is rarely fully apparent on the journey itself.

Monday, October 17, 2011


October 17, 2011

It has been said that Islamic fundamentalism was born of resentment in the Egyptian prisons of Nasser and Sadat. It was there that Sayyid Qutb began to believe that Muslims who thought they could lead a secular government were betraying Islam. This man’s writings against secularism and the west which he characterized as “the white man” became especially important after he refused to allow any change in his death sentence and became, in effect, a Muslim martyr over against any idea that Islam could exist in a secular state. This is all chronicled in the recently re-issued book by Lawrence Wright called The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.
Resentment can be born of many experiences and in the case of Qutb they included time in various parts of America as well as the experience of colonial rule and its immediate aftermath. That kind of force is relatively easy to ignite among the poor and dispossessed, especially by the cynical rich who adopt ideology that sits them in their desire for power. That at least is one way of reading the actions of Osama bin Ladin. It is why watching Turkey as a kind of bellwether is so interesting at the moment. And it is why many Christians, including many Anglicans, are so frightened and defensive in Africa where, in spite of St. Augustine and others, Christianity is portrayed as a ‘western’ religion over against the ambitions of Empire among many conservative Muslims on that continent. Given the opportunity, I ask why we cannot be more confident in preaching grace instead of becoming more morally rigid and joining the outcry against America (in the form of the Episcopal Church in our case) in an attempt to hold our own against the aggressive expansion of Islam.

In the far west of Tanzania from where I have just returned after visiting our friends in the Diocese of Western Tanganyika, Christians and Muslims seem to get along pretty well in spite of the region’s history as a cradle of the slave trade. Christians express some concern and even resentment about Muslim reactions to any of their own who convert to Christianity, and the rumor that if a Christian man converts to Islam, he is forced to take more than one wife so that he cannot revert to his former ways. It is striking to me in a part of the world where 90% of the people exist by subsistence farming on land that shows all the signs of deforestation and other poor land management practices, that there is very little resentment being expressed at least to this foreign visitor. One person talked of being in a Western supermarket whole there was a drought and with it mass starvation at home and wondering why God distributed resources so unevenly. Everywhere our team went there were covert or overt requests for help, for more monetary support for projects and institutions in the Diocese and frequent requests for help getting to America for further education. Much less expensive advancement within Africa seemed received as decidedly ‘second best’. In other words, as I think about this one week visit (my third visit to the Diocese) rather than fueling resentment, poverty combined with our presence seemed to spark a kind of hope for something better.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Baptism and Covenant

October 3, 2011

Two weeks ago I was in England for the annual meeting of the Compass Rose Society. There we had the opportunity to engage in the inevitable discussions of the proposed Anglican Covenant. Most observers to whom I spoke believe that the Church of England will adopt the Covenant “out of loyalty to Rowan”. There is some thought among some Episcopalians who dislike the proposed Covenant that we should adopt an imperfect thing in order to ’stay at the table’. After listening to the conversation, I still hold the view that the Anglican Communion does not need this innovation. I would also prefer that we stop the ‘bureaucratic creep’ that is going on with the development of an expensive ‘secretariat’ in the Anglican Communion Office, and return all those functions to Lambeth Palace, properly funding the Archbishop of Canterbury’s staff instead. It won’t happen as that train has already left the station. In the event that the Covenant is adopted by enough churches that there is a ‘table’ from which we are excluded, we could then decide to adopt it later as I understand what is going on.

I bring this up because I have been reminded of the importance of the baptismal covenant in the life of The Episcopal Church in two ways recently. At the Presbyters Conference of the Diocese of Atlanta we centered our conversation around the development of a proposed rite for the blessing of same gender unions. (We were not allowed to see the proposed rite itself which made the whole exercise a bit silly.) In the process of discussion however we had to articulate what we thought made liturgy ‘Anglican’. One of the distinctive features of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is the centrality of baptism in all of our worship.

At our parish weekend at Kanuga, Bishop Peter Lee, formerly of Virginia and more recently of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and General Theological Seminary in NYC (now preparing for another interim position at the American Cathedral in Paris, poor baby) centered his reflections on an enduring church in uncertain times on our baptismal rite and in particular, our Baptismal covenant.

In England, I was reminded once again how unusual this is among Anglican Churches. The way we include a brief moral catechesis or consequence following the Creed in the Covenant and make it central to our common life is quite alien to most other Anglicans. I cannot help but believe if they focused more clearly on baptism they would not be taken in by the proposed ‘Anglican Covenant’. Instead of embracing the centrality of baptism, what I heard and experienced was yet another snide dismissal of the baptismal covenant as “an American thing”, and therefore presumably something that does not have to be taken into account in Anglican conversation.

I’m leaving for the Diocese of Western Tanganyika this afternoon with a small team from All Saints’ for the purpose of furthering a relationship that has been strained to breaking point in recent years. I continue to believe it both important and valuable that international relationships among Christians be maintained across theological and cultural differences for the unity of the church. More than that I believe that it is in such relationships, founded in the promises of baptism, (more than will ever be nurtured by the proposed covenant,) that the reality of a relational catholic communion is found.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Justice has been done

September 29, 2011

“Justice has been done” declared President Obama when he announced the successful raid in Pakistan which led to the killing of Osama bin Ladin. I began to understand my discomfort with the idea that this death was “just” as I read Michael J. Sandel’s Justice (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009). He outlines various philosophical traditions of justice, and while he does not name a specifically Christian ethical tradition, we fall clearly into that strain of ethics that considers justice as having to do with virtue or character. This coming Sunday (October 2nd) The New York Times will be publishing letters debating the question as to whether or not the killing of a prisoner can or should be considered ‘just’. There are those who consider justice to be about the welfare of the most people and others who think of it primarily in terms of freedom or liberty and who find that within a social contract the taking of a life for certain dreadful crimes is ‘just’ even while recognizing that uneven application with a majority of those receiving the death penalty are poor and black is unjust. It will be an interesting conversation.

I was accused recently of “using a couple of Bible verses to justify a political position” from the pulpit when I thought I had preached about the predominant biblical concept of ‘justice’ in distinction to other philosophical traditions. The trigger that caused my parishioner’s comment was that I talked explicitly about capital punishment at the end of a week in which there had been the publicly and internationally discussed execution of a man called Troy Davis about whose guilt there was significant public doubt. A number of our parishioners had participated in protests and vigils, asked for prayers to be said and were otherwise struggling with a profound sense that a wrong was being perpetrated by the state in our name. For some (probably many) this death seemed profoundly and absolutely wrong. For others (self included) it seemed as though every legal avenue for review of the original conviction had been used and the law followed in a state who have decided that certain crimes (in this case the killing of a police officer) deserve or merit death.

I oppose the death penalty on the basis that it is manifestly unjust in its application. Until now, I have allowed for the theoretical possibility that it could be the ultimate sanction and possibly a deterrent preventing some heinous crimes. I’ve changed my mind about that possibility, partly through understanding that the utilitarian deterrent argument is not supported by the facts and partly through revisiting the tradition of Christian ethics and its more recent expression in Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (originally published in 1981).

Thursday, September 8, 2011


Intercessor: In peace, let us kneel and pray to the Lord.

Most gracious God, we lift before you the poor of the world, for whom your Son, Jesus, showed particular care and concern. Grant us grace that we be not indifferent neither to the poor in our midst, nor those who live in poverty far across the world. Grant us grace that we may also recognize and address places of impoverishment in our own lives, especially those that are hidden from us by our wealth.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
People: For theirs is the kingdom of heaven

Intercessor: O God of mercy, surround all who mourn this day with the assurance of your love, most especially those for whom grief is awoken anew by the remembrance of those who lost their lives in New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania ten years ago. Grant us all grace to find in grief the seeds not of burning rage, but of compassion from springs that overflow.

Blessed are those who mourn
People: For they shall be comforted

Intercessor: God of love, it is your love that makes it possible for us to be better than we are and calls us into meek and right relationship with you. Help us, and all whom you have made, to be faithful stewards of what you entrust to our care. Aid us in our care of your whole creation, and help us recognize righteousness in our midst as we discover anew that it is in giving that we receive, in service to others that we are freed and in dying we live.

Blessed are the meek
People: For they will inherit the earth

Intercessor: As we remember the wrongs in this world, we recognize our own sinfulness, holy God, and yearn for that day when justice and peace will be made manifest in your presence. Look with mercy on the hungry of this world, on those suffering from drought, on those oppressed by tyrants and on those oppressed by war. Grant them and us together what we need for life, creating in us generous hearts, and a passion for righteousness.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
People: For they will be filled

Intercessor: Thank you, God, for all that sustains our lives and our common life. Thank you especially for your gift of forgiveness of our sins which we neither merit nor deserve. Help us find with in us the desire to forgive seventy times seven and beyond. Turn our hearts toward your love that we may more fully love others, forgiving as we have been forgiven. Spare us from hypocrisy, vainglory, revenge and greed, that we may be effective witnesses to your grace and love.

Blessed are the merciful
People: For they will receive mercy

Intercessor: O God of unutterable grace and goodness, make in us clean hearts and order our desires toward what makes us more the people you have created us to be. Let not our passion for all that is right and good and lovely and holy become the means of separating us one from another; and let such purity of heart as we may be granted be marked by a passion for justice for all your people.

Blessed are the pure in heart
People: For they will see God

Intercessor: O God in whose presence there is peace with justice for all; you know how the burdens of enmity, fear and war touch all of our lives. Look with mercy on those who fight far from home and all whose lives are touched by the immediacy and proximity of war. Spare them and us from being overtaken by rage and a thirst for bloody revenge. Help us, in our time, to accept the burdens of paying for the conflicts we engage that our children may know freedom from fear and freedom from the tyranny of indebtedness. Turn the hearts of those who plan and execute acts of terror that their and our swords may be turned into plowshares. Grant diligence and wisdom to those who seek to prevent such acts before they occur, an especially those for whom such work takes them into harm’s way. Make us all into instruments of your peace, sowing the seeds of love, pardon, union, faith, hope, light and joy.

Blessed are the peacemakers
People: For they will be called children of God

Intercessor: In all things turn our hearts toward what really matters in and for life. Keep us mindful, gracious God, of life and opens the possibility of our walking in that way. Help us remember that death is not the worst thing in life. Spare us from persecution for insisting that we strive for righteousness in all things, but grant us strength and courage to bear witness to your love should the threat of persecution ever loom. Look with favor especially upon those who are even today persecuted for their faith in you in Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Sudan and everywhere where your love is considered subversive and your people share in Jesus’ sufferings day by day.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake
People: For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Intercessor: O God, in response to the contemplation of terror, destruction and death born of hatred and a thirst for power, sometimes we have no words to express either the groaning and sorrow of our hearts or our reasonable and holy hope in your love, so now we come before your throne of grace in silence imploring that you grant us, those in any need or trouble and those we love whom we name before you silently in our hearts what we need for life with peace and justice for all.

Two minutes of profound silence follows

Intercessor: Lord, hear the heartfelt prayers of your people and what we ask faithfully grant that we may obtain effectively. Shine a light on the paths prepared for us to walk in and grant us grace and courage ever to walk those paths in the assurance of your love for us; in the name of Jesus Christ, we pray.

People: AMEN.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Religion. Politics. Morality.

August 31, 2011

Bill Keller, the Executive Editor of The New York Times opined last Sunday that he would like to ask candidates for public office (and particularly the Presidency) tougher questions about their faith than have been asked in the past. He shows understanding of the complexity and interweaving of the evangelical right among Christians in this country while wanting to ask the same kind of questions that were asked of John Kennedy when he ran for public office as a Roman Catholic. Are you going to follow the Pope or the Constitution? Keller also wants to know whether or not a candidate will allow her or his religion to lead them to beliefs contrary to “serious science and verifiable history”, and whether or not she or he will serve as a “Trojan horse for a sect that believes it has divine instructions on how we should be governed.”

I wish him well in the task of sorting out the role of religious faith in the public square. Phrases and ideas that are common parlance among large swaths of conservative Christians can sound like fanaticism to those outside those circles without in fact revealing the speaker as a religious fanatic. In general I prefer leaders who have convictions about God that give rise to a degree of genuine humility. That is what I listen for, along with a genuine concern for the poor and downtrodden that includes at the moment and in particular the jobless and the uninsured. I think debates about the role of government and economic policy are useful, but not as a smokescreen for what appears to be fear-based and selfish greed. There is a joke that is told in the mountains that ‘an environmentalist is someone who has already built his mountain home.’ “I’ve got mine and I’m going to protect it from the likes of you (who might mean that I will pay higher taxes)” is ugly-think and not worthy of those who would be followers of Yahweh, Jesus or Allah.

In this regard we must note that tea party sweetheart and republican Presidential ‘hopeful’ Michele Bachman has referred explicitly to the recent earthquake and hurricane on the East Coast, saying “I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians.” She said that this was God’s way of underlining the “roaring of the American people”. She later said that she was speaking in a “humorous vein” about serious matters. The humor eludes me. The ‘roaring’ does not.

While I disagree profoundly with the solutions of the political right, I share the sense that much of the West has gone off the rails when we think that we can fight wars and leave our children to pay for them, when we spend and spend on ourselves and then justify doing nothing in the near term for the jobless in a recession which requires a measure of government spending calling it ‘austerity’ and so on. I share the sense that we have somehow lost our way and that it is a moral issue.

The chief rabbi of England (technically chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth) and a person whose thinking I have long respected is called Jonathan Sacks. He has argued persuasively in The Wall Street Journal that we have lost a sense of “self restraint and pursuit of the common good”. He believes that in much of Europe and even the United States, religion is a thing of the past and there is “no counter-voice to the culture of buy it, wear it, flaunt it, because you’re worth it.” I don’t agree with him in every detail (Niall Ferguson, now an historian at Harvard, far from being “one of our great British exports to America”, is someone I would be more likely to put in the embarrassment column based on some of his unfortunate articles in Newsweek,) but will be thinking about his argument and insight in particular as we prepare for the reflection that must come with the tenth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11/2001.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


August 30, 2011

A recent edition of The Economist (August 6-12, 2011) yearned for a British innovator to emerge (“Where’s Britain’s Bill Gates?” p.13) and be supported by a package of government policies. In another magazine a review article (which I cannot now find) talks about how innovators require a degree of genius and cannot be otherwise created.

The vote to take place at the United Nations session in September over whether or not to grant Palestinian statehood brings to mind a past British innovative genius. Michael Korda has written a readable biography of T. E. Lawrence called Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia (Harper Collins, 2010). Korda assesses Lawrence’s work and significance including how his military strategy was the basis for the hugely successful Long Range Desert Group, praised by Field Marshall Rommel, no less. (p.686) He also bore some responsibility for his role in shaping today’s Middle East, even though the eventual outcome was for him a source of guilt and disappointment. In a map he prepared and proposed in 1918 he sought to divide the Ottoman Empire in a way that “sought to respect the geographical, tribal, religious, and racial realities of the Middle East…He tackled head-on some of the problems that are still plaguing the region, like the claims of the Kurds for an independent nation, and the need to find a place for the Armenians.” (p.532) “He tried to create states or indigenous areas based on the religion or the racial and cultural identity of the people living there, and so far as possible to take into account geographical features and water resources.” (p.533) He clearly supported what was to become the state of Israel but wanted much more for those who sought an ‘Arab Nation’ in the process.

The extraordinary circumstances that gave rise to the current shape and issues of that troubled region could have been quite different had Lawrence been granted more influence than he had among the swirling rivalries and colonial aspirations of the major powers of the day. What it seems he knew was that everybody had to ‘win’ in some way and they did not. So we are left with the UN voting on potential statehood for a people who deny the right of Israel to exist. Should there not be some kind of mutual and explicit recognition of the right of Israel to exist and the ability to defend itself. Such a requirement would by no means be a blank check for Israel, nor allowing the reality of the ways in which Palestinians have been victimized at the hands of Israel to afford them a kind of moral superiority. I realize all this is way above my pay grade (as they say) but I oppose statehood without something that serves as an explicit recognition of the rights of Israel.

Hero is a very good book.

Monday, August 29, 2011

History and Harlot’s Ghost

August 29, 2011

In The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830 (Harper Collins, 1991) Paul Johnson tackles two theories at once. He wants to show (and largely succeeds) that what we know as the ’modern age’ was shaped over one fifteen year period in the 1800s. He also wants to deal with the whole world and employ “no one angle of vision” (p.xviii). He ranges over the whole world, not neglecting chronology, but not limiting himself to grand political movements, literary history or personal remembrances from peoples of the time. In a single section of the book he might deal with literary and musical genius, medical schools, body snatching and surgery, alcoholism, the weaknesses of Chinese government and ‘the invention of the Great Game’.

His book came to mind a lot for me this summer as I took on reading the monumental Harlot’s Ghost by Norman Mailer (Random House, 1991), a ’novel of the CIA’ which I had thought about trying but was spurred into action by a kind person delivering a copy to our parish summer book swap called ‘Trading Graces’. It is not a world history with no single perspective, but it had the same all-encompassing feel as Johnson’s history. It covers major events of the sixties (Castro, Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy assassinations and so on) from the perspective of a handful of memorably drawn characters, all of whom are patrician New Englanders and who work for the CIA. It is not a spy novel in any traditional sense, although the writing, color and atmosphere are recognizable from John Le Carre and Robert Littell. It is also, (surprisingly at nearly 1300 pages) not a novel in which I was able to ’lose myself’. It was less summer escapism and more being drawn into a world of characters with all of the complexity of real life in a time I remember from my own early years and a places I do not.

In a way this time was the beginning of so much that makes up for modern politics: the place of secrecy and the ubiquitous presence of ‘spin’ as those with power seek to control how a story is told. I remember seeing the original film about the Cuban missile crisis in a seminar reflecting on ’leadership in response to a crisis’ (The Missiles of October, 1974) and being aware how different (and how much more complicated) the whole crisis would have been with today’s political realities in play.

Mailer’s novel is beautifully crafted with real historical reality and extraordinary psychological depth. He neither avoids nor over simplifies the moral dilemmas of personal or international relations. His prose sometimes enters the realm of poetry. Overall I’m not sure I enjoyed the book, but I’m glad I read it, as we watched the old social compact of political life in this country be overturned by right wing politicians who declined to play by the old rules and made the debt ceiling debate into a manufactured crisis for everybody. I don’t think there is anything particularly marvelous or moral about having ‘an establishment’ run things, but I prefer it in many ways to the anarchic effects of the radical (and far from ‘conservative’) right.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Declining Sunday Attendance

May 28, 2011

In October 2010, Lovett Weems published an article in The Christian Century under the heading “No Shows”. Dr. Weems charted declining attendance in mainline denominations and concluded that even churches such a ours with larger attendance have been showing declining numbers since a turning point of sorts in 2000. Smaller churches have shown a decline in attendance for rather longer. This has certainly been true at All Saints’, Atlanta where our average weekend attendance has declined by well over 100 people per week since 2000. This statistical shift is something we have in common with many other churches across denominations. A few years ago the great Willow Creek church in Barrington, Illinois, looked at their attendance figures and began closing for the summer months altogether, saving money in order to “reach more people for Christ during the school year”.

This trend appears to affect attendance, but not other indicators of church life such as membership or numbers of households making regular financial gifts. These statistics appear to be holding steady or are on the increase across the board. I have friends and colleagues who are trying to measure ‘average weekly contact’ or ‘average weekly touch’ as a new measure of church life and health.

Pundits and commentators point to increased wealth making for more opportunities than in the past. It seems to have become an expectation and norm that families will travel away for spring and fall breaks in the school schedule. For us that means about six Sundays in the spring on which we cannot expect to have children or youth choirs at full complement. The same is true for volunteer Sunday School teachers and the like. Children’s sports, school trips and a host of other things are being scheduled on Sundays. Attendance at worship is becoming, or has become, something we do when we don’t have anything better claiming our attention. There are still some families who make a clear commitment to weekly attendance and for them that might mean five out of eight weeks. For many people one Sunday in five or six might seem pretty good.

This seems to work OK for those families who have a weekly commitment that builds faith and community along the way: choir practices, small groups, bible studies and the like. Children who grow up in our choirs and their families have a significantly different experience overall from those who do not make that commitment. Some churches seem to accomplish this kind of investment in community through church sports leagues and other such things.

All well and good, but I continue to wonder about worship. It seems to me that worship is our ‘core activity’. It is what we do. If we did not worship, I do not think we could call ourselves a church. Worship is where we hear and enact the story that shapes out lives. It is in telling and in some sense enacting the story that we are ‘oriented or turned (metanoia) toward that which is of ultimate worth’ (my rather technical definition of worship that people at All Saints’ hear about from time to time.) If we are not in worship on a pretty regular basis, then how are we being formed as people of faith? Where are we learning to put our whole trust in God’s grace and love such that it makes a difference in the way we live?

Should we be looking at how to offer significant worship whenever we gather for any purpose, and how might we do that so that it is integral rather than ‘extra’ to whatever is going on?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Middle East

May 25, 2011

I confess to being far from expert on anything much to do with what is going on in the Middle East. The Arab Spring seems to me to have the potential to be a good thing for Arabs provided that self determination does not open the door to grater oppression than they knew before. “Nature abhors a vacuum” it is said, and weakened power or the absence of power without a recognized and accepted political system invites every malignant possibility to see and seize an opportunity. This is certainly something that many churches have experienced when they have had weak or absent leadership.

One thing is clear to me however and that is that somehow, for reasons I don’t really understand, real change and the possibility of real peace for the region must include some kind of resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian ‘question’. President Obama in his speech about the region in advance of Mr. Netanyahu’s (reportedly frustrating) visit to the U.S. made lots of interesting and positive points to this amateur onlooker including pursuing a two-state solution based on the boundaries of 1967. No one involved is going to love that proposal but it has some virtues nonetheless.

What I think is missing at this point is that we are talking about the creation of a new (Palestinian) state without first having or building in a process for the full recognition of Israel as a state with a right to exist. Israel, thank God, is blessed with strong and clear leadership, who seem to understand that you don’t negotiate with someone whose started aim is to destroy you and whose ‘negotiating posture’ is built in part around a ‘right of return’. The U.S. and anyone else can say that we will ‘guarantee the security of Israel’ until the cows come home, but if I was Israeli or I represented the Israeli government, there would be no real negotiation without powerful and ‘official’ voices in the Arab and Palestinian worlds renouncing without ambiguity their aim of destroying my country and supporting my right to exist.

I would do what Mr. Netanyahu and many of his predecessors appear to have been dong which is staying at the table in hopes of receiving such recognition without which any compromise on ‘borders’ and ‘defensibility’ would seem to be capitulation.

I do not underestimate the cost of leadership on this from the Arab and Palestinian point of view. I find it hard to imagine Palestinians acknowledging the right of Israel to exist without significant pressure from the Arab world as that will end the dream of the ‘right of return’. I remember sitting in my little room (on the Quad in those days) at Yale Divinity School in October 1981 trying to write a paper about something or other now forgotten, when I heard on the radio that Anwar Sadat had been assassinated. I remember my rage at the forces of evil that would do such a thing.

Can the Arab Spring allow for leaders of vision and courage to emerge? Can we forge and pursue a foreign policy that really encourages such a possibility while still resisting what we know to be opposed to any definition of freedom, (namely fundamentalism in any form)?

I would welcome any contribution here that could help me shape my understanding of all this that has within it the hope of positive change based in something other and additional to my trust in God’s love for the whole of creation and revealed desire that all humans be allowed to flourish.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Working Man

May 17, 2011

It is hard to know exactly where we are as a parish with regard to unemployment and underemployment. I still see a steady stream of parishioners for whom the wolf is knocking at the door and who need meaningful, or at least remunerative, work. We are blessed to be in a parish n which I have rarely had a request for an ‘informational interview’ or employment conversation turned down by a fellow traveler. My anecdotal impression is that in our community unemployment is returning to pre 2008 levels with the notable exception of the real estate and related sectors.

I am one of those people who must be annoying to the struggling print magazine industry in some ways. On the up side, I do like to read magazines and have not yet made a full transition to reading online. On the downside, the publishers generally want me to think I have ‘purchased a relationship’ and ‘become part of a readership community’ where I believe that I have bought six or twelve or twenty four issues with a subscription. If I don’t renew, it is because I want to read something else for a while. Those who ‘as a courtesy’ renew automatically without asking me don’t get any more money from me. This is all to say that I have returned to reading a magazine that I last enjoyed regularly in high school, namely The Economist. There was a fascinating article in the April 30-May 6, 2011 edition under the heading Decline of the Working Man. The article looks at the particular challenges of men without industry specific skills and a series of government policies designed to address them. It is pretty clear that we have not yet discovered either policy or stimulus that is going to change this reality.

I was surprised and pleased to learn that one innovative policy is at work here in Georgia in which unemployed people are allowed to work up to 24 hours a week for six weeks with a new employer, even as they continue to draw jobless benefits. The employer is able to take a look at a potential employee and the employee gets some work experience and on –the- job training even if that position does not become permanent.

The conclusion of the article does not offer a rosy outlook for unskilled men however. “Both Democrats and Republicans seem convinced that as the economy strengthens the labor market will heal itself. But although unemployment will continue to fall as the economy recovers, millions of American men will be left behind.”

We are gong to have to help these men learn skills, and preferably industry-specific, employer requested skills, if they are to survivie.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Getting Away

May 10, 2011

It has long been observed that we can travel just about anywhere in America and imagine that we are anywhere else. I remember the first time I went to a meeting in Dallas near a large shopping center not far from the airport. I might well have stayed in Northern Virginia, which apart from Alexandria and parts of Arlington always seemed to me to be one big suburban sprawl. Not terrible. Just not terribly distinctive. Those who work to conserve, preserve and restore historic buildings have my vote as do those who, like the Midtown Alliance in Atlanta, seek to develop livable areas of genuine character.

I found myself thinking about distinctive places to live during a recent visit to New Mexico. I stayed just outside Santa Fe at a place that was slightly run down in some respects called Bishop’s Lodge. (See here for a photograph of the chapel.)The Roman Catholic diocese of new Mexico was established officially in 1853 with Jean Baptiste Lamy as its bishop. Later he bought a plot of land outside Santa Fe where he had began building St. Francis’ Cathedral and built a small retreat chapel and dwelling. Those are still there in the midst of the severe, almost desert-like and inhospitable landscape.

I was able to drive to Bandelier national Monument, a park around the ancient ruins of people who lived in small communities and hillside dwellings that included caves and were often three stories high. The ruins have been preserved there and in one or two cases, restored. Apparently when Francisco Vasques de Coronado led an expedition from Mexico, all he found were these fortified Indian villages which he called ‘pueblos’ or town. These towns then gave their name to the Pueblo people who still live in various pueblos in the area and who honor the spirits of their ancestors who dwell in Bandelier and elsewhere.

It was really good to be ‘away’, dislocated, (with poor cell phone reception from any carrier). There is something about being in a place that is clearly ‘different’ from whatever is our norm that helps allow new perspective. Such a move need not be geographic, although that helps me. It could just as easily be a genuine place of retreat as it must have been for Bishop Lamy, a place with different rhythms of life from whatever is our norm and so a place in which we can begin to see ourselves and our world in anew way, remembering what is of true and ultimate importance.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Second Half of Life

May 3, 2011

I have enjoyed the past two days in the company of colleagues from around the country in conversation with Richard Rohr, a Franciscan who founded the Center for Action and Contemplation over twenty five years ago. His most recent book is called Falling Upwards and he develops an image of what he calls the ‘second half of life’. The ‘first half’ is the work of ‘making the container’, --the structures and institutions that give shape to our lives. After a period of going through some stumbling blocks and beginning the work of ‘dying to self’, we begin the ‘second half of life’ as enjoying the ‘content’. This period is marked by an 0overcoming of either/or thinking in favor of a more mature understanding of the unity of all things, the cosmic Christ and other such notions.

Rohr is an appealing a engaging speaker who was able to use some images and language for familiar concepts that brought a new perspective. Among the more fruitful conversations for me were questions about what liturgy or common prayer looks like that really addresses the real issues and gifts of this second half, but it was not somewhere Fr. Rohr was really able to go. He was more of the ‘leaving church’ school rather than finding ways for church to do what he says is important and necessary, namely the whole of life. He has stimulated some interesting thinking and conversations for me.

“Justice has been done”

May 3, 2011

So Osama bin Laden has been found, has predictably resisted arrest by US Navy Seals, been killed (in spite of possibly using his wife as a human shield), and been buried with a Muslim ceremony in the North Arabian Sea. As I watched the spontaneous rejoicing outside the White House and elsewhere, I was reminded of the service of thanksgiving that was held in London at the conclusion of the Falklands War in 1982. The then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher expressed her displeasure when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, himself a decorated veteran of WWII, declined to sound a note of triumphalism, asking instead that the congregation pray for the dead and those mourning on both sides of the conflict. He questioned nationalism as being close to idolatry and said:

“Those who dare to interpret God’s will must never claim Him as an asset for one nation or group rather than another. War springs from the love and loyalty which should be offered to God being applied to some God substitute, one of the most dangerous being nationalism.”

I think there is much to celebrate in the death of Osama bin Laden. I am proud of the President, his advisors, the intelligence services and the Seals who carried out a dangerous operation. In distinction from some operations in the past, this one seemed to be careful and thorough and was given every possibility of success. Conspiracy theorists and general naysayers are questioning whether there really was a body in ways that cannot but have echoes of Holy Week this soon after the memorial of the death and resurrection of Jesus. A chapter has certainly been ended; there is much in American strength and perseverance to celebrate, and for those who believe in capital punishment, “Justice has been done”. A mass murderer’s life has come to an end and a message (which will serve to inflame the passions of our enemies) has been sent. Vigilance will need to be a watchword for some time to come.

I wonder if we need to keep on being an invading force in Afghanistan and Iraq at this point. One of the lessons of this series of events is that it has taken almost ten years to build the kind of human intelligence resources on the ground that have allowed us to move forward in spite of having a more-than-ambivalent ‘ally’. Why should we not withdraw our troops in the service of giving them some rest and rebuilding our economic base at home? At the same time we could prepare for such ‘targeted’ operations as we have seen in the Abbottabad compound when they are called for by events.

As for the call to pray for our enemies, we have been doing that all along at All Saints’, remembering all those affected by war and violence but singling out no one by name. Just so, we will not be singling out bin Laden and the others who died in the raid on his compound (Does anyone know their names?) in our parish prayers next Sunday. Instead we will give thanks that this particular chapter of our national life is over, give thanks for the safety of those who carried out this raid, and continue to pray for our enemies in the sure knowledge that warfare and violence, however necessary they may be in some circumstances, are never in accord with the intent and purposes of God for the flourishing of all life.

An interesting footnote: it was widely reported after the fact and after Thatcher had accused Runcie of being unpatriotic even as he stood by what he said in the sermon in 1982, that it had in fact been drafted, if not written, by Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London who so many in the world heard preach at the recent Royal Wedding. Patriotism need not be idolatrous. Triumphalism almost certainly is.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Catherine of Siena and the Royal Wedding

April 29, 2011

I was delighted to hear the Bishop of London acknowledge the feast day of Catherine of Siena during his homily at the royal wedding today. She, like many mediaeval saints, was an odd bird, who began having visions at the age of six, did some writing about the ineffable love of God, saw herself as a bride of Christ and is honored, along with Francis of Assisi as a patron saint of Italy. Her shrunken head is preserved as a relic in a big Franciscan Church in Siena, not far from the shrine that is devoted to her.

The wedding of Prince William to Catherine Middleton, now Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge was a glorious occasion that defied cynicism. In the midst of all the pomp and pageantry was a couple saying that the commitment of self-giving love in marriage is, for them, the way of life. I was struck by a number of things in the ‘traditional’ service, --essentially a rite from 1928—including the use of ‘betwixt’ and the older version of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, which art in heaven…” For me that tended to underscore the increasing irrelevance of a faith that is becoming reserved for special occasions and has little to do with the rest of life. Certainly a wedding or funeral without ritual is a flabby and flaccid thing, but there must be some places where the larger context connects with what is going on. I also wondered about the decision to include a Kyrie, triggering the saying of the Lord’s Prayer without doxology and wondering if that slightly confessional note was necessary for some reason.

On the other hand, I was also struck by the amount of times in vows and prayers that the honoring of each other in, by, through and with their bodies was mentioned and saw that as a strength of the liturgy from which we could learn. In days in which Christian sexual ethics are undergoing change, (although you wouldn’t know that from some blog commentary about the co-habitation of the couple prior to the wedding), the honoring of the whole person, made so explicit, seemed to me a good thing.

It was a great day to be British and to celebrate something of our national culture that other nations, notably including America, do more regularly and in a wide variety of ways. I sometimes get nervous when love of God and love of country get merged together as though they were the same thing and a flag becomes a quasi-religious object, but I still love William Blake’s poem Jerusalem and the wonderful Parry tune to which it is set. Not just a patriotic hymn or “alternative national anthem” but a prayer for justice and a call to work for same.

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England's pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green & pleasant Land

Friday, April 22, 2011

Maundy Thursday and Charlie Sheen

April 22, 2011

Last night I could not help but be struck by the irony that as we gathered to mark the Last Supper, the Institution of the Eucharist and to prepare the church for Good Friday by stripping the altar of the accouterments of worship, Charlie Sheen was less than one block away. A little way up the hill people were paying handsomely to listen to a man (who clearly suffers from some kind of mental illness, whatever its genesis) who talks about ‘tiger blood’ and who builds himself up by putting down those whom he despises.

Against all that ugliness, less than one block away, a couple of hundred people gathered fro a thing of great beauty to remember one who offered himself freely in an act for which no amount of money could compensate. We talked about the blood of life which raises up the lowly and the grace of God which allows all of humanity to flourish.

Hundreds of thousands of people have heard of Charlie Sheen but know neither the name nor the meaning of Maundy Thursday. We have work to do in sharing the Good News that we celebrate this weekend.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Catholicity and Autonomy

April 14, 2011

The Rev’d Dr. Paul Avis is the general secretary of the Council for Christian Unity in and canon theologian of Exeter Cathedral in England. He has written several books on Anglicanism and Anglican identity that I have found helpful along the way. He has recently published an article in The Living Church (April 10, 2011, p.17) called Catholicity Outweighs Autonomy in which he argues that catholicity means ‘interdependence’ and that the proposed Anglican Covenant “seeks to flesh out in practical terms what interdependence might mean”. He concludes his appeal for Christians to “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2) by saying “Any expression of communion is to be treated with great respect and care. It is an imperative of Christian love to seek communion with our fellow Christians. We are called to seek, maintain and extend communion. To do that we are inspired by the Holy Spirit…Ultimately, then, the future of the Anglican Communion is not a political matter, but a spiritual issue. I believe we should consider the covenant in that light.”

Well, so do I. And having considered it in that light, I reject it. The first three sections are inoffensive in themselves. They are theology crafted by a church committee and read as such. The fourth section which is what really “fleshes out in practical terms what interdependence might mean” is ultimately the control section and which undermines our attempt to be truly catholic in ways that put the relationships of the first three sections into practice in a way that is expressed and lived out differently than the power and control of hierarchy, --an option that is already available to us in the Roman communion.

The work of being in and staying in relationship across cultures, theological commitments, and huge financial difference is hard work. I hope to take a team to the Diocese of Western Tanganyika this autumn. All Saints’ has been in a relationship with that diocese, largely through the Bible College in Kasulu, since 2003 and we have made it thought serious official brokenness, changing personal relationships, Episcopal succession and other challenges. We do not try and change our brothers and sisters in, say the role of women in their church and society even though we believe they would be strengthened by educating and bringing women into leadership. We know that they would prefer that we not affirm gay and lesbian Christians as such but recognize that it is “not their issue”. The more troubling aspect of our relationship at the moment ahs to do with sorting out what is personal and whether there is any sense in which it could be said to be ‘institutional’. What I believe , for them, is a simple act of faith, namely asking for money, including asking for money for their own families, is for us a problem as we believe that gifts flow from relationship but that we are interested in strengthening and supporting the ministry of the church rather than the ministry of a particular priest or bishop. Rather than going on at this pint about other challenges such as that of developing a truly African theological tradition when everyone educated in the West tends to end up a bishop who does not have time for writing and teaching and the other things that might develop such a theological tradition, I’d like to return to the point of this piece and say that we are in relationship because we are Anglicans, because we grow through the challenge of recognizing, understanding and appreciating difference. The proposed covenant is not necessary to serve ‘catholicity’ or ‘interdependence’. It is, in effect, born of a desire to substitute rules for relationship and a means of control of some over others in spite of the (many protestations to the contrary. I’m agin it and hope that Dr. Avis might come to that conclusion as well.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Libya etc. and the US budget.

April 13, 2011

I’m as confused about what is really going in the ‘African or Arab Spring’ as anyone. I understand that there are a lot of popular demonstrations and revolutions against long term, powerful dictators. I accept that it would be wrong to stand by while the crazy Colonel kills his own kith, kin and countrymen. I’m not certain why that compassion did not extend to the Ivory Coast where much the same thing seemed to be happening. I suspect the whole area of international diplomacy is going to be even more covered in contradiction and compromise going forward if the US is going to play any kind of role in the region at all. I support the President’s apparent insistence that action must be multilateral and coordinated. I’d be very much more impressed if some of the airplanes and other munitions that we had sold to , say, Saudi Arabia, were being put to use in support of those being threatened as they demand a measure of something like democratic freedom. Along with everyone else, I am nervous about religious extremists, often functioning as a kind of virulent tribalism, coming into any kind of allegedly democratic power.

David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. (Holt, 1989) really helps make clear which of the countries that are in increasing turmoil are those with some kind of long tem ‘national identity’ and which are more like coalitions held together with force. Thomas L. Friedman, writing in the New York Times on March 30, 2011 outlined so many of the compromises we have made and will make as we find our way through this time of hope-filled change. We have to help in Libya…while we turn a blind eye to Bahrain among whose rebels are pro Iranian Shiite hardliners. Saudi Arabia criticizes us for supporting the ouster of Mubarak and we don’t want to antagonize the Saudis because “they have oil and money that we like”. We don’t like the leaders of Syria or Lebanon but we are unclear whether we like the opposition to them any better.

I join Friedman in being proud that our President is willing to weigh in, insisting on multi-nationalism in any response, declining to be ‘suaded by the cowboys of left or right demanding military intervention at all costs and declining to be cowed by the housekeepers in DC who want to cut the national debt but in a way that threatens unnecessary recession while there is a perfectly good bi-partisan blueprint on the table that neither part seems to think is politically attractive or viable, (possibly because it is not clear how to wring domestic political advantage out of such a scheme.) Friedman prays that Obama will get lucky in the middle of this mess. He hopes that “Qaddafi’s regime collapses like a sand castle, that the Libyan opposition turns out to be decent and united and that they require just a bare minimum of international help to get on their feet. Then US prestige will be enhanced and this humanitarian mission will have both saved lives and helped to lock another Arab state into the democratic camp. Dear Lord, please make President Obama lucky.”

The President has a style that welcomes conversation on issues of import and is no nearly as anxious as those in and using the media to stir up anxiety about ‘leadership’. He does not need to respond or react to everything in the political wind. Even so, I don’t’ understand why he is not vigorously and vociferously behind the bi Partisan budget proposals that he commissioned. Or proposing something he likes better. Representative Paul Ryan seems to be stepping into a vacuum and making proposals that seem to believe that growth will come if the rich get richer, but otherwise some credible ideas about Medicare. If that is really the best we can do (which it is not without some kind of go at social security and oour percentage of military spending) then let’s get behind him.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


April 12, 2011

I recently preached a sermon about suffering making use of the story of Louis Zamperini as told in the book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. (For a while you can access the sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent here). At one level the story is of a man who was abused and tortured in Japanese camps for prisoners of war during WWII, who then had the grace to forgive his tormenters. That same grace is what is required in the face of the devastation wrought by the earthquake in Northern Japan (also part of the sermon). The sermon was not primarily about Japan, but was deeply troubling to one parishioner who had spent the past two weeks trying to locate her friends and family and who found the combination of mention of past atrocities unhelpful in a time of great need. Apparently there had been some suggestion in parts of the blogosphere that the disaster which has afflicted Japan is somehow recompense for past sins. Apparently we have to say and keep saying that such a theology of disaster that is bound up with blaming the victims for whatever befalls them has no legitimate place among Christians.

Whenever we find ourselves in a time of trouble putting our energy into blaming someone else for our distress we have being given a clue that we are looking in the wrong place for a solution to our discomfort. In blaming others for their own distress, we appear to be attempting to justify ourselves for our own lack of compassion, response or understanding. To blame the Japanese for their suffering after an earthquake, to blame victims of HIV/AIDS for their illness or to blame the poor for their poverty are out of order for followers of Jesus.

Monday, April 4, 2011


April 3, 2011

I had a conversation with a man the other day for whom church was, he felt, his ‘home’. He had grown up in various churches of various stripes, preached and taught in them and enjoyed a kind of love-hate relationship with communities that were so right for him but seemed to want him to deny a significant part of who he know himself to be because of his sexuality.

Another friend who is an expatriate living in America will sometimes say that he doesn’t know where he will be buried and really doesn’t have a preference. That will depend on the circumstances of his survivors at the time of his death. I find that I share some of that sense. Certainly, Christians believe that we are “in the world, not of it” or some such thing. Our true home, we say, is with God. The discovery of the Promised Land or Land of Promise was a part of Israel finding an identity, but the later experience of exile left a longing for some idea of ‘home’ that did not necessarily involve returning to Jerusalem for most of them. ‘Zion’ became an idea or aspiration such that John the Baptist echoed Isaiah and proclaimed a vision of mountains brought low and valleys raised up such that the people could make their way to their true home with dispatch and in safety.

I’m not entirely sure where I call ‘home’. I will sometimes refer to England as ‘home’ but when I am there I know I need to go home to Atlanta. “Home”, they say, “is where the heart is” and that seems to have quite a lot of truth to it. Even so there is something about the countryside of England that touches me in a way that the good earth and red clay of Georgia does not.

Bernhard Schlink, author of The Reader, has also written a novel called Homecoming. It is a fairly torturous plot with lots of twists and turns as a rather pathetic character tries to discover the truth about his father and so his origins. With much reference to The Odyssey our hero journeys in search of home, moving hither and yon in search of some elusive Zion. He ends by saying “I know it is not Johann Debauer or John de Baur I long for; it is the image I have made of my father and hung in my heart.”

In the end, my home is with the people I love and to whom I am committed, and while geography is important, there is no single piece of sod in which I must be buried.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Instructed Eucharist

April 2, 2011

I have recently been introduced to the work of Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) who was the sometime Dean and professor of Liturgical Theology at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, and a mysteriously named ‘Protopresbyter’. His early work For the Life of the World (1963, 1973) and more recent The Eucharist (published posthumously in 1987) both have some of the flavor of an instructed Eucharist or series of theological mediations which might well have been offered in the contest of an Orthodox Liturgy.

I am leading our Adult Enquirers’ Class retreat this weekend that concludes with just such a service. I can go most of the way with Schmemann in his understanding of worship but find myself differing with him in some respects. He is inclined to say things like “Man is a worshiping being…for whom worship is the essential act which both ”posits” his humanity and fulfills it.” He wants to avoid reducing the Eucharist to some kind of cultic action separated from the ‘real’ or ‘outward’ work of either God or the Church. It is sacramental, a kind of sign that participates in bringing a certain godly reality into being. It is about man (sic) seeking transcendence. His views might be termed ‘high’, at least in relation to my own.

I think of worship less as the be all and end all of the world and resist claims that seem to me grandiose in their claims to worship as acts of ultimate significance; and more as ‘orienting (turning/metanoia) ourselves to that which is of ultimate worth’, and as something we do by both remembering and telling the story of faith, but also in some sense by enacting or participating in it. Articulating this enactment and participation is a real strength of Schmemann for me. He writes “The liturgy of the Eucharist is best understood as a journey or procession. It is the journey of the Church into the dimension of the Kingdom.” I would probably say something more along the lines of the Eucharist being, among other things, a means by which we mark our own journeys of faith toward what really matters, ultimate meaning, and the very life of God made manifest in the fullness of communion. If our worship is about the transformation of the world in any sense it is because it begins with our transformation into the people we were created to be.

I will be interested to see whether and to what degree Schmemann’s thinking colors the mediations I will offer on Sunday.

Thursday, March 31, 2011


March 31, 2011

I remember going to what was then the downtown Mall in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1984 to hear Geraldine Ferraro on the stump as a candidate for Vice President on the ticket of Walter Mondale. It was standard political stuff as I remember except for one thing and that was the candidate herself. She was the first Italian-American and the first woman to be a candidate for a major party in the U.S. It has not yet been thirty years since then, but a great deal has changed for women and many others in that time. On the political scene we have seen serious women candidates for high office and an African American in the White House. (I was pleased when President Obama did finally attend the Gridiron Dinner, he reportedly asked that ‘Hail to the Chief’ be replaced by Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ as there cannot be too many reminders of that.)

But the changes are not only about women in high office. It seems to me that they are about a work far from finished but well underway of recognizing, understanding and appreciating difference in which people who do not look like, think like, or act like ‘us’ in some ways nonetheless have as much to offer the world as do ‘we’ and are not people to be feared as though ‘they’ somehow diminish our ‘power’. Such is part of the consequence of the Communion Table. It is neither obvious, nor easy.

From time to time I have heard it said that America should be thought of less as a ‘melting pot’ and more as a ‘salad bowl’ in which each ingredient keeps its own taste and texture but make a wonderful meal. Even recognizing the limitations of any analogy, I really do buy why the salad bowl is better. I still however want to know if the green pepper or the onion is in charge because either will dominate the lettuce. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but when others claim their power (in whatever way that happens) it reflects the Communion Table only when that power does not diminish mine. Diversity is a strength when we neither diminish the reality of difference nor the political significance of difference. Diversity is a strength when ‘I’ can celebrate ‘your’ strengths and vice versa. You can read more about these ideas in a paper by Valerie Batts available here.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


March 20, 2011

The new production of Jane Eyre is beautifully done, with some fine acting and a significant absence of melodrama. The director, Cary Fukunaga, has captured a dark and terrifying world with almost Turner-esque attention to light. If the world needed another movie of this story, then this one is a worthy addition. The atmosphere of the whole film is conducive to secrets: first Rochester’s and then Jane’s own hiding of her true identity in the home of St. John Rivers. Secrets eat away at the hearts of all those involved and have an insidious and destructive power.

Tatiana de Rosnay who wrote Sarah’s Key has another novel called A Secret Kept (New York, 2009). It is the story of a brother and sister in their forties discovering a secret about their mother and her early death that changed everything in their family dynamics. This secret led to their relationships being significantly impaired, as secrets are wont to do.

Secrets are rarely, if ever, kept secret. In the old television comedies called Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister the character of a senior civil servant in England is called Sir Humphrey Appleby. He has many stock phrases and aphorisms. One of my favorites is: “He that hath a secret to keep, must generally keep it a secret that a secret he hath to keep.”

We keep secrets for any number of reasons including some perverse idea that secrets give us power (hence part of the appeal of modern Gnostic movements such as the Knights of Columbus or Freemasonry) or from some kind of shame and the fear of being discovered. Most of the time we find that secrets, in the light of day, lose their power and lose their appeal. Perhaps that is the real and life-changing power of twelve step groups and also the power of confession and absolution. A secret brought into the open loses its power. So it was, in the end, for Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester. And so it was for the Rey family of A Secret Kept.

The Great Litany

March 15, 2011

Most years it is our custom at All Saints’ to begin the First Sunday of Lent with The Great Litany chanted in procession. It is not my favorite liturgical moment of the year, but it is the only time that we pray the Litany as a rule. There have been, and will be, other times of course. I will never forget the power of that prayer in the days after 9/11 or the time we said it together in a special service of Prayer for Peace at the height of the second war in Iraq. Some of that flavor came through for me in our 8 a.m. service at which the prayer was said rather than sung and I thought about Japan, those whose lives were devastated by tsunami and fear of nuclear meltdown, the people in Libya being shot at by their own government, people in Bahrain being shot at by Saudi troops and on and on and on.

When I was first ordained it was still the practice in some parishes in which Morning Prayer was the principal Sunday service, to offer ‘The Great Litany and Sermon’ on the fifth Sunday of those months which had such. I confess that I don’t miss that practice.

Diarmaid MacCulloch in his magisterial biography of Thomas Cranmer (Yale, 1996) wrote about the Litany “The occasion may not strike modern worshippers as especially edifying: it was designed to encourage the people of England to maximize their effort of prayer for the threatening international situation, and by implication to enlist God’s aid for Henry’s massive summer relaunch of his war with France.” (p.328)

Approved for use in 1544, the Litany was a somewhat liberalizing and evangelical move away from triumphalist processional rites and a traditional association of such litanies with prayer for the saints. If sung, it was to be sung in plainsong and the 1549 Book of Common Prayer made abundantly clear that ‘Romish practices’ were off limits with such petitions as:

“From all sedicion and privye conspiracie, from the tyrannye of the bishop of Rome and all his detestable enormities, from al false doctrine and herisy, from hardnes of heart, and contempte of thy word and commaundemente:

Good lorde deliver us.”

This inflammatory petition was removed in the first Elizabethan Prayer Book of 1559, a gracious act of statesmanship on someone’s part.

The association of Litany with procession makes it more than a lengthy responsive prayer and turns it into something else. Any procession in worship can be the symbolic gathering of the people for Divine Service. It can also be a kind of enactment of pilgrimage, an icon of our procession through life, winding here and there, ever dependent on God for life. At its best, the prayer in this sung form becomes almost a mantra-like means to meditation for me almost irrespective of the words themselves. So I find the Litany to be most effective prayer in a threatening international situation when it is said, and most effective as a meditation on our dependence on divine grace throughout life when it is sung in procession.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Muslim Hearings

Ash Wednesday

Who does not remember the photographs of Christians surrounding Muslims with a protective human barricade as demonstrators prayed in Tahrir Square? How do we offer such a thing to our friends who are threatened by a New York congressman who has himself supported murderous terrorism in the past? Akbar Ahmed is a scholar at American University whom I have cited in the past. He has written an op-ed piece for the New York Times suggesting that the hearings should be seen as an opportunity to educate people about Islam and Muslims. Good for him, but I fear he putting lipstick on a pig, -- a pig apparently made up of members of congress with both parties planning to participate.

As we head into Lent, we have on our minds another set of ‘hearings’ that led to Jesus’ being put to death as the scapegoat for the anxieties of the righteous. In most accounts he declined to speak at his trials thus declining to bless them in any way.

Eboo Patel suggests that our view of Muslims would be akin to someone judging the citizenry of any of our cities by watching the first two minutes of our television news in just about any major market. It is, quite simply, distorted. A website called ‘Facts Not Fear’ is one example of the majority mobilizing to be heard in the face of fearful atrocity.

We can create the circle whereby we stand with and for those committed to peace as are we by prayer, but also by speaking up for fellow travelers at dinner parties, at church or wherever we gather and hear implicit fear in word or silence, the fear that allows the demonization of millions of people, the fear that sent Jesus to the cross.