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.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Fourth and the Eucharist

March 2, 2011

Last Sunday I was privileged to worship at the venerable Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, where the pastor is John Buchanan, editor and publisher of The Christian Century. He was also the preacher on this occasion with a well woven, classically Presbyterian sermon—personal stories and intellectual content with some relation to Isaiah’s message to people in exile. The Church building is elegant. The bulletin was informative and the announcements gave a sense of the energy of the enterprise.

Our Cathedral of St. James is not far away and I have not worshipped there on a Sunday for some years, but Fourth has visibility and much that would appeal to many Episcopalians. If I lived in Chicago I might want to belong to Fourth but for the liturgy. Yes, it was beautifully done. And yes, it was well prepared. And Yes, the sermon bore some relation to the scripture and the hymn after the sermon, some relation to what had gone before. Those who lead worship there could and should be proud of what they do. That said, for me, it didn’t quite ‘work’. Certainly I was able to pray and sing, but somehow there was no obvious logic to the worship. I was not able to grasp the flow of the service.

We began with a beautiful Introit, --something like an entrance rite although one of the worship leaders was already seated in one of the thrones in the chancel (if that is what it is called). The procession of vested choir and robed clergy was led by someone carrying a supersized Bible. Fine so far. We were then welcomed and introduced to the ‘concerns of the church’ which essentially were the announcements and felt a bit like business rather than offering or worship. Either immediately before or after that was what was advertised as a ‘discipleship moment’. I gathered that this was a regular time for someone in the congregation to offer testimony. This is something that one of the presenters to the clergy meeting at the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes had urged us to consider finding a way to include in our liturgies. On this day a member of the fifth grade Sunday School class gave a polished account of a recent trip he had taken with his group. I know it meant a lot to his family and probably to the congregation, but it had no context for this visitor and so was tricky to appropriate or celebrate. I associate such a talk with the report of a pilgrimage or with Sunday School itself. I applaud the idea of our becoming proficient in talking about what God is doing in our lives, but on this occasion did not think the ‘moment’ was integrated in any way with the rest of the service.

We were on to the scriptures with Isaiah read by a Scot—sonorous, understandable, well done and enough to quicken the pulse of any good Presbyterian. The gospel was read from the pulpit by Dr. Buchanan as the lights dimmed before his sermon. From there to the prayers, led by the Scot in a way that was very inviting and actually served to encourage my own prayer. The concerns of the world as reflected in the newspapers were not forgotten and al bases appeared to be covered.

We drew to a close with what is basically the General Thanksgiving of our tradition of the Daily Office, introduced by something like the Sursum Corda; then a benediction r prayer of blessing before the procession out.

On the way out of church (as most of the congregation appeared to be heading the opposite direction presumably for coffee or Sunday School or to collect children who had been conspicuously absent) the minister who had introduced the service and welcomed us from the lectern (and who distracted me fairly often out of the corner of my eye by fiddling with her hair throughout the service—one of those things that does not matter in the great scheme of things and of which I suspect she is totally unaware) stood at the door making eye contact and smiling. I did not sense any expectation that conversation was ‘the norm’ at that point and so headed to the street and on to check out of the hotel.

I had certainly been able to enter into worship in some way. I expected a fairly passive experience from previous times with my Presbyterian sisters and brothers.I had forgotten how clergy centered the (non music) leadership tended to be, but appreciated the care and professionalism with which they led the service. What I really missed was the sense that we were not simply telling the old, old story and doing some intellectual (and possibly emotional) work in connecting that with our lives, but that we were also in some way, enacting the story. I don’t think that absolutely requires Holy Communion but it means some literal and metaphorical movement beyond the processions in and out. Maybe an altar call or an African style offering where we all go to the plates instead of them coming to us would suffice. But something.

Once again, even appreciating what I had been given to experience at Fourth, I find myself grateful for what we enjoy at All Saints’ and count myself privileged.