Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The Joy of Discovery: My Side Trip with Henri Nouwen

To my list of favorite Christian teachers and authors, you can now add Henri Nouwen. I've had a few of his books on my shelf for some time, waiting to be read, but it wasn't until this week - when I began reading Befriending Life: Encounters with Henri Nouwen - that I discovered just how powerful an impact this man made on so many lives.

My initial thought when starting on this side journey was to mentally slap myself for not having turned to his writing sooner. Then again, don't we always approach things in our lives exactly how we are supposed to, and at exactly the right moment? Yes, Nouwen was on the shelf (or, in my case, the bedside table), but the time wasn't right until this week. And what an exciting and emotional time it has been.

Here was a man who was one of the most acclaimed teachers and lecturers in the world, holding professorships at Harvard and Yale before moving into the L'Arche Daybreak community in Canada and living out the rest of his life as a friend and mentor to many. And yet his writing - and the memories others have of their time with him - are sprinkled, sometimes more heavily than others, with the same doubts, indecision, insecurity, and need for acceptance that we all experience. Rather than hiding these feelings or attemtping to overcome them, this renowned Catholic priest used them to relate to people and to help them with their own struggles and spiritural journeys.

My journey with Nouwen will indeed be a long one, and I look forward to reading as much of his work as I can get my hands on. And if that writing is anything like this excerpt below, taken from Befriending Life, it will be a great journey indeed.

"The key to gratitude is to cultivate surprise. Surprise!

"Let's say I call you up and say that I am coming over soon and I am bringing you flowers. You might be very happy. You also might build up expectations about when I would get there and how nice the flowers would be. Indeed, you might build up such a strong sense of what was going to happen that when I actually got there and had only three daisies you might be disappointed.

"But imagine instead that I call you and say that I will be coming by and then, when you open the door, there I am standing with a bunch of flowers. Surprise! I have brought you a gift that you didn't expect. You would be touched and happy ... and grateful."

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Fleeting Glimpse of Bobby Bowden

In case you haven't heard, Coach Bobby Bowden has a new book.

Of course, I don't know how you couldn't have heard - he's been all over the airwaves playing it up, and answering the inevitable (and oft-repeated) questions about the circumstances surrounding his dismissal from Florida State. Now it's fair to say that I've never been much of a Florida State fan, preferring instead to side with my home-state Virginia Tech Hokies, but Bowden to me has always been an entertaining guy. His interviews and press conferences have always been fun to watch, and over the years he's never seemed to lose touch with his Alabama roots (even with his connections to FSU and West Virginia).

Over the past few days, I've learned more about him than I have in previous years, and I like what I've learned. It's certainly been enough to tempt me to read more, and as such I'm looking forward to reading his new volume, Called to Coach. But the interviews and book tour also jogged memories of my brief brush with the coach four years ago - if you call being in the same stadium with him as a brush.

In 2006,I was in Florida for a relaxing weekend with several guys from my college days, and we had stopped at FSU to pick up one of our friends who still worked for the university. While waiting to depart, I was given a quick peek inside the football stadium - an impressive sight indeed. I was surprised to find that Bowden, his coaching staff and the team had just finished up a practice and were gathered in the center of the field. He was certainly easy to pick out - the famous hat being a great homing beacon - and because I had my camera with me I was able to snap several photos.

Coach, I know the Seminole nation will miss you and your presence on the field, but I hope you enjoy retirement and your time with the family. Your team cost the Hokies a national title a few years back, and that's a grudge that I know will hang over Blacksburg for a long time, but you were always a class act. College football will definitely not be the same this season.

These pictures are for you...

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

What is Poverty? William Stringfellow Answers...

William Stringfellow - lawyer, activist, lecturer and Episcopal lay theologian - moved to an apartment on 100th Street in Harlem in 1956 and set about the work of representing the residents of that depressed area of New York City. As he documented in his autobiography, My People is the Enemy, he made this move out of a sense of Christian duty to those among his fellow man who were suffering most, despite the numerous other opportunities he could have pursued in private practice or as part of a large firm.

During his time in Harlem, he was exposed to the severe poverty in which his friends, neighbors and clients were living, and which many today often choose to ignore - whether by averting their eyes and thus not seeing, or by contributing money and calling it a day, rather than rolling up their sleeves and jumping right in. Forty-four years have passed, but the circumstances which Stringfellow witnessed first-hand are as present today as ever.

And what is poverty? I think Stringfellow's summary answers that question beautifully - not in terms of the imagery, but in his writing style. As you read, I want you to ponder the poverty in your own neighborhood, town or city, and reflect on what you have done lately to help. What you see here isn't confined just to Harlem, or Mobile, or Washington, D.C. - it's anyplace where we really take the time to look and see.

"Poverty is a widow on welfare whose landlord cuts the heat, knowing that the winter will end before a complaint is processed. Poverty is a drug addict who steals from his own family or pawns the jacket off his back to get another 'fix.' Poverty is being evicted from a housing project because the project manager determines that the family is 'undesirable.' Poverty is a Puerto Rican shopkeeper whose store is stoned when he tries to relocate south of the 96th Street boundary of East Harlem. Poverty is an adolescent with a tested I.Q. of 130 who cannot read or write the English language well enough to get other than the most menial jobs. Poverty is the pay-off to a building inspector not to report violations of the building code. Poverty is a young couple who marry because that is the only way to get out of the tenements and into a project, and whose marriage fails, and who have neither the grounds for a divorce in New York nor the price for a divorce in another jurisdiction. Poverty is being awakened in the middle of the night by a welfare investigator who demands to search your apartment to be sure you are not cheating the taxpayers. Poverty is the incapacity to complain against the landlord because you can't afford to take a day off from your job or from minding the family to go to court. Poverty is a kid who wants to be adopted to escape from the slums but whom no one wants. Poverty is a boy whose father has thrown him out, a boy who needs a place to stay. Poverty is living in darkness after the electric current has been turned off as a fire hazard, and waiting for six or seven days until someone is sent to repair the obsolete wiring.

"Poverty is the enormous burden of waiting - waiting for hours for a doctor to examine a sick child at the hospital clinic, waiting for an interview with a social worker, waiting at the employment office, waiting in line for what the government ironically calls 'surplus' food, wiating for everything, everywhere you go.

"Poverty is the vulnerability to death in its crudest forms. Poverty is the relentless daily attrition of contending with the most primitive concerns of human existence: food and cleanliness and clothes and heat and housing and rest and play and work."

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Does the American Anglican Council Even Care About Fact?

And the misrepresentation continues.

In the July 30, 2010 newsletter penned by the Rev. Phil Ashey of the American Anglican Council, the July 18 visit of Bishop Gene Robinson to Foundry United Methodist Church was summarized in this way: "Bishop Gene Robinson of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire preached at Foundry United Methodist church in Washington, DC, and urged them to 'get in trouble' by conducting same-sex marriages to show 'God's limitless, boundless and unimaginable love.'"

Again, this is not what Gene said - what he said was, ""When I ordain deacons, I tell them that I expect them to get into some Gospel trouble. If they're not in trouble, I wonder if it is the Gospel that they are preaching." This misrepresentation of his remarks perpetuates the incorrect information floating around. I can only assume at this point that those in the AAC don't have any interest at all in knowing the facts; it seems that all that is important to them is what THEY think, and facts be damned...

Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday Miscellany: Jack Spong, Lambeth, and Other Thoughts

In his column for this week, retired Episcopal Bishop Jack Spong offers a brief discussion of the General Epistles in the New Testament. I was amused to find, in his concluding paragraph, that the Bishop offered this assessment of the General Epistles:

"Not all parts of the Bible are equally holy. The General Epistles we have looked at in this column do not come close to some other parts of the New Testament in either integrity or power. They are, however, 'in the book' and so, to complete our journey through the Bible, I include them. I urge you to read them once. It will not take more than ten minutes. Then you will have done it and you will never have to do it again, for, some parts of the Bible, once is enough."

I can't help but wonder what Eusebius thought about these particular epistles when he compiled the current form of the Bible in 336 - and what the general consensus was at the Council of Nicaea on these texts. Did they, too, think that "once was enough"?


While reading The Episcopal Church in Crisis, by Frank Kirkpatrick, I ran across the following quote first spoken by the Right Reverend Simon Chiwanga, retired Bishop of Mpwapwa Diocese in the Anglican Province of Tanzania: "Forcing your point of view by excluding from your circle those who disagree with you, or by compelling acceptance, is to usurp the place of God."

That line is worded in such a way as it could be used on both sides of the current debate within the Anglican Communion, but I can't help but wonder how many people in can honestly say they are taking those words to heart? Since 2003, how many people - particularly on the side of the more conservative folks who have broken away from the Episcopal Church and are now aligned with the Southern Cone bishops - have stopped for one moment to think that they are trying to stand in God's shoes?


Conservative Anglicans are quick to claim that the rulings which come out of the once-a-decade Lambeth Conferences should be acknowledged as "law" by the 38 global provinces. The recommendations on such things as the prohibition on further consecration of gay or lesbian bishops should be viewed as gospel until such time as the entire Communion approves such moves, or only after consideration is given to the potential impact on the worldwide Church.

But are these conservatives being selective on which proclamations they accept? Shouldn't they take that same view on all statements coming from Lambeth? I'm convinced that they are.

In looking at some previous Lambeth and Anglican Consultative Council statements, I can't see where the entire Anglican Communion is living up to the statements to which many feel we should all strictly adhere. Some examples: (1) Lambeth 1948 - attendees affirmed that Scripture "should be continually interpreted in the context of the Church's life; (2) Lambeth 1988 - attendees reaffirmed the "historical position of respect for diocesan boundaries and the authority of bishops within those boundaries"; (3) Anglican Consultative Council 1993 - affirmed that it "would be inappropriate to any bishop to exercise episcopal authority within a diocese without first securing permission from the resident bishop." (The last quote is on page 47 of the Kirkpatrick book.

Today, I often hear that Scripture is set and shouldn't be interpreted in the context of the modern world. The move of the breakaway Episcopal congregations in the United States to invite the oversight of African bishops without the approval of their diocesan bishops (with, to my knowledge, the exception of the Dioceses of Forth Worth, Pittsburgh, and a few others, where the bishops did give approval for alternate Anglican involvement) flies in the face of the 1988 and 1993 statements.

So why the selectivity? I didn't realize this was an either-or set of circumstances when deciding which statements to adhere to and which to conveniently ignore or overlook.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Desmond Tutu on Inclusiveness

"Jesus did not say, 'If I be lifted up I will draw some.' Jesus said, 'If I be lifted up I will draw all, all, all, all, all.' Black, white, yellow, rich poor, clever, not so clever, beautiful, not so beautiful. It's one of the most radical things. All, all, all, all, all, all, all, all. All belong. Gay, lesbian, so-called straight. All, all are meant to be held in this incredible embrace that will not let us go. All."

- From a sermon preached on All Saint's Day 2005 in Pasadena, California.

Friday, July 23, 2010

A Response to the Reformed Pastor

As I wrote yesterday, I had been very charged up by a post on the site The Reformed Pastor discussing Bishop Robinson's appearance at Foundry United Methodist Church. Initially, I felt that I would stay out of the debate and talk about it just on my blog; however, in rethinking the situation, how fair or honest am I being about my own views on this situation if I'm not willing to engage in thoughtful dialogue when given the opportunity? Every debate has two sides, and both should be represented.

So today, I went back to his site and took advantage of the opportunity he gives to his readers to post comments. I'll be curious moving forward to see if there is any response or continuation of what I think could - in any circumstance - be a constructive dialogue.

My response:

"One of the great things about our country is the ability to engage in civil debate, and I appreciate having the opportunity to read your views here. However, I (and I should point out that I am a cradle Episcopalian) was in attendance at Foundry UMC when Bishop Robinson spoke, and I am curious as to whether you listened to his sermon in its entirety (which is available on the church's website). I have concerns that much of the anger and pain that people feel about his consecration as a bishop is perpetuated by offering only selected excerpts of sermons, talks, etc.; in reading this post, it appears you relied on a single source - Jeff Walton's piece - and excerpted selectively from that.

"Second, I must take issue with your understanding of the situation in the ECUSA where 'congregations, priests and members are fleeing in droves.' Of the 7,100 individual parishes in the ECUSA, 83 have left - that's 1.1 percent.

"In the comment above, Undergroundpewster refers to feeling that Bishop Robinson has discovered truth and is operating under self-delusion. I would contend that it is not delusion or the discovery of truth, but an understanding of the Bible as he has arrived at it. One of the marvelous things about any Christian denomination is that, for millennia, Christians have engaged in deep study of the Bible and n the area of scriptural interpretation. Just as you and I may disagree over whether the Bible is literally the word of God or rather man's understanding of God's word, our understanding of the Bible and the meaning that we get may also differ. I'm confident that Undergroundpewster would be offended if someone felt that his understanding of the Bible was wrong and called him deluded. No matter our differences of opinion, any debate - in the realm of theology or anywhere else - should always be tempered with respect. My wife and I have differences of opinion from time to time on church issues, but we view each other's opinions - and always those of others - with respect.

"Finally, with regard to your last paragraph, a listening of the complete sermon would clarify the use of Acts 3. I agree completely that God healed the man through Peter and John, but it was not God that allowed the newly-healed man into the Temple - it was that he finally met the rules of man that finally allowed him into the Temple. It was not just healing, however, but a new view of this person by the Temple officials - just as the view of the ECUSA towards ALL of our brothers and sisters has changed and they are being welcomed.

"The sign which hangs outside of each Episcopal parish reads, "The Episcopal Church welcomes you" - there are no asterisks, no conditions, and no requirements. I believe that we are living into that promise through the inclusion of everyone in the various aspects of life in the church.

"Again, thanks for providing a place for this debate."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Attacks on Gene Robinson Are Off the Mark

At some point during the past few days, I heard someone make the comment that unlike 40 years ago, when we had just three main television networks which each tried to provide a balanced presentation of the daily news, we now have a wide variety of networks that take a much more partisan approach in the presentation of the news. Viewers can now turn to Fox, MSNBC, CNN, or any of a number of other channels which present the news in a way they feel most closely reflects their personal political beliefs.

I'm no longer surprised at the political approach these networks take in doing their jobs - but what I do find disappointing even now is that this style of reporting, both broadcast and internet-based, extends to the coverage of major events in the area of religion. Not only can this coverage also be very slanted to one side of the political spectrum or the other, it is often incomplete, lacking the complete details for readers to make up their own minds, or taking things out of context to achieve the desired effect. Consider how Noah and the flood would be reported today - a story with which nearly everyone is familiar: Noah is told to build an ark, take his entire family and two of every living thing inside, and ride out the 40 days of rain that killed every living thing on earth. In today's news, you would find the headlines for this story in completely new versions: "Noah and family flee flood, ignore cries of neighbors", or "Noah lacks focus on environment, fails to stop melting of ice caps and global flooding", or even "Animal cruelty - Noah locks animals in overcrowded ark; poor living conditions mark 40-day journey".

I suppose this has all come to mind over the past four days as I've read some of the media reports and blog posts based on Gene Robinson's visit to Foundry United Methodist Church on July 18 (see blog post of that same day). To a large extent, much of what I've seen to this point has taken incomplete quotes or material from his sermon and question-and-answer session out of context - obviously in a blatant attempt to curry favor with one demographic of reader or another. Some of the pieces have been composed based on other stories with no research, perpetuating the bias from one post or article to another.

The one that really triggered my negative response was a post by David Fischler on the blog of The Reformed Pastor with the headline "Robinson Tells Methodists: 'Follow Me!'" The opening line reads, "Not content with having brought his own denomination to the brink of schism and collapse, Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson toddled into Washington to spread the joy to the United Methodists." The writer then goes on to say that "Robinson and his fellow gay activists have turned the Episcopal Church's canon law into a hunk of Swiss cheese" and have led the church into a position where "congregations, priests and members are fleeing in droves."

By this point, I was already deliberating whether to respond directly on the blog and engage or not - and I was a bit hot under the collar. What folks like Mr. Fischler (or is it Reverend Fischler? His blog purports to present "daily thoughts on Christian faith and life in the world from an Evangelical Presbyterian church planter", and yet I saw very little evidence of faith or even of a Christian mindset in the post) don't take into account is that there were many people in the congregation that Sunday, including me. I heard for myself what Bishop Robinson said and how he responded to the questions posed by the parishioners, and I even downloaded the podcast of the sermon so that I can listen to it whenever I feel the urge. I have the facts, and the facts are these:

(1) Never once did he tell the congregation to "Follow me!"; he commented on his understanding of the situation and period of discernment in which Foundry currently finds itself, and stated his hope that they approach their decision prayerfully.

(2) The phrase "brink of schism" has been applied so many times to the Episcopal Church in the last 40 years that it is becoming tiring; does anyone recall the changes to the Book of Common Prayer in 1982, or the Philadelphia 11, or the ordination of women, or the consecration of Barbara Harris? Every time, there was talk of schism - and yet we're still here. Additionally, Bishop Robinson cannot be blamed for anything - he was elected overwhelmingly on the second ballot of his diocese, and his election was consented to by majorities of the House of Deputies and House of Bishops at the 2003 General Convention; if you're going to accurately point the finger of blame, shouldn't you be pointing it at a majority of the Episcopal Church?

(3) Fleeing in droves? Out of 2.8 million members and 7,100 parishes throughout the United States, a total of 83 parishes - that's about 1.1 percent, Mr. Fischler - have left. 1.1 percent. Doesn't a "drove" constitue a higher percentage than that?

I cannot help if the folks over at The Reformed Pastor have taken the time to listen to the sermon or do any independent reading, rather than continuing to spout the same tired lines of fear and hatred that we've been hearing for the last seven years. Based on what I've seen, I think the answer is no - and I certainly didn't see much of the Christian attitude that I've come to know from people over the years anywhere in his post.

I don't begrudge Mr. Fischler the opportunity to say whatever he wants - that's the great joy of having a blog; I enjoy it because it allows me to talk about what I would like and hopefully engage some dialogue. However, I would hope that he - and all media, for that matter - would at least try to be accurate and original in what they say.

Most importantly, shouldn't Christians of all denominations be focused on the larger picture of our world today, rather than on an election of a bishop - most obviously one that the Diocese of New Hampshire wanted - seven years ago? Aren't there more pressing problems in the world? On this note, I would end with the words of the Bishop himself in this regard:

"...the thing that concerns me, from those who want to leave this church in America, or leave it worldwide, is that they're saying that this one thing that divides us is more important than all the other things that hold us together. This one thing. It's more important than the creeds that we've held up for, what, 1,700 or 1,800 years; it is more important than our baptismal covenant; it's more important than the doctrine of the Trinity - the list goes on forever, of the things that hold us together. And these people are saying this one thing trumps all of that. And I just don't believe that for a minute."

Neither do I, Bishop. Neither do I.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Dancing in the Temple: A Morning with Gene Robinson

Over the years, I've listened to numerous sermons by and interviews with Bishop Gene Robinson and have read much of his book, In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God. Since his election and consecration as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese in New Hampshire in 2003, many millions of people here in this country and around the world have come to know this man as a friend, a faithful servant, and a Spirit-filled priest - something which his friends in New Hampshire have known for quite some time.

Today, I was privileged to experience that faith and friendship first-hand when I attended two services at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington. The Bishop had been invited to participate in the church's Summer in the City - Outstanding Preacher Series after the church's senior minister, Dean Snyder, had heard him preach as part of the 2009 Lenten series at a church in Memphis. (As Snyder noted, his response after hearing Bishop Robinson's sermon was, "Oh, my Lord! An Episcopalian who can preach a sermon!" - a line that got a tremendous laugh at both services.)

Both services - which were geared for very different interests, the first a more praise-and-worship style for the younger crowd and children, and the second more traditional - were very crowded. More importantly, I was so overjoyed to see a tremendous amount of diversity in the congregation; young, old, families, singles, black, white, gay, straight - perhaps the most comprehensive cross-section of the community I've ever seen in any Sunday service. The music ranged from the spiritual "Plenty Good Room" to an arrangment of a piece by Gustav Holst, and performances by the nine-person Jubilate choir, the 21-person chancel choir, the pianist/organist, and a guest flutist. All in all, something to appeal to everyone.

The Bishop's sermon was based on the two readings he had selected for today: Acts 3:1-10, which tells of the healing of the lame man at the Temple by Peter and John; and Luke 4:16-30, which tells of the first time Jesus spoke at the synagogue in Nazareth and was both admired for his ability to preach and reviled because he pointed out that Elijah and Elisha were sent by God not to the Jews, but to Zarephath in Sidon and Namaan the Syrian. He told all of us that the passage from Acts should be the one that speaks to everyone in the LGBT community - just as the lame man was prohibited from entering the Temple because of his infirmity, the LGBT community knows what is like to be barred at the door and prohibited from entering the sanctuary. And just as the man was healed by Peter and John and allowed at that point to walk into the Temple ("dancing in the temple"), those who have been discriminated against by many in today's world have also heard the call of God and now know what it means to celebrate in the center of the church.

As he said, the church is in chaos right now - which is to be expected when there is any sort of change, particularly in the area of the acceptance of the LGBT community over the past 20 years (and after millenia of the status quo). When a child goes to his or her parent to come out, there is a bit of chaos as the parents take it in and determine how to react; Robinson used this as a lead-in to his own situation, which he described as going to his father - the Archbishop of Canterbury - and saying, "Dad, I'm gay." Just as in the family, there is similar chaos as the church determines how to respond (although he feels that it is by and large over, and that we'll gradually see that we're moving on).

The Bishop also talked about the disparity between those who preach fear - the televangelists who use words like "abomination" and "Satan" to describe the LGBT community and are rewarded with increasing contributions - and others "who preach the limitless love of God and get into trouble". He said, "When I ordain deacons, I tell them that I expect them to get into some Gospel trouble. If they're not in trouble, I wonder if it is the Gospel that they are preaching." Later in the sermon, the Bishop said, "At the end of the day, we need to decide if we're going to be admirers of Jesus - or disciples. And Jesus doesn't need more admirers."

The question-and-answer session held after the second service was also very good, and the Bishop was very honest and straightforward in his answers (although as he pointed out, "Now you can see why I can't necessarily talk about this in the pulpit."). It is worth noting at this point that the clergy and congregation at Foundry have been in deep discussion throughout the summer over how they react to Washington's decision to allow same-sex marriage; Reverend Snyder said that the rules of the Methodist Church prohibiting the blessing of same-sex rites on church property or by Methodist clergy are in direct conflict with the constitution of the Methodist Church, which call for service to all regardless of race, status, background, or financial position. Snyder said that he finds himself in a position of being unable in good conscience to continue abiding by the rules of the Methodist Church, and that while the congregation as a whole must vote to determine how they will respond they should do so without worrying about getting him into trouble ("Whether or not I get into trouble is between me and Jesus."). Snyder went on to say that it may come to a point where he must continue his ministry outside of Foundry if he is to continue honoring his conscience.

Because of this, many of the questions directed at the Bishop concerned how the church should respond if they are punished for going against the Methodist rules, whether there are similar circumstances with any congregation in the Episcopal Church, and why the Washington-area clergy - indeed, churches around the country - are the ones speaking most loudly against the LGBT community. The Bishop, response to the variuos questions he received, responded in part: (1) if Foundry is precluded from a relationship with the Methodist Church because of the vote of the congregation, and if Snyder is stripped of his certification/pastoral license, they should continue paying their dues, continuing participating in the life of the national church, and continue speaking up - because of their importance nationally, they should serve as a beacon and speak up; ultimately, another voice at another church will speak up, and it will continue to the point where "the trickle will become a waterfall"; (2) as he looks at those who are critical of those of the LGBT community and who insist on taking an "us versus them" approach, the Bishop wonders, "Is there not as much diversity in the straight community as there is elsewhere? I think people focus on homosexuality so they don't have to focus on themselves."; (3) "Death is not the worst thing; not living your life is the worst thing."; and (4) in dealing with Peter Akinola and the other African bishops who feel that the Bishop's consecration allowed Satan to enter the church, he said, "My job is to love them; how I am treated in return is not important."

At some point during the day, Robinson mentioned some of the controversy going on at the time of his election, and how there was an investigation of false charges that put off the final vote. While these charges were being examined, and he and his family were sequestered, a friend gave him a small piece of calligraphy which read, "Sometimes, God calms the storm - and sometimes, God allows the storm to rage and calms the child." Gene Robinson's visit today was to me an example of God calming "we children" by allowing us to witness the life and example of another of his children. I don't think anyone in that room would argue that we were the recipients of a tremendous gift indeed.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Silence of the Soul

My soul is silent before God. Like the infant who is nursed and becomes calmed at its mother's breast and finds all its wishes fulfilled here, like the young boy who is speechless gazing upon his hero and leader, like the crying child that yearns for its mother to lay her gentle hand upon its brow and dispel and silence all its cares, like the young girl who quietly reflects on the prospect of one day becoming a mother, like the man who finds all his passion and restlessness clamed by the gaze of his beloved woman, like the person who becomes quiet before the eyes of a loyal friend, like a sick person who is calmed by the physician, like the old person who becomes calm before the face of death, like all of us who are silenced in reverence and awe at the heart of nature, under the starry heavens - just so should the soul be calmed from all the restlessness and chaos and haste, before the eyes of God.

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from a sermon delivered to his congregation in Barcelona, Spain, on the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, July 15, 1928

Are We Priests, Levites or Samaritans: A Parable in Modern Times

Even at my age, I am still surprised by how one line in a political statement could lead to a debate that evolves in my mind into a theological reflection.

During his introduction of Jack Lew as the next director of the Office of Management and Budget, President Obama made the comment (and I am paraphrasing) that members of both parties are in agreement that we do not want to endure another financial crisis the same as the one that we just went through. Naturally, that jumped out at me – with his choice of words (or those of his speechwriter, I should say), we were in essence being told that the financial crisis was over.

But is it? Unemployment is still at 9.5%. Millions of Americans are still out of work, with a significant number of that group losing their unemployment benefits due to the 99-week maximum having been reached. A report I read today said that for every one job opening in this country there are five potential applicants. And the Senate, locked in its ongoing struggle over extending benefits while trying to find a way to pay for them without increasing our national debt, has not taken any action.

Does that seem like the end of the financial crisis? The banks and lending institutions may be in better shape, and the stock market may be on the rebound, but that means nothing to the 50-year-old husband and father who has been out of work for two years and cannot find a job, or the single parent whose company downsized and left them uncertain about how they will support their children.

A friend of mine – someone I respect a great deal – questioned whether 99 weeks isn’t long enough. If it isn’t, he wondered, how many years are enough?

Immediately, my mind turned to the traveler on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho – the subject of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. And I began to wonder: are we a nation of priests, a nation of Levites, or a nation of Samaritans?

I understand very well how much money the government spends each year in supporting unemployed men and women throughout the United States – those who are looking for work, those who have given up, and those who never intended to look to begin with. I understand the need for fiscal restraint and the importance of getting our national books back in balance.

More than that, though, I understand what in mind is a moral obligation to be the friend of those who need help – the Samaritan to the man who was beaten and robbed. If Congress does not extend the benefits, how will we react in the face of situation which will become even worse? Community organizations, relief agencies, and churches can only do so much.

Assuming benefits are not extended, millions more families may become homeless. The roll of those seeking help with increase dramatically. The suffering experienced by so many in this country – the stress, the depression, the uncertainty, the hopelessness – will be compounded more than we can imagine.

What will we do?

Will we be a nation of priests, who come upon the scene and move to the other side of the road to avoid what we find? Will we be a nation of Levites who react in the exact same manner?

Or will we be a nation of Samaritans who stop, offer aid, bandage their wounds, take them to safety, and see things through to the end?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Faith and Costly Grace - Do You Have Them?

How strong is your faith?

Is it strong enough that you could confidently make a decision to leave a job to return to your home, knowing that you might never be able to leave that home ever again?

Is it strong enough that you would willingly take a course of action in a certain situation that you knew could in all likelihood end with your death?

Having just completed the new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas and read with great interest how this simple, unassuming pastor, theologian and martyr dealt with these very same issues, these questions have been on my mind quite a bit. Much of my contemplation of his life has centered on trying to put myself in his shoes to see how I would react.

While visiting and studying in New York City in the late 1930s (his second visit there during that decade), Bonhoeffer - against the advice and pleading of many of his close friends - gave up what would have been a safe and secure teaching position in the United States to return home to Germany and confront Hitler's tyranny from the front lines. In the early 1940s, he joined a conspiracy of high ranking military officers, aristocrats, ministers and other other opponents in an effort to assassinate Hitler (culminating in the July 20, 1944 attempt). In both of these instances - indeed, throughout much of his life between 1932 and 1945 - Bonhoeffer acted out of principle and love for his country, but even more out of a sense that what he referred to as "cheap grace" would not be enough.

"Cheap grace," as Bonhoeffer writes in his book Discipleship, "is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate." Bonhoeffer's objective for himself and for all mankind was "costly grace," which as he writes "is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man’ will gladly go and self all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him."

To say that Bonhoeffer in the living of his life sold all his goods, plucked out his own eye, selfed all that he had, left his nets and followed Christ would be a tremendous understatement. But he did so with trust in God and by living out his faith through his actions - and in so doing, achieved the "costly grace" to which he was trying to lead others. He returned to Germany when it was safer to remain, and he became involved in a plot that would end his life when he could have remained on the sidelines - but in both instances, I strongly believe he did so seeing not the hangman's noose, but the cross.

So again, I ask - of you and of myself - how strong is your faith? Could I do in similar circumstances what Bonhoeffer did, and give up safety and security for a route which could end all things for me?

I honestly can't say (but know that God knows), and that is one of the struggles with my own faith. But it wouldn't necessarily be the end, as Bonhoeffer stated not long before he died: "This the end; for me, the beginning of life."

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Yom HaShoah: My Day of Remembrance

Today is Yom HaShoah, the Day of Remembrance - the time in which the world remembers the milions of Jews murdered during the Holocaust. It also marks the beginning of the National Days of Remembrance here in the U.S., highlighted by a ceremony in the Capitol rotunda later this week and the reading of the names at the Holocaust Museum here in Washington.

I was honored to be accepted as one of the many men and women who had asked to be a part of the reading of the names, and so immediately after church this morning I headed into the city to join the ranks of those offering up the names of the victims. Those who were already there were gathered in the Hall of Remembrance, a six-sided domed room that serves as a memorial for the Holocaust victims. Because I was so early, I had an opportunity to sit and to listen and to think as I awaited my turn at the lectern.

As the voices of the readers ahead of me echoed off the concrete walls and around the dome, I sat and stared at the panels hanging in the room which were adorned with just a few words: Treblinka; Auschwitz; Bergen-Belsen; Buchenwald; Ohrdruf. Simple words, yes, but words that symbolize mankind's history of horrible acts committed against itself; words that symbolize the lengths to which one group will go to eliminate another out of hatred; words that symbolize the taking of children from parents, husbands from wives, brothers from sisters.

But then this is what this day is about - words. Hearing a number - six million Jews killed - or seeing pictures is tragic enough, but to read a person's name gives it much more personal significance, much more meaning, much more direct impact. As my turn approached, I wanted to ensure that the few names I was about to read would have an impact, that they would resonate not just off the walls and throughout the dome, but into the hearts of those taking a tour of the museum and pausing to listen to us. I wanted to do my part to make sure that there was one more memory they would take with them, that what they had seen was real and that there were names attached to those men, women and children whose faces they had seen in the exhibits.

And as I finally stood before the microphone, I tried my best to achieve that goal - to not rush my list, but to read each name and give it time to echo and sink in with the others in the room before moving on to the next. Baur. Beer. Beck. Berkstadter. I heard the names coming back to me seconds after I said them, names that I wanted to read perfectly to honor their memory the best way that I could - with my voice.

Had people raised their voices six decades ago, perhaps this could have been prevented. But time cannot be changed, and all we can do now is to ensure that history is not forgotten and most definitely not repeated. As I lit a candle before departing, this was my prayer - and my hope that we would never again see a need to read names such as these.

I think the only way I know to end this post is with the Jewish Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. As you read this and listen to the setting of the Kaddish by Maurice Ravel below, say a prayer for these six million, the men, women and children whose voices were silenced and yet who speak to us still...

Glorified and sanctified be God's great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen.

May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.

Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

A Six-Year-Old's Deep Theological Questions

My oldest daughter has been in a phase lately where incidents in everyday life prompt her to ask questions about God and faith which, for a six-year-old, strike me as very deep indeed. As we were getting ready for church this morning, she again asked me about prayer - except this time, it was for herself, since she has been ill for the past two days.

MB: "Daddy, is it okay to pray for myself to get better?"

Me: "Sure it is. People pray for themselves all the time."

MB: "So it's okay to ask Miss C. [the children's priest at our church] to pray for me when she asks today?"

Me: "Sure."

MB: "What do people pray for?"

Me: "Well, they pray to get better if they've been sick, or they pray for a job if they don't have one, or they pray for a good friend or a member of their family. They pray for anything."

MB: "Did you pray to God when you went to Applebees and got sick [with food poisoning]?"

Me: [holding back laughter] "Oh, yes, I sure did."

This episode is a lesson on two fronts - one, children always ask great questions, and two, they never forget anything. Applebees was four years ago!!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Anne Lamott at Borders: A Gathering of Imperfect Birds

I'll start off by being direct: I have never known what to make of Anne Lamott.

Several years ago, a good friend of mine (who is a priest in the Episcopal Church and godmother to our youngest daughter) and I were wandering through the bookshop at Washington National Cathedral when she picked up a copy of Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith and said, "You should really read Anne Lamott. She's great." This friend had never steered me wrong before - despite our spirited political discussions, which we approach from opposite ends of the spectrum - and so I cracked open the book. One paragraph into the first page, the thought "What the hell?!?" flashed through my mind, for there in stark black-and-white I was greeted with, "Better to go out by our own hands than to endure slow by scolding at the hands of the Bush administration."

My friend - the friend who had never steered me wrong - had put in my hands a book by a Bush-basher!

Giving her the benefit of the doubt, however, I purchased it, along with a few others, and took them home for a read. It was a struggle for me, however; I couldn't, no matter how hard I tried, get past her political musings. I was angry with Ms. Lamott, that much was certain. And I wasn't going to be very forgiving.

It was then I found the other Anne Lamott: the single mother, the recovering alcoholic and drug addict, the woman who in the midst of one of her darkest moments felt the presence of Jesus as he knelt by her in the corner. The self-professed flawed Christian who said, "You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do." THIS was the Anne Lamott to whom I could relate, the woman you wanted to hug and tell that everything would be alright, and that people loved her as much as Jesus loved her.

This was the Anne Lamott that I went to see this past Thursday evening at Borders, where she was promoting her newest book, Imperfect Birds. It goes without saying that I was in the demographical minority in the crowd, with lots of women and perhaps 10 men, but it didn't detract from the event by any means. Surprisingly, it started with her doing part of the signing, and she wandered throw the rows of people chatting, signing, humorously chastising those who hadn't purchased her book, and genuinely seeming to enjoy being in the midst of a crowd like ours on an otherwise stormy evening.

And then she got to where a friend of mine and I were seated - what to say to her? Do I say anything?

Of course I say something - and I tell her the story of the first time I saw page one of Plan B. I tell her about the anger and frustration I felt at seeing her political views, and then of how I just wanted to give her a big hug and pull everyone together after getting to the faith side of her life. She paused for a moment - oh, geez, here it comes! - and then said with a smile, "Thank you for telling me that. And I do have some friends who are Republicans!"

With credit to Stewie Griffin, "Victory is mine!" I had won her over! Quickly, though, I figured that that ego-filled thought was wrong; I hadn't won her over, nor had she won me over. It became clear during the Q and A session that we were both victims of something else - for as she said, even among Democrats and Republicans and all of their differences, there is one common factor we all share: faith.

She spoke of her son and grandson, of the difficulties she has experienced in her life, of the rejection that she has received from some Christians (being told once, "If this is your view of Christianity, then I wonder how you'll feel one day when you are burning?"), of writing and solitude and friends and Sunday school ("I teach young children in Sunday school because, well, no one else really wants to do it."). And she read excerpts from her new book, the title of which was taken from a quote by Rumi: "Each has to enter the nest made by other imperfect birds."

And on this evening, this is what we all were: imperfect birds, flawed Christians, scarred humans, who were all sharing the same nest with a woman who as she says "gets it." It was a warm, funny, lively conversation, the kind you would have sitting around your living room on a Friday evening with a group of friends.

At the end of the night, Anne Lamott had a new fan - one who is still slightly disturbed by her political views, although much more forgiving because my own views have moderated in recent years. This is a woman I could see sitting around in a group with my wife and clergy friends and others for a long discussion over wine or drinks (which in itself is flawed since Anne is a recovering alchoholic and addict, albeit one who talks about how great it felt to be high).

What a conversation it would be!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Archbishop, the Talk Show Host, and the Peabody

Congratulations to Craig Ferguson for his receipt of the Peabody Award for his outstanding interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. If you've never seen it, all three parts are below - it's a fantastic episode!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Haiti and a Unified World ... But Why Did We Wait Until Now?

No obstacle can stand in the face of a world united.

I've always believed that, and I think we are seeing a demonstration of that right now in the streets and communities of Haiti.

Since the tragic earthquake of January 12, the world has come together in a way that to me - and to many others, I'm sure - is unprecedented. Thousands of American troops and aid workers from around the globe. Millions of dollars contributed by governments, humanitarian organizations, and average citizens - men and women, young and old, contributing amounts as small as a few cents and as large as tens of thousands of dollars to the American Red Cross, the What If? Foundation, Doctors Without Borders, Episcopal Relief and Development, the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, and countless other groups.

Last night, the world came together in a prayer service for Haiti at Washington National Cathedral. The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, was joined by United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, Haitian Ambassador Raymond Alcide Joseph, Cathedral Dean Sam Lloyd, Cathedral Dean Sam Lloyd, and many other interfaith religious leaders - Christian, Jewish, Muslim - in perhaps the most moving service I've ever attended. Hundreds of people from different faiths, different backgrounds, different demographics, and different economic levels all came together to offer prayers for the Haitian people. A magnificent choir, several wonderful soloists, and the cathedral organ added even more beauty to the event.

Wonderful music. Moving remarks by the ambassador. An inspiring homily by the presiding bishop. The light of hundreds of candles in the dimmed cathedral. Inspirational prayers and readings from the Old and New Testaments. The hopes and prayers of a diverse congregation merging into a single petition to God - save, restore, and nourish the people of Haiti. Each of those pieces came together to form a single picture of how tragedy - and hope - can bring the people of the world together.

But through it all, I've been wondering one thing: why does it take a tragedy like the Haitian earthquake to make the world take action as one? The problems in Haiti - homelessness, poverty, hunger, lack of education - have been persistent there for years; they are present here in the United States and Europe and India and all points around the world. To their credit, there are groups, individuals, and foundations that have been working for years to address the problems here at home and abroad.

But there's no large, unified effort on any of them - and the problems persist. As the Haitian tragedy has shown, the world can tackle any problem when it comes together and puts its collective mind, heart, spirit, and resources together to that end. So why doesn't it? Why can't the nations of the world come together to fight hunger, illness and poverty, in its many forms and locations? Is it because we find it easier to deal with problems outside our borders rather than face those in the next street, the next city, the next state? Is it because the nations allow their pride, their self-assuredness, or their stubbornness to get in the way of what truly matters?

Or is it because even now, in the 21st century, we as fellow travelers through this life with billions of other people still haven't discovered what it is that truly matters: loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Friday, January 08, 2010

The Legend That Is Jerry Falwell - A Personal Reexamination

It has been nearly three years since Jerry Falwell - old-time Southern preacher, college chancellor, political firebrand, and a man whose legend and legacy has reached near mythic proportions - passed away in his office at the university he built from scratch, nurtured and loved, and even now people are continuing to assess the true scope and ultimate impact of his life and work.

Several new books have come out within the last year which approach him from different angles: Dr. John Killinger's The Other Preacher in Lynchburg, which examines Falwell's impact in Lynchburg, Virginia and across the country through the lens of being a fellow minister in Lynchburg; The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University, which explores Kevin Roose's life as a student at Falwell's Liberty University as told by a Brown student and aspiring writer who spent one semester living, learning and worshipping there; and Macel Falwell's new memoir, Jerry Falwell: His Life and Legacy. Of the three, I have finished Killinger's book (fascinating), am nearly finished with Roose's book (a good look at Liberty from the inside), and will soon be starting Mrs. Falwell's book.

I'm sure that some of you who are here regularly may be asking why I, a born-and-bred Episcopalian with a more moderate view on certain social issues, would spend thirty seconds on Falwell let alone invest in three books (and possibly read some of his own work, ghost-written or otherwise). It's a fair question, and I'll be short and direct with my response: I have absolutely no idea. Had you asked me three weeks, three months, or three years ago whether I would be interested in exploring Jerry Falwell's life as a personal study, I would have laughed.

Now, I'm not laughing.

As a native of Lynchburg and someone who spent the first 22 years of my life in that town (a town that I still love), I and everyone else were perpetually in Falwell's shadow. Even today, when I tell folks where I come from, they invariably respond, "Oh! You make Jack Daniels!" And just as predictably, my answer is always, "No, we made Jerry Falwell." It seemed that the two were inseperable: Lynchburg was Jerry Falwell, and Jerry Falwell was Lynchburg. I can remember from a young age the Sunday morning broadcasts of The Old Time Gospel Hour that were invariably running in the background as my family got ready for church, whether we were watching or not, and I can still remember Falwell's booming baritone going up and out from behind the pulpit at Thomas Road Baptist Church. In fact, that is precisely the reason I chose this particular picture to accompany the post - it is from the period in my life containing my earliest awareness of who he was.

Remarkably, in 22 years in a town the size of Lynchburg, I only saw Falwell in person three times: once at an annual performance of TRBC's Living Christmas Tree; once at a Sunday morning service at TRBC (where I witnessed perhaps the greatest repeat passing of collection plates and baskets during a sermon that I have ever seen); and once as his great, black SUV nearly ran a friend of mine and I into a ditch as the good reverend was pulling out of a carwash just minutes from Liberty University. The once-every-every-seven year sightings are even remarkable now when I consider that I went through a phase where it seemed that every young lady I asked out on a date (some successfully) was a student at Liberty, attended TRBC, or both.

So again, the question comes up: why am I doing this now? I still don't know; perhaps it's part of a larger reexamination and review of my life in Lynchburg, a life where Falwell was always lurking on the edge of things. Perhaps it's part of my exploration of other denominations and faiths outside of my own Episcopal background - and no single denomination or faith was bigger in Lynchburg than TRBC (25,000 members, if I remember correctly). Or maybe it's a subconscious desire to move beyond - after nearly 40 years - some subconscious notions that have built up, to at long last decide for myself whether he truly was a sinner or a saint, a hero or a villain, a priest or a charlatan, a man who really loved his hometown or who simply saw the advantages of being able to build an empire by never leaving his hometown.

I can't say where this is going - I only know that I'm going to enjoy the ride.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Where Has the Time Gone?

January 1, 2010 - can the past year, much last the entire decade, have already passed that quickly? It doesn't seem like it's been 10 years since A. and I were camping with friends in rural Georgia, wondering if Y2K would really lead to the downfall of civilization and leave our little merry band around the campfire as the future of mankind (okay, nothing so dramatic; we were really wondering whether the gas stations would be open so that we could drive home). The past decade has certainly been eventful - for the country and the world, yes, but especially for my family.


September 11, 2001 - One of the days people will remember years from now by asking, "Where were you when you heard?" I was working as district representative for a member of Congress from Alabama, and on that particular morning I had left to travel the district after seeing the aftermath of the first plane in New York. Everyone knows how the day played out, but it is still vivid for me - the drive back to the office, the total silence as we all watched the events unfold on television, A. and I going to our favortie hangout that evening and listening to President Bush's speech while the entire bar was utterly silent.

2002 - My first boss in Congress announces his retirement, and my chief of staff runs for and wins the seat that November. It marked a big transition for me, from district representative to press secretary - and an entirely new world of opportunities.

April 2003 - A. and I leave Mobile, Alabama and move back to Northern Virginia so that I can embark on the next phase of my congressional career. It's the beginning of a great - and final - four years working for the public.

January 2004 - Our first daughter is born, and our lives are changed forever.

January 2007 - As a result of the changeover in the majority in Congress, my position is downsized, and I find myself out of work. It's the beginning of an eight-month period of unemployment, and one of the most stressful points of my life. The only welcome break?

February 2007 - Our second daughter is born, joining her sister as two bright spots in a very difficult career period for me and A.

August 2007 - I am blessed to be hired to work for a fantastic trade association in Washington, and I make a whole new set of friends (and professional contacts) and learn a lot about the hospitality industry.

April 2008 - I'm hired away by a large conglomerate to serve as their media and government relations director in Washington. Another big professional boost, and a whole new world of opportunities is opened up for me and my family.

And now, here we are at the beginning of 2010. I can honestly say that I have absolutely no idea of what the future holds; truthfully, had you asked me ten years ago what I thought would have unfolded in my life, I wouldn't have identified a majority of what is listed above. But that's been part of the joy and challenge of the last ten years - the surprise of how things have unfolded.

Here's to 2010, and an entirely new year - and decade - of joys, challenges, and surprises.