Friday, February 3, 2017


The vanity license plate on a pickup truck here in Elko reads, “Bowup.” For those unfamiliar with the expression, it is “Bow up.” It means to assume a fighting posture. The neck and back curve defensively. The elbows bend. The fists clench. You get the picture. I gather the license plate is an invitation or an admonition to any and all to “bow up” to fight for anything that comes along.

I learned the expression “bow up” from my father. He would tell the story of some conversation at work or at a baseball game. At some point in the story, one of the characters would “bow up.”
Invariably, in my father’s telling of the story, the character who bowed up would have demonstrated himself to be some kind of fool, defensive, reactive, unable to keep his dignity. The bowed-up posture is not a dignified one. By bowing up he had already lost regardless of whether a fight ensued or who “won” it.

But there’s another side to the equation. In my Texas culture, there were also certain indignities that were not to be borne. Some slurs or offenses had to be regarded as “walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.” The problem for the more thoughtful of us -- and a lot of us were more thoughtful than we let on – was that we were not sure where that line was drawn. We were most likely to bow up not because we were genuinely angry but because we thought perhaps we ought to be angry and that our dignity would be lost if we did not take a stand – though paradoxically, bowed up is not a stand but a demeaning posture and by taking it we had forfeited our dignity. It was lose-lose.

Our fragile self-esteem can be cloaked in all sorts of things – righteousness whether political or old style puritanical, superiority of our intellect, depth of our spirituality, fidelity to the institution with which we have identified our pride – the list goes on. The cloak around our self-esteem is the trigger for our reactivity. It is our point of vulnerability.

As I look around these days, it seems a lot of us are bowed up. It is a posture we have assumed. The various political or religious claims and taunts of the day prompt the posture. But this license plate skipped all that. It went straight to the point. No need for pretexts. Just a straight prescription for an existential posture. It is as if the fear and the posture are connected by the issue that exercises us. But this vanity plate cut out the middle man.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke about postures. One text is obvious. “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other.” New Testament scholar Walter Wink read that teaching as more clever than it seems. He treated the first blow as a backhand slap of a superior to a slave. If you turn the other cheek, he can only strike you with the forehand slap that challenges an equal to combat. It is actually a brilliant way to preserve dignity.

The other posture text is less obvious. It is translated as “do not resist evil” or “return evil for evil.” Wink says this is actually a term for military maneuver in which one army mirrors the formation of the other. Jesus means there are more effective ways to combat an adversary than to mimic him. But mimicry is out reflexive action.

We encounter a lot of bowed up people these days. Our mirror neurons respond automatically with an impulse to mimic them. Plus, we are apt to feel threatened, and like a Texas teenage boy insecure about his virility, we may fight out of fear of disgrace. There is a lot at work to make us speak and act precipitously.

Jesus did not generally recommend that approach. If he had a vanity plate, I don’t know what it would say, but I seriously doubt it would be “bow up.” It might be “bless” – not condone evil, not cooperate with wrong, not agree with what is factually false. But it might very well be “bless.” It might have a hint of a suggestion that we look past the outrageous thing someone else is saying or even doing to find their subterranean human worth and say with God, “That’s good,” and perhaps find a way to remind them who they are. It might be a gesture toward healing their wound instead of jabbing at it.

The basic function of blessing is not approval but connection. The basic function of cursing is not passing judgment so much as breaking relationship. We live by connection. We grow by connection. We are transformed and we transform each other through connection. There is a dignity in the resolute determination to bless this world and all who live therein.

Monday, January 16, 2017


You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
                                                                                    Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird

The current flap over whether our National Cathedral Choir should sing at the Inauguration is the present arena in which a lot of passions are flowing at cross-purposes. People are in very different places. For the record, I fully support what Bishop Mariann Budde and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry have said in defense of the choir singing, but my heart is stirred by the pain of those who feel betrayed.

I am still trying to understand the feelings that have been unleashed, manipulated, and magnified not just in the recent election but in the American public square since roughly 1990. This is not an attempt to say anything definitive, just to notice a piece of the puzzle.

There are very concrete fears and resentments stirring for people threatened with the
loss of health insurance, people on the verge of retirement when Social Security and Medicare are in jeopardy, people whose families may be divided by deportation, people who may have to publicly register their religion at a time when their religion makes them a target of abuse and violence. Others are afraid of terrorism, the financial hardship to support those who cannot fully support themselves, the loss of jobs and changes in culture caused by immigration.

But, perhaps because I am deep into Eric Fromm’s classic, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, I cannot stop seeing the deeper processes at work in people, the surging of so many painful dynamics.  We can’t ignore the psychological dynamics at play, in individuals and in the collective.

For whatever reason, the President-elect stirs our responses to experiences with narcissistic sado-masochistic behavior. Anyone who has ever been bullied, sexually abused, victimized by a domestic violence, harassed for any reason, mocked, belittled, or ostracized is subject to having old feelings brought up.

How that plays out is not simple. There can be PTSD flashback experiences, narcissistic abuse syndrome with feelings of fear, confusion, inner turmoil, and all that goes with co-dependency; identification with one’s status as victim claiming a kind of moral authority and exemption for Jesus’s “love ethic” born of innocent suffering; or – and here’s where it gets really complicated – variations on Stockholm Syndrome in which the victim identifies with the abuser. That means – now ponder this – two victims of the same kind of abuse may respond to a narcissistic personality (or someone perceived to be a narcissistic personality) with opposite reactions. One will fear and loathe him. The other will cling to him like a beloved parent or even savior. The two people may be at each other’s throats, not despite but because they have suffered the same or similar wounds.

Add to that tangled web a dynamic Fromm calls “group narcissism.” To begin with narcissism isn’t just arrogance. It is an inflated view of one’s own importance, being consumed by a deep need for the admiration of others, and an incapacity for empathy. But the arrogance is all on the surface. The Mayo clinic definition says, “Behind this fa├žade of self-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that is vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”

Not a happy way to be in the world. So, what is “group narcissism?” Fromm says, when individuals are belittled and scorned, they want to belong to a group that is great, strong, powerful, commanding respect and instilling fear.

So, where does this leave us as the Church? I don’t know. It definitely would not help to go about pathologizing the political convictions of others. But we might benefit from a touch of humility, curiosity, and compassion. Psychology does not answer the question. But it is one of the voices – along with theology, Scripture, and traditional social justice teachings – that informs our answer.

One thing I do get from this psychology piece is that a lot of people are hurting and our judgments of them will not help or heal. I am sometimes taken aback by the emphatic repudiation of Christian norms, derived from Scripture and enshrined in the Baptismal Covenant (e.g., to seek and serve Christ in all people, to respect the dignity of every human being) by people who are ostensibly Christians. I am mystified by hate-filled rants against Mexico (not undocumented workers but the whole nation). This list goes on. We are dividing up and fighting in ways that are hard to comprehend.  Most days I feel buffeted from the left and the right alike in ways that seem utterly beyond the bounds of civil discourse.

One thing I know: there are stories behind these impassioned statements. Stories I have not heard. There are people with something at stake. That something may be very tangible and clear at least in their imaginations. But in most cases, there is a lot stirring of which even the person with the forceful opinions is not aware. How can I know his or her experience? How can I know what that person has at stake?

I can ask!  I can inquire!  I can ‘hold space’ for a human being to tell the story lying behind the passions and the behavior.  Daryl Davis, whose story is told in the documentary, Accidental Courtesy, is a stellar example. A black man, he has converted 200 members of the KKK – not by arguing with them, not by calling them names, but by listening to them.

It is a cardinal virtue to know the situation, to plug into the reality at hand. If I am to have any hope of acting wisely and lovingly, I need to stop and breathe long enough to realize I don’t know what I’m dealing with and perhaps to ask a few questions that might help both of us find out.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017


I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.    
                                       Alice Walker

When I am an old woman I will wear purple, with a red hat
That doesn’t suit me . . .
But maybe I ought to practice a little now
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
                                       Jenny Joseph

We Episcopalians find many details to fret over. I wonder if the fretting is a self-protecting device to distract us from a big picture that might be too wonderful for us to bear.

One thing we are particularly prone to fretting over is colors. For example, there is the color purple. Episcopal bishops wear purple clergy shirts. Some wear a darker shade called blue-purple; others wear a lighter version called rose-purple. Some say the two shades distinguish the high church from the low church. Others say they label the liberals and the conservatives. I could never find a consensus, so I wear both, alternately, mostly to assure that people will know I do in fact change my shirt daily.

Recently I have come across a sartorial scruple that strikes me as unhelpful. I have encountered both clergy and laity who feel that they cannot wear purple or that they cannot wear purple in my presence. They are under the impression purple scarves, blouses, skirts, socks, etc. are liturgically verboten.

I want to go on record, just for here in Nevada, that this Bishop does not see how God’s Kingdom Mission is advanced by such fussiness over purple. Purple clerical shirts help color code our clergy so we can tell the bishops from the priests and deacons, but with regard to any other item of clothing, the episcopacy cannot claim a monopoly on a band of the color spectrum. So, Nevada brothers and sisters, please, in the spirit of Alice Walker and Jenny Joseph, wear purple to your heart’s content.

While we are on the subject of purple, let us speak of Advent. It used to be normative to use purple appointments in churches during the Advent season. In recent years, some churches have replaced the purple with blue. Strong opinions have arisen dividing the Purple Party from the Blue Party over this difference. I wish to say emphatically and with the deepest of convictions, it doesn’t matter. True, there is no real precedent for this use of blue. Blue, I am told, was the color used by the Medieval English Church EXCEPT during Advent and Lent.  Saying that blue is somehow less penitential than purple is as subjective as the interpretations of different shades of bishop clergy shirts. The argument has been persuasively advanced that this use of blue is a ploy by liturgical suppliers, “whose names must not be spoken,” to sell more frontals. But, so what?

For a little perspective, the practice of using liturgical colors to help set the spiritual tone of the season – like the different opening acclamations, collects, proper prefaces, and dismissals actually prescribed by the Prayer Book – goes all the way back to the 4th Century. But different churches have used different colors in different times. See,
The liturgical color scheme is written in water colors, not stone. Moreover, it is a matter of custom and practice, not a rule guiding our liturgy.

Blue is not “less penitential.” Royal blue is associated with royalty so in Advent it suggests the coming of the King. Bright blue is associated with the sky or Heaven where the Angels proclaim the incarnation. It is also associated with Mary, the “Queen of Heaven,” and so the Church waits with Mary for the birth. But the Purple Party has a perspective too. Purple also represents royalty and the coming of the King as well as penitence. So, there is truly no right or wrong about the choice of color for Advent.

Another confusion arises over the liturgical colors on the bishops visit or at baptism. The answer is that the regular color of the day is appropriate. Galley, The Ceremonies of the Eucharist, p. 174.

But here’s my one actual concern: Episcopalians would be shocked to hear themselves called “fanatics,” but I once heard fanaticism defined as becoming so obsessed with the means that one forgets the ends. I might use the word “idolatry,” worshiping the creature instead of the Creator.  We sometimes fret too much over details – “getting it right” – without thinking of the meaning the colors and other liturgical symbols are intended to express. The soul is not expanded by fussiness over details but rather by immersion in the spirit of the liturgy. True, in ignorance of the spirit of the liturgy, we are apt to get the details wrong. But then the problem is not transgression of a rule of etiquette to which the more scrupulous say “tsk tsk” but rather a deafness to God’s call.

I hope our people will learn the liturgy, not so they can be perfectionist and “get it right” more often than others – but so they can soak it in and let the ancient symbols of the faith grow their spirits and embolden their hearts for God’s mission in our suffering world.