Friday, February 27, 2015


      Back in the 80s, Linda and I were rediscovering Christian faith. When we visited DC for work, we set out to visit The Church of The Savior,, which along with The Sojourner’s Community (also in DC) and Koinonia Farms (in South Georgia), was at the cutting edge of socially engaged progressive Christianity in those days. We did not understand that The Church of The Savior was no longer a church but a partnership of 6 different faith communities then – 9 today – each serving God’s mission in a distinct way but connected to and supported by The Church of the Savior Partnership.

         So what we found at the CTS location was just an office, a mostly empty office. We were greeted by an unremarkable older lady who introduced herself as “Elizabeth O’Connor.” We did not take much note of her but she invited us to a gathering at The Potter’s House, one of the affiliated faith communities. We attended and enjoyed The Potter’s House. A few weeks later I learned that Elizabeth O’Connor was a brilliant and prolific writer. She was in fact the author of a seminal book that became a classic of faith, Journey Inward, Journey Outward.

         I won’t quote her book, hoping you will read it for yourselves. Instead I’ll give you my own take on her message using resources that have more recently become dear to me. O’Connor’s book has a message for each of us as an individual and also for our congregations. How apt is that! The life of a congregation should shape and sustain each of our individual spiritual lives and each of our individual spiritual lives should serve as a tributary to the mission of God’s people praying and serving together.

         O’Connor’s message to the individual Christian is two-fold: On the one hand, we cannot serve others effectively unless we first put our own souls in order. Arguably the greatest peacemaker of the 20th Century, U. N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold said:

         Our work for peace must begin within the private
         world of each one of us. To build a world without fear,
we must be without fear. To build a world of justice,
we must be just. And who can we fight for liberty if
we are not free in our own minds?

A follower of Jesus, Hammarskjold knew Matthew 7: 5:

First take the plank out of your own eye.
Then you can see clearly to remove the speck
from your brother’s eye.

This is why Hammarskjold built a room for quiet, meditation, and prayer in the United Nations Building. When this great activist for peace was killed on a mission of peace in the Congo, he was posthumously awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It was accepted by the Swedish diplomat Rolf Edberg. In his acceptance speech he said of Hammarskjold,

He had a room of quiet within himself.
No one was ever able to reach into that room.

Except for the random sociopath, we all would like to do some good in the world. Perhaps we simply and humbly aspire to be a positive presence in our family or with friends. Maybe we play on the larger field of social and economic justice. We cannot live a truly human life without some engagement with our fellow mortals. We hope that engagement will be a blessing to others. But if we do not tend our own souls, then our interactions with others will be warped by something. Augustine had one way of describing that something. Freud had another. Whatever we call it, if we have not attended to our own inner work, our efforts to be helpful to others will do more harm than good.

First take the plank out of your own eye.
Then you can see clearly to remove the speck
from your brother’s eye.

But there is another side to that coin. Hammarskjold also said:

         In our era the road to holiness necessarily lies
         through the world of action.

A privatized spirituality is not the path to holiness. It is the path to spiritual narcissism. The late Marcus Borg challenged this individualistic me-&-Jesus spirituality in one of his last writings. But it isn’t just conservative evangelicals who fall pray to spiritual narcissism. We have plenty of more-spiritual-than-thou contemplatives tripping on their own cloud.

The main reason individualistic spirituality doesn’t work is that it isn’t true. We live in a matrix of relationality. When we Christians set out to say Reality is knit together by relationality, we call it the Trinity. When we say we are called to live as part of each other, we call it the Body of Christ. But this truth comes across especially clearly in the African spirituality of Ubuntu, so beautifully expressed and exemplified by a great peacemaker and liberator of our time, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
It comes together in this simple axiom:

         I am only me because of you.

The Holy Spirit in Scripture does three things – life giving; empowering, connecting – but they are really just three aspects of one thing. Life is a power that arises in our midst when we are in godly relationship. I believe it was Rabbi Heschel, who after returning from the march at Selma was asked if he had prayed while there, and he replied;

         I prayed with my feet.

He would have been paraphrasing Frederick Douglass who said:

         I prayed for 20 years but received no answer
         until I prayed with my legs.

This is why Quaker writer and educator wrote The Active Life as a guide to the spirituality of engagement with the world we all inhabit together.

         Authentic spiritual practice leads to and is inseparable from work for justice and mercy. Authentic work for justice and mercy leads to and is inseparable from intentional spiritual practice.

         So the message to each of us in our personal lives is clear. Health requires a balance of spiritual practice (which in turn is a balance of prayers, study, worship, and other elements – that is for another Epistle) and action (which is also calls for a balance of elements such as charity and justice – yet another Epistle). For now suffice it to say that the journey inward and the journey outward are like two paths that have been intertwined into one. I cannot do you a bit of good until I see the image of God in you. And I cannot see God unless I see God in you. 1 John 4: 20.

         But if what is true for us as individual Christians is also true for the Church, then what does this say to the Church? I wonder – just wonder -- if in the era roughly 1995 to 2005 perhaps we spoke a bit much about contemplation and not so much about mission; and if roughly 2005 to today we have spoken more about mission and less of contemplation. I am not at all sure of the history of that. It is just a musing. But I will say with confidence that contemplation without mission is bogus; and mission without contemplation is bogus. This does not mean we all have to pray in any particular way or that we all have to serve the world in any particular way. There is plenty of room for variety on both sides of this equation – but it is an equation. We need both in tandem.

         So is the business of the Church to tend to the flock or to send the flock out into the world to love and serve the Lord, seeking and serving Christ in all people, striving for justice and peace among all people (sound familiar?)? The answer is clearly and unambiguously: Yes.

Thursday, January 29, 2015


“Who are you really wanderer?”

Your job is to find what the world is trying to be.”

                                             -- William Stafford

I have been blessed to serve in Nevada these seven years now. (Consecrated January 5, 2008). It may not have been quite as dramatic as Heinrich Harrer’s time in Tibet, but it has been quite a ride. I have seen a lot, heard a lot, and learned a lot. To quote President Nixon’s Press Secretary, Ron Zeigler, “Mistakes were made” – in this case, by me. But the mistakes were part of my learning.

It would be ego gratifying if I could say the diocese was in shambles then but thanks to my heroic virtues we are now flourishing. The truth is the diocese was in pretty good shape in those days, even though it had some struggles. Today, we are still in good shape and we still have some struggles, just different struggles.

There are some positive signs. When I first arrived, a number of congregations were in the midst of rather destructive conflicts – clergy vs. laity; clergy vs. clergy; laity vs. laity – depending on the congregation. We still have conflicts. We always will if there is enough life in us to care about things. But I rarely see conflicts being that destructive these days. Note: that has nothing to do with me. I have not intervened episcopos ex machina to resolve anyone’s disputes. The people just worked them through and got back to business. I am not claiming credit, just comparing then with now.

In a similar vein, congregations in conflict with the diocese were usually in conflict internally and vice versa. So as relationships within congregations have gotten better, their relationship with the diocese has gotten more trusting and cooperative.

As we have feuded less, we have engaged more actively in mission to the world outside our walls. We have particularly connected with schools. Last year most of our congregations gave generously to provide solar lanterns to our companion diocese in Kenya. Some congregations that formerly made a principle of not giving anything to their communities are now leaders in local ministries.

I won’t do a tedious assessment of the diocese. Rather I’ll just say that Nevada’s been good to me and I am beginning to figure a few things out. It is an axiom of church life that a new rector needs to spend five years in a parish getting the lay of the land before launching off in any new directions. I’d say it takes a bishop at least seven years to get the lay of the land. I am not sure I have it yet, but I’m closer than I was a few years ago.

I still don’t aspire to launch off in any new directions. I am still looking for where our heart actually lies. Like the poet William Stafford, I think my job is to “find out what the world wants to be.” Part of that is sorting out what the church here is trying to be. Part of it is figuring out what the people outside our walls need us to be. Discerning all of that will take some ongoing trial and error.

My sense is that the stewardship programs we have been running for a couple of years have struck a chord. They have touched our felt need for a spirituality of faith, gratitude, and generosity that run quite against the grain to secular society’s prevailing fear-based modus operandi. Time will tell whether a meme of faith, gratitude, and generosity will spread thorugh our people blessing their lives and making them blessings to others. It is possible. Something like that appears to be beginning even now.

I see so much alienation, futility, and despair in the secular world around us. I feel like Jesus looking on the crowd who were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew 9: 36 And I wonder if the Church (the Body of Christ, the continuing Incarnation, the hands and feet of Jesus in Nevada AD 2015) might have something to offer them. We feel competent to feed the physically hungry. But do we feel that we have anything to offer to the spiritually hungry? That is a fresh question I am asking these days. If we have life within us, if we have something that stills the mind, refreshes the heart, and ennobles the soul, then we might consider how to go about sharing it with those who do not yet have it. If we do not have these spiritual treasures, that is a much deeper question.

There is an adage in spiritual practice: you can’t give what you don’t have. So if we don’t have a rich soulful life in the practice of our faith, we cannot do much for the despairing folks outside our walls. But there’s another adage equally true in Christianity: you don’t really have it until you’ve shared it with someone else. I wonder if really opening wide the doors of our churches will allow us to breathe.

Monday, January 5, 2015


One of the great moments of American literature is in To Kill A Mockingbird. Tom Robinson, a black man in 1930s Alabama, is in jail awaiting trial for the alleged rape of a poor white woman Mayella Ewell. Sheriff Heck Tate has left town for the evening and a lynch mob has gathered at the jail to hang Tom. His lawyer, Atticus Finch, sits on the porch with a shotgun in his lap to defend his client. The situation is tense and the chance of violence runs high. Out of nowhere Atticus’s elementary school age daughter, Scout (Miss Jean Louise) shows up having slipped out to check on her Daddy. Innocent of the nature of the situation, she greets the leader of the lynch mob:

“Hey Mr. Cunningham.”

The man did not hear me, it seemed.

‘Hey Mr. Cunningham, how’s your entailment gettin’ along? . . .
Don’t you remember me? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one time, remember?” I began to feel the futility one feels when unacknowledged . . ..

“I go to school with Walter,” I began again. “He’s your boy, ain’t he? Ain’t he, sir?”

Mr. Cunningham was moved to a faint nod. He knew me after all.

“He’s in my grade,” I said, “And he does right well. He’s a good boy.”

And so the lynching was stopped, the crowd dispersed, the peril diffused by a child reminding a man of his humanity, reminding him that we are connected by intricate organic bonds of social intercourse.

Something like that happened on social media last week. There was a social media frenzy rushing to judgment of Heather Cook, Suffragen Bishop of Maryland, over a traffic accident in which bicyclist Thomas Palermo died. Partly because I know very little about the accident, and partly because I am Bishop Cook’s coach in College for Bishops (all new bishops get coaches), I do not intend to comment on what happened in Baltimore, but only on what subsequently happened in social media. Opinions came fast furious, filling in the blanks of the story with imagined facts.

Enter the Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton, who posted an article on her blog, not defending Bishop Cook, not saying what the facts are or what the outcome should be, but simply appealing for a measured search for truth instead of an emotional stampede to retribution. She challenged Episcopalians as Christians to step back and think. Her critique of the social media response is essentially captured in this sentence: The conjecture and supposition, assumption and presumption – not to mention evidence of a very active imagination – have been second only to the mean spirit in which they are written. Rev. Kaeton implored us to allow the investigation to proceed instead of writing a dark tale out of the imaginations of our hearts.

When I read her post, I heard a voice saying Hey Mr. Cunningham. Don’t you remember me? I go to school with Walter. Rev. Kaeton was calling us back to our identity as humans, as Christians, and as Americans. For that reminder, she has now been pilloried in social media along with Bishop Cook.

Her words – amounting in my mind to Remember who you are -- bring me up short. They make me think of what it means to be an American. When I was in school, from grade school to law school, we learned that the Bill of Rights was central to our identity, that due process of law, trial by jury, and presumption of innocence all distinguished us as a people. We still sing about the land of the free. But today the land of the free imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other developed nation. We imprison 707 out of every 100,000, as compared to 492 in Rwanda and 470 in Russia to name our closer contenders or 118 in Canada and 211 in Mexico to name our neighbors. We have a passion for incarceration, which no longer even seriously attempts rehabilitation but seeks instead to satiate our need for retribution. Whenever the basic principles and processes of justice that have traditionally defined the American way so much as temper or even slow the gratification of our vindictive impulse, we are ready to abandon them without blinking. These principles and processes are the things I understood our warrior heroes killed and died to protect and our statesmen heroes forged from the wisdom of history and philosophy. In short, they are important. They are definitive for our very identity as a people. So, speaking strictly as an American, I am grateful to Elizabeth Kaeton and anyone else brave enough to remind us who we are.

But Kaeton writes most explicitly as a Christian and is most concerned about the spirit in which people are so hell-bent on condemnation that there is no room for a compassion that might see a complex tragedy that cries out for healing. Where is Jesus in this story? That may be Kaeton’s implicit question and, if so, that is the most inconvenient question whenever we are too sure we know what should be done. There is a strong Zoroastrian streak in us. Our films and books are full of it. We divide the world up into the good and the evil so that we may violently destroy the evil. That dualism finds its way into Christianity too, particularly in Revelation. But Jesus was no Zoroaster. He said Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be like your Father in heaven who causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends the rain to the righteous and the unrighteous. Matthew 5: 44-45. When we are eager to label and condemn, Jesus is inconvenient. Judge not that ye be not judged. Luke 6: 37 When the Pharisees demand punishment, what does Jesus do? John 8: 2-11 This is not to say that secular justice must not be administered to preserve the order of the state. But the spirit of vengeance ill-becomes the Christians among us. So Kaeton says to the Christians in the social media world, Remember who you are.

Because of who Kaeton and her primary audience are, there is a particular reminder here to Episcopalians. Among Christians, we are particularly inclined to thoughtful moderation. In the bloody 16th Century, when the Elizabethan Settlement was formulated, we adopted an ethos of measured restraint. Our piety was the Book of Common Prayer, which gave birth to the poetry of the Caroline Divines. Perhaps today, when feelings are so readily manipulated by spin-doctors, there may be a special need for thoughtful Christians with the capacity to reserve judgment and hear more than one side. So as an Episcopalian, I am glad to be reminded who we are.

Having begun this reflection with one Southern author from yester year, Harper Lee, I will conclude with another Southern author from today, Donna Tartt. One of her less popular, but to me most important, books is The Little Friend, which I read as a cautionary tale about narrative theory. Like Scout, Harriet Cleve Dufresne is a little girl in the South. All the situations that define her family life have coherent stories, except one – the murder of her little brother. It is an unsolved mystery. Tormented by a grief that has no meaning, no narrative structure, Harriet assembles a bit of evidence, does a cursory child-like investigation, and creates a narrative to identify the culprit so she can bring him to justice. The plot turns out rather badly and in scary ways because, quite simply, Harriet’s narrative, though coherent and even compelling, is not true.

A quick simplistically contrived narrative gives us a sense of order in the world. How much better if it is the familiar Zoroastrian order of good guys and bad guys! How reassuring to know we are on the side of good and that evil can be vanquished through the unleashing of our pent up anger and violent urges! We live in a time when the standard of righteousness is too readily invoked to do harm. These are times in which it is more important than ever for Americans to remember that we are Americans, for Christians to remember that we are Christians, and for Episcopalians to remember our value of thoughtfulness, deliberation, and restraint. Thank you Elizabeth Kaeton for reminding us who we are.