Thursday, October 26, 2017


All hail the power of Jesus’ name
Let angels prostrate fall . . ..
Ye chosen seed of Israel’s race
Ye ransomed from the Fall . . ..

A hymn sung out of centuries of spiritual tradition can say so much with a single word. Ransomed. There is a whole doctrine of the Atonement in that familiar hymn, but it is a doctrine that is not in the least familiar to modern people.

Atonement means how we are saved. Jesus went to the cross. I say each Eucharist, The gifts of God for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on him in your hearts with thanksgiving. Jesus went to the cross for us. But how does that work? Why should his suffering and death make any difference for the state of our souls?

It’s an old question. Since the 16h Century, one answer has prevailed in popular understanding. God has rules. If they are broken, someone must be punished. That also is one of God’s rules. Jesus suffered in our stead to satisfy his Father’s need for retribution. Many cling to that interpretation of the Cross with love and devotion. Others, myself included, are repelled by it. A God defined by retribution is not who we want to worship or become like. I might go on at length and in stronger language about why that atonement doctrine strikes me as abhorrent and damaging to human souls, but I will leave it at that and go on to other understandings that may be more helpful.

Morna Hooker, one of the best New Testament scholars today, wrote a book on the atonement doctrine or doctrines in the New Testament. It was a bold step writing such a book, because it is routinely said that there is no atonement doctrine in the New Testament. There are phrases here and there that might be construed and elaborated into an atonement doctrine. I find phrases suggesting eight quite different atonement doctrines on two pages of Romans. But we cannot honestly say how any New Testament author understood the connection between the Cross and our salvation.

Hooker argues that we can’t see an atonement doctrine in the New Testament because the way we ask the question, our basic assumptions about ourselves and the nature of the problem, are all so different from the 1st Century worldview that the New Testament isn’t answering the question we are asking. We assume that each of us is a free moral agent who makes bad choices and should have to pay for those choices. We want to know how Jesus’ death gets us off the hook.

But the New Testament is concerned with the salvation of communities, indeed the entire cosmos. The notion that we are each an individual moral agent making our own free choices, and we are saved by making the right choice to embrace Christianity, was called the Arminian heresy as late as the 18th Century. The New Testament is about Jesus shedding his blood to form a covenant bond with humanity. That covenant connects us to God and to each other. That connection is our eternal lifeline. But Hooker does not claim this is a fully fleshed out atonement doctrine. It is the starting point for Christian theology for centuries to come.

Ransomed, in our hymn, evokes the first developed atonement doctrine. Its author was the 2nd Century saint, Justin Martyr. He saw sin as a power that holds us in bondage. Paul had said much the same. Justin went on to say it was as if we had sold ourselves into this bondage, made a pact with evil so to speak, like the man who sells his soul for some momentary advantage. Something malevolent holds the title to our lives.

Does that make sense? It did to 2nd Century Justin and it is a recurring theme in literature. We may personify the “something malevolent” as Satan, or we may think of it as the system or the domination system or “the tears in the nature of things” or the world “grinding on its axle.” Some like to take a happier view of human nature. We are all good. We just need to celebrate our own goodness. Meanwhile, the Myanmar Buddhists commit ruthless genocide against the Rohingya Muslims. ISIS decapitates victims. A lone gunman slaughters 58 people at a country concert in Las Vegas. The government proposes to cut off food and medical care to the poor. Crime statisticians project over 1,000 forcible rapes in Las Vegas in 2017. Freud, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and countless great minds have seen a darkness in humanity. We do not behave well. Belsen. Auschwitz. Newtown. Hiroshima. Sand Creek. Wounded Knee. The gulags.

Against this damning evidence stand countless acts of generosity. The lives of the saints, the love of family members, and the kindness of strangers. Behind those outbursts of decency is our sense that we are better than we often behave. Which of us has no regrets? Which of us has not done things that could not have come from our souls, our true selves?

Justin believed we are intrinsically good but have fallen into a state of bondage to something that exercises power over us. The way to free us from that power was to pay its bloody price. God in Jesus ransomed us because we were hostages to evil. God in Jesus redeemed us, bought us back from the power that held us in sin’s dread sway to quote another familiar hymn. Yes, Jesus bled and died for us, but it wasn’t to satisfy God’s need for vengeance. His sacrifice opens the possibility of freedom to come home to God. The evil hates the good. The good one’s suffering and dying pays our debt to the evil, and sets us free to be ourselves again.

Various other atonement theories were formed after St. Justyn Martyr. I don’t omit them because they were bad but because, coming as they did from a different time and place, I don’t think they will speak clearly to the hearts of people today. I fast forward to the 13th Century. Peter Abelard was one of the first academic theologians. He taught at the Sorbonne in Paris, and is chiefly famous for his illicit love affair with his student, young Heloise. Her father had him castrated. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the warmongering contemplative monk, who wrote perhaps a bit too much about the sublimated eroticism of the Song of Songs, was obsessed with castrating Abelard’s influence in theology. But Abelard and Heloise continued their devotion from afar, and their letters are a classic of Western literature. It is perhaps not surprising that Abelard would understand the Cross as an act of love evoking a responsive act of love – and not surprising that powerful voices in the Church repressed his interpretation.

Abelard taught his students a theory of attraction generally known as the moral influence theory of the atonement. Our problem is not guilt in the sense of a liability for rule-breaking. It is that we have failed to love God, who is the heart of Reality itself. That separates us from everything. We cannot rightly love anyone or anything, not even ourselves. We live at one step removed even from our own lives because God is the heart of our own lives. This God is not a superpower on a distant star. This God is the context of our experience, the one in whom “we live and move and have our being” but we do not love God and so we are cut off (like castrated of course, but also cut off is what it means to be cursed). As Justin saw the problem as bondage, Abelard saw it as alienation.

But God, not a superpower on a star but the heart of Reality itself, still loved us, love us enough to take on our troubled state and go to the cross to be there with us. God plunged into the brokenness of human experience as a parent might plunge into the ocean to save a drowning child. But God’s plunge was not an instrumental act. It was not if I do this it will achieve that. It was a joining us in our suffering as an act of loving solidarity.

We see that. We turn our eyes to the cross. We see God’s love and it evokes our love back. It is loving God that restores our connection to everything. It is loving God that heals us our core spiritual wound. God should not have had to die to prove his love, but he did. He died to win our hearts, and winning our hearts, he makes us whole.

Since Peter Abelard was laid to rest in Paris, and Heloise grieved his passing, many more atonement doctrines have been articulated. It is ludicrous for me to offer my explanations alongside those of giants like Justin and Abelard, and more wrong that I should offer them instead of those from far wiser theologians. But I will offer a few of my own thoughts, simply because I can explain myself better than others – and I live in the faith that I have never had an original thought, nor aspired to think one, so these surely come from someone whose name I have just forgotten.

Much of the evil in the world is a kind of violence. Sometimes it is literally violence. Other times it is psychological aggression. It works in two ways: action and reaction – I hurt you so you hurt me back, then I hurt you back and on it goes. Or more commonly, it circulates in a kind of roundabout karma. A hurts B who passes on the hurt to C who passes it to D then F and so on till it gets back to A. Then the karmic circle repeats over and over. “What goes around comes around,” we say. The circles of karmic violence enshroud the entire earth.

But what if there were a disruption? What if unspeakably unjust violence were inflicted on a deeply good man, who in his incomprehensible goodness, did not pass it on. What if from the Cross he prayed, “Father, forgive them.” The pattern would have a significant hole in it – so significant that a few years later, that good man’s disciple (Steven) would be dying as his persecutors pelted him with rocks and he too would raise his eyes to heaven and pray for his persecutors, and so it would go until Martin Luther King would absorb the violence perpetrated against him in love. Note: it is not just that the first man taught non-violence. He had to live it and die it to break the circle. That sets others free to do likewise.

But suppose the problem is not violence. Suppose it is as John Bradford, Brene Brown, and others have said: shame. There are things about us that we do not accept. We pass judgment on ourselves either directly as conscious shame or more pathologically as narcissism. What if a man who might have been so whole, so complete, so fully human and divine at once, that he could have easily lived shame free, chose – chose – to join us in disgrace, allowed himself to be condemned, mocked, stripped naked, tortured, and hung on a cross for hours of taunting. Suppose he did this to share our experience, to join us in it, and to accept us, to accept us all the way, to accept all the things about us that we cannot accept in ourselves.

Now here’s a slight variation on Justin. If the notion of bondage to evil or pacts with the devil sound too superstitious for you, might you allow that actions have consequences, that evil actions have evil consequences. There are as the social workers tell us “natural and logical consequences for our actions.” But when you add them all up, all the wrongs we do, the end result is the destruction of everyone and everything. The wrongs we commit – and I am one who commits them – are mind boggling and heart wrenching. God of course is above the reach of evil. We cannot hurt God, only each other and thereby ourselves. But what if God chose to save us? What if God chose to become vulnerable so as to absorb enough of the consequence of our sin to save us from destruction – not so completely that we could not still learn and grow from experience but enough to preserve our lives and our souls? That would be an atonement. This way of thinking is not precisely what St. Athanasius said in the 4th Century, but it seems to me to be in line with his thinking.

Or suppose it is about conforming human life to God’s will. Suppose that matters because God’s will for us leads to life and joy and blessing while our rebellion and arrogant self-will cut us off first from God, then from each other, and finally from our own true nature, which lies deeper than our will. Now imagine that this is not just an individual choice – being that such a notion was first invented in the 17th Century and has not held up to the insights of psychology since the 20th – no, not an individual choice to obey God or rebel against God, but rather a positon all humanity makes. Suppose, as St. Irenaeus of Lyons said in the 2nd Century, just as in business transactions, we have an agent to cast our lot on our behalf. Someone, literarily represented by Adam chose rebellion. So, the human race lives in rebellion against God for all of history – until – until – someone becomes so fully human, so perfectly human, that he attains the status of agent to make this decision for our species. And suppose that person, were in a Garden, where obedience would lead to torture, disgrace, and a miserable death, but disobedience could have led to quite a nice life on the Mediterranean, and suppose that man, that agent for all humanity, chose obedience. Thereafter, disobedience still happened. But the fundamental stance of humanity had changed. Jews, Christians, Muslims and other faiths would credibly insist that a good life is to be lived in obedience to God.

My point is not to sell you on any single way of understanding what it means that Christ died for you. It is to say it is a holy mystery about which any explanation can at best be partial. At different times in my life, I have been more at peace with one explanation only to find another spoke more clearly to my heart a few years later. My appeal is that we should look on the cross with sufficient humility to know that God’s sacrificial love is beyond our understanding. But there are many ways the Cross touches our lives for hope and healing. Even partial understandings can help, but finally it is not ours to comprehend but rather to say, “thank you.”

Friday, October 13, 2017


Instead of my giving a State of the Church address at Convention this year, we used that time for  table conversation. It was time well spent. But I promised to publish the text of what I would have said. This is it.

Friends, thank you for being here
         to form relationships that are the nerve system
                  of the Church,
         to learn how to invite the Sprit into your congregational life,
         and to do the official business of the Diocese.
I am grateful for your service and your good hearts.

I doubt I will give a Bishop’s address next year
         since you will be busy electing my successor.
So, this is my last chance
to really address the Diocese.

I am grateful for the time I have been privileged
         to serve you,
         grateful for friendships, for support, and for guidance.
I am grateful for the opportunity to travel
         around our diocese.
The one qualification I brought to this position
         was a readiness to appreciate the whole diocese
     not just part of it.
I hope my enjoyment of all of you
has helped you enjoy each other.

Being a Nevadan has been a pure blessing.
Being a bishop has been more mixed.
I never saw myself in this role.
I didn’t quit my job and move my family to New York,
         spend every dime I had, and cut my income by 50%
         because I wanted a career in church administration.
I wanted to teach the gospel, pray with people,
         offer spiritual guidance, and welcome newcomers
         into the family of faith.
Bishops don’t do much of that.
I have missed parish life.

I did not come to Nevada
         because I wanted to wear a purple shirt
and a pointy hat.
I came to Nevada because I wanted to live in Nevada
         and I thought I could be of some service.
I don’t know how much I’ve been able to do,
         but I have done what I could.
Some good things have happened.
It will be for you to measure.

I have several hopes and a couple of fears for your future.
I’ll name the fears first.
We used to waste a lot of time and energy
         on conflicts and divisions.
We don’t have the theological and social left vs right
         splits that some places do.
Instead we used to divide up regionally,
         large church vs small church, urban vs rural.
Or we would divide up parish vs diocese.

The social psychologist Wilfrid Bion
         said all groups have a mission,
         a reason to exist.
They also have a shadow mission
         which is to defeat the official mission
         through various stratagems and diversionary tactics.
Those endless wranglings were our way
         to avoid our true mission.

In the past decade, our diocese has healed
many old wounds.
People have formed Christian bonds
         across the old divides.
Choosing Standing Committee members in Mission Districts
         to assure geographical diversity has been part of that.
Keeping the administrative office in the South
         but designating a Cathedral in the North is part of that.
The Standing Committee has been bending over backward
         to avoid renewing old conflicts.
We – not I – we have all worked to knit the church back together.

But recently I have seen some resurgence
of old animosities.
They aren’t full force.
But the old stuff is stirring a bit.
Nevada is at the point of deciding
whether to venture forward into new mission
or regress into the old ways.

Second, I am concerned that you may blame
         the next bishop for hard decisions
         that just can’t be avoided.
Some ministries including Latino ministries
         are due for cuts.
Hard decisions will have to be made
         over properties that are unused or underused.
Nevadans blamed Bishop Katharine
         for funding cuts that Bishop Zabriske
         had already said privately would be unavoidable.
Let me say publicly, hard decisions lie ahead
         for your next Bishop.
If I were still here those hard choices
would still be necessary.

That said, there is also room for hope.
Institutionally and financially,
         we are on track to be considerably stronger
         in 3 to 5 years than at any time since I’ve been here.
Nothing is guaranteed,
But the sacrifices of recent years and today
         have planted the seeds for future growth.

Institutional success, however,
is neither sustainable nor meaningful
unless there is missional success.
Unless we are doing something important
 it doesn’t really matter.
I have every hope that we will be doing
dramatically more important work in the future
than we have done on my watch in three ways.

First, I am hopeful for Christian formation.
Without Christian formation, a congregation may be
         a mutual support society.
But it is not a Church.
St. Paul told us to study because all that had been written
         was “for our instruction . . .  encouragement and hope.”
Peter said we “long like newborn babes for the milk of the word.”
2nd Timothy says we must study to be equipped
“for every good work.”
We can’t do God’s work
         unless we are equipped by study.

Christian formation is still a relatively weak point for us.
But it is remarkably stronger than it was 10 years ago
-- not my doing.
You will not find my fingerprints on any of it.
But Christian formation has sprung up all over.
It is gaining momentum because more and more
         people want to know the Christian faith.
It’s a wild and wonderful gospel we have to share,
         much more interesting and true
         than the simplistic Pablum most people
         take to be Christianity.

Second, I hope Nevada will become a model of evangelism
sharing authentic compassionate faith
with people who need it desperately.
I am not worried about institutional survival.
The Church in Nevada is resilient as a sagebrush.
Evangelism isn’t for that.
It’s for the unchurched people languishing
 in our spiritual desert of loneliness and despair.
We have lots and lots of people out there
         who need Jesus desperately.
If we don’t connect them with Jesus,
         it won’t happen.

I care deeply about this but I regret that I am not very good at it.
Other bishops are much better at evangelism strategies
         than I am.
Some of our congregations are doing well anyway.
In the past decade only one Episcopal Diocese
         in the United States grew in attendance.
That was Nevada.
Our attendance grew by 18.4%.
In some places, that’s thanks to Latino ministries.
But we have English-speaking congregations growing too.

If I had been better at this, we would have done better.
I apologize for my weakness at this.
But still, we have momentum.
If just a few more of our parishes undertook evangelism,
         we’d be a beacon for the whole Episcopal Church.

I hope that will happen in coming years.
My hope grows out of Christian formation.
If we know what we have to offer the world,
         we are more likely to offer it.
 Christian formation is the catalyst
for the hard but perfectly simple shift
         that makes evangelism possible.

Here’s our barrier to evangelism.
Most of our churches readily say,
         “We need more people here.”
Some will specify the demographic kind of people
         they need.
It quickly becomes clear they “need more people”
         to pay the bills and do the work.

Our visitors get that right off.
I have heard it from one end of the diocese to the other.
Our visitors see that we want to use them for our own ends.
We don’t offer them anything.
We want them to take care of us.
Naturally they run away lickety split.

Until we become Spirit-filled churches,
         until we know the love of Jesus,
         until we float in the grace of God,
         we have nothing to offer people.
When our congregations embrace real faith,   
         evangelism will not just be possible,
         it will be inevitable --
inevitable because loving God
         and loving our neighbor are inseparable.
You can’t do one without the other.

You know this: our neighbors are hurting.
Our neighbors need Jesus in the worst way.
I won’t cite all the statistics
on alienation and despair again.
You’ve heard it from me often enough.
You know this.
Our neighbors need the gospel desperately.
If we truly have it, we cannot help but share it.

Third, I hope we might embrace a spirituality
of gratitude, generosity and trust in God’s grace.
That happens when we teach stewardship seriously.
Just a handful of our congregations
have taken up real stewardship practices
in the past few years.
I can see the difference in them.
It isn’t just that they have more money for mission.
They are happier, livelier, and growing.
It’s just a few parishes – but that could be a start.
If our congregations remain in relationship with each other,
stewardship might spread like a gracious virus.

The reason I hope you do this in coming years is not just
that it would allow the Diocese to reduce your asking
     though it would do that.
It is not just that it would fund the mission
so, our churches could be strong
and do more good in their communities,
         though that is also true.

The reason it matters is a spiritual thing.
Nevada ranks in the middle third of the nation
for per capita income.
But we are dead last in per capita charitable giving.
We live a fear-based, scarcity-caged life.
I love this state but it can be tight fisted and small hearted.
Teaching stewardship sets our people free
to trust God and enjoy his grace.
Without teaching stewardship
we are shortchanging our people on the gospel.

Whether these things – or anything worth doing --
actually comes to pass
will depend on two things:
First, the relationship among the parishes.
Just as disease can spread in the physical body,
health spreads in the spiritual body.
If one congregation is doing something spirit-filled
and gracious, it will spread to other congregations,
if those congregations are in relationship with each other.

Second, it takes self-awareness.
This is a Christian point.
But a Hindu legend makes it clear.
The story goes that humans were originally
         lower level gods,
         but we didn’t do a very good job of it.
So, the higher gods took away our divinity.

That left them with the problem of where to hide it.
So, the gods and their leader Brahma
         met to discuss the problem.
One proposed that they hide our divinity
         on top of a high mountain.
But Brahma said people would climb
         the highest mountain to reclaim their true nature.

Another suggested they bury our divinity
         deep in the earth.
But Brahma said people would dig
         as deep in the earth as necessary
                  to mine this spiritual treasure.
Another suggested they sink our divinity
         in the depths of the ocean.
But Brahma said people would trawl
         the deepest ocean to retrieve their destiny.

The council of gods threw up their hands and asked,
         Where then can we hide human divinity?
Brahma answered,
I know where we can hide
         humanity’s divine nature.
We will put it inside them.
They will never look there. 

Jesus said, The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.
Moses said, The word of God is very near you.
         It is in your mouth and in your heart.
The first adage of Classical Greece, was know thyself.
It was inscribed on the Temple of Delphi
         and Socrates said it over and over.

The Ancient Greeks learned it from the more Ancient Egyptians
         who’d been saying it for centuries.
All wisdom begins in self-knowledge.

What is true of individuals is also true of congregations.
Congregations cannot function without clarity
         about their identity, their core values, and their calling.
They have to know themselves and know their communities.

Without that self-awareness,
         they cannot know what they have to offer the world
         in evangelism.
Without that self-awareness,
         they cannot see a mission worthy
of funding through stewardship.

There are a variety of practices that can initiate
         and maintain self-awareness in a congregation.
One is community organizing house meetings.
Our congregations in Nevadans for the Common Good
         are doing a house meetings campaign
         starting this very month.
I don’t know what will come out of those meetings.
But that’s the point.
Whatever comes out of them will be something we don’t know yet.
It’s an exercise in self-discovery.

Canon Catherine has been facilitating
visioning and mission discernment processes
         for several of our congregations.
All Saints, St. Christopher’s, St. Matthew’s, St. Patrick’s,
         St. John’s, and St. Timothy’s have all gained new insight.
She can help you too.
That’s why she’s here.

Congregations have been doing SWEEP analysis for years.
There are different models and there are many people
         trained to facilitate those processes.
There are multiple opportunities from vestry retreats
         to congregational Advent or Lenten programs.

For Nevada, there is good news and bad news
         about self-awareness.
The bad news is that many of our congregations
         are unusually resistant to looking inward.
There appear to be conversations we don’t intend
         to get anywhere close to having.
As a result, while the self-awareness of most churches
         Is kind of fuzzy, ours is a bit fuzzier than most.
That’s why we have such a hard time
         with evangelism, stewardship, and new mission projects.
We don’t know what we have to offer
because we don’t know who we are
beneath superficial church chit chat.
We don’t know what we care about enough to pay for it.

But here’s the good news.
Resistance is a sign there’s a treasure buried in there.
Psychologists recognize resistance when it manifests
as shutting down, lashing out, denial, anger,
         distraction, or confusion.
We see that in congregations all the time.
When psychologists see resistance, they know the clients
         are up against the insight that will make them whole.
That’s the treasure that makes the metal detector start clicking
         as resistance.
The fact that we have so much resistance
         tells me we are sitting on top of some real spiritual treasure.
Paul said, we have this treasure in earthen vessels.
Our resistance shows there’s a treasure in there,
         just waiting for us to discover.

The key to mining that treasure
         is opening our hearts to one another
         to create a space where people dare
                  to open their hearts back.
We cannot brow beat congregations into self-awareness
         any more than we can browbeat individuals
                  into self-awareness.

The programs I have named already,
         if you do them right,
         are safe place programs, not browbeating programs.
But many of our congregations do not yet
         trust each other enough.
There’s probably reason for that.
People have gotten hurt in the past
         so, they’ve grown cautious around each other.
The challenge will be to establish and enforce
         congregational norms where little by little
         people can learn to trust each other again.

Christian faith is cruciform.
It has a vertical axis – we trust in God.
It also has a horizontal axis – we trust each other.
As we practice trusting God,
         we practice being trustworthy for each other,  
which takes a spiritual discipline of openness,
curiosity, compassion, and “respect for the dignity
of every human being.”
Only that trustworthiness, will open the relational space
         for horizontal faith – the foundation for all we do together.

My time with you has been a delight.
I have learned and grown and had fun.
I will always be grateful to Nevada for this special time of life.
I look forward to making another round of parish visits next year.
There will be a lot of loose ends left as I go,
         but I am confident you and your next Bishop
                  will deal with them faithfully to the glory of God.