Tuesday, February 25, 2014


                        What Is A “Diocese” & What Is It For?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I have been writing monthly letters to the Episcopalians in Nevada for some time now, but this is the first time I have sent it to each of you directly. I am writing to you in this way because many of our congregations do not have newsletters or any good way of sharing my messages with you.

But what is the point of the messages at all? It’s basically about getting to know each other. I don’t expect you to read every word I write. The delete button is a perfectly legitimate way to conserve your time and attention. But I want to send some thoughts your way in the hope that from time to time you will look at them, and that we might better find each other as fellow travelers on life’s way and work together for some part of God’s mission in Nevada.

In this first letter, I will tell you how I understand a diocese and what it has to do with your life.  I am a bit of a theology wonk. So bear with me. It has to do with God. The Trinity means that God is a unity in diversity and diversity in unity. God happens in relationship.

We are called to be godly, so we are called to have our own unique identities but to be in relationship with each other. In fact, we can’t truly become ourselves except through the push and tug of relationship with other people. God’s mission draws us together. “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God.” 1 Peter 2: 10. Individuals who were not previously connected establish human, personal ties while they all share in God’s mission.

Neurologically human beings are wired to be in relationship with each other. There is an exciting new field of research about that. Some of you might enjoy looking into it. Click HERE to view one web site on the subject.
Or to learn more, the best book about this is Daniel Goleman's Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. But it’s really just common sense. “People who need people are the luckiest people.” We learned that from Barbara Streisand. It’s true. It isn't easy, but it’s true. God designed us to find him and love him, not in abstract ideas, not in caves on mountaintops through esoteric exercises, but in each other, in the mix and muddle of daily life together.

God puts us together in natural ways. Families share DNA. Neighbors live side by side. People who have the same political opinions or interests form parties and fans of the same sports teams watch games in each other’s living rooms. All of that is good and natural, even godly. But in the Church, God brings together a wildly diverse assembly of people who might not naturally be friends. In Romans, Paul considers the relationship between Jews and Gentiles to be as unnatural as a wild olive branch growing on a cultivated olive tree. But he says God grafted Jew and Gentile together in the Church. Romans 11. Just so, God has called us together into a holy friendship - not always an easy friendship, not a natural friendship, but a godly friendship rooted in our faith in Christ.

So what is a diocese? It is a network of relationship among congregations, just as congregations are networks of relationships among individual Christians. The principal cords of the network are caring for each other, wishing each other well, even willingness to help each other to play our different parts in God’s mission.

A diocese is first and foremost a web of caring. It is only minimally an authority structure. It is an authority structure only insofar as necessary to hold some bond of unity, to preserve our identity as Episcopalians. But the Episcopal Church’s rulebook (the Canons and Rubrics) allows a great deal of diversity in the practices of congregations. I have very rarely had to tell a congregation it needed to make a change in order to be legitimately Episcopal. 20 times as often, I have been asked by people in congregations to tell them “my policy” on this, that, or the other thing, and have replied that it is their decision to make.

Authentic relationships cannot be coerced. The business of the diocese is to provide opportunities for parishes to cooperate, to do things together. Our Epiphany project with Luci Lanterns is a small but quite lovely example. We invite each congregation to take up a small collection, then we pool those gifts to buy solar lanterns we, as the Diocese of Nevada, can send to our sister, the Diocese of Makueni, Kenya, so that people in rural villages without electricity can have light at night.

It is also our mission to help each congregation know something about the wider church. We are part of The Episcopal Church, a denomination with a presence in all 50 states and - I bet this will surprise you - 15 other nations. Our largest diocese is Haiti, with an average Sunday attendance (in 2008) of 16.600 people. We have congregations in Central America, continental Europe, and in Asia.

The Episcopal Church, in turn, is part of the world wide Anglican Communion, made up of 38 “Provinces” - The Episcopal Church is one Province. In addition, we are “in full communion” with several other denominations including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Moravians, the Old Catholics, and the Philippine Independent Church. Full communion means among other things that our clergy are also their clergy and vice versa.

Our church is a rippling out of concentric circles of relationship. The farther from the center you get, the more different we are. Yet, we are all connected. We all care about each other. We all support each other in God’s mission.

In one of our congregations, some members are careful to give their gifts in ways to make sure “the diocese” doesn't get any of their money. But when another church down the highway needs to be painted, they get it painted. The money is a medium of caring, like the chemical base that contains medicine. What matters is the medicine. What matters is the caring.

Our relationships in the Diocese of Nevada have not always been smooth. We are after all “battle born.” We have hurt each other at times and no doubt will hurt each other again. We have scars. But by the grace of God we do care about each other. We do work together for God’s mission. We preach the gospel and administer the sacraments. We feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and visit the prisoners. We do it at vast distances from each other, separated by 154 mountain ranges, but bound together by the love of Christ.

Blessing Always,

Bishop Dan 

Monday, February 17, 2014


The author of Ecclesiasticus writes:
            “Before each person are life and death,
             And whichever one chooses will be given.”//
He is echoing the words the Lord spoke through Moses
            in Deuteronomy centuries before:
            “I have set before you life and death . . . . Choose life.”//

Every moment of every day,
             each of us is given the choice between
                        the way to life and the way to death.
We have a chance to speak to each other in a way
            that invites life-giving relationship
            or in a way to offend, to put someone on the defensive,
                        to wound and distance.
We have the choice to greet each new day as a fresh start
            or to spend our days rehashing all that went wrong in the past.
We have the choice to open our hearts or to close them.
It is our choice – ours alone.

But we are creatures of habit
            and our habits are shaped by the culture we live in.
If we live in a family, a neighborhood, a society
            that habitually chooses the way of death
                        in any of its many forms,
            then our first impulse is apt to be
                        the way of death.

The Bible is a rich guide to the ways of life and death.
Those ways are all about how we treat other people
            both in the big ways and the small ways.
In our Epistle lesson, Paul says the Corinthians are not ready
            for the solid spiritual food that could give them life.
Why? Look at it. “There is jealousy and quarrelling” among them.

Jesus says if we cling to anger against someone,
            we are liable to judgment;
            if we insult someone, we will be held accountable
                        by the community where we live;
            and if we call someone a fool, if we shame them,
                        if we demean them, we put ourselves in hell.
Strong talk, isn’t it?
But Jesus isn’t threatening us with punishment from God for being bad.
He’s just telling us how life works.
And he’s right.

There’s a new field of study called social neuroscience.
It clinically proves what we have always known.
Emotions are contagious.
In his book, Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman says,
            “Our brain’s very design makes it sociable,
            inexorably drawn into an intimate brain to brain linkup
``         whenever we engage with another person.
            That neural bridge lets us affect the brain
-- and so the body – of everyone we interact with
just as they do us.”

This isn’t just the preacher talking.
It’s a medical fact.
What we say to people, how we look at them,
            how we listen to them affects their total being
– body and mind, thought and feeling.
Sometimes that isn’t a kind thing.
Goleman says, ,
            “When someone dumps their toxic feelings on us
            -- explodes in anger or threats, shows disgust or contempt --
            they activate in us circuitry for those same distressing emotions.”

So what happens when we treat each other with disrespect
            or suspicion or hostility?
It tweaks cells in their brains called mirror neurons.
So the people we interact with
 feel about us the way we feel about them,
            think abut us what we think about them,
            and one way or another, sooner or later, they hit back.

Jesus said,
            “Do not judge if you don’t want to be judged.
            The same judgment you dish our will be the judgment
                        that gets laid on you.”
He’s not making that happen to punish us for being bad.
It’s just how it works.
People adopt the same attitude toward us that we adopt toward them.

The good news is that works for blessings as well as curses.
I can’t guarantee this will work every time.
But on the whole, when we are kind to people,
            they teat us better.
When we respect people, we get more respect back.
And you know what happens then?
Our brains produce more natural dopamine and we feel happy.
Our T-cells get stronger and stay healthy.
It’s the way of life.

The most important thing a church can do for its people
            is to be help them to form the habit of living
by being a culture of life.
But not all churches are cultures of life.
Far from it.
The great Catholic novelist, Walker Percy, asked,
            “If Christ came to give life, why do the churches smell of death?”
Churches choosing death is all too common.

I never cease to be amazed at how worked up we church people
can get over  small matters.
Churches can hang up over a single word in a contract with their priest.
I have seen a church lose a third of its membership in squabbles over bylaws
            that once they were passed would be ignored until the next time
                        they felt the need of a blood letting.
It’s a rule of thumb in church life that the less there is at stake
            the hotter the negative passions will burn.
“If Christ came to bring life, why do the Churches smell of death?”
Walker Percy asked.
Moses said, “I set before you life and death. Choose life.”

Does our squabbling matter? I say “yes, it matters.”
It matters because when churches choose the way of death,
            they instill in their members the way of death.
But churches can also instill life in their people.
You know what it’s like to be in a meeting, a party,
            a class or a social gathering.

If certain people walk into the room,
            the energy level goes up.
If other people, walk into a room,
            the energy level goes down.
The test of a church’s mission is what happens
            when its members walk into a room.
The living church recharges people with life energy
            that they share with everyone they meet.
They make the world a better place, a more godly place.

A church is a Christian training ground.
This is where we practice the arts and disciplines
 of smiling, listening, caring, and respecting one another.
We use the neural bridge to bless and not to curse.

There is an gracious exception to all this neuroscience.
By the grace of God we can overcome our mirror neurons.
If someone treats us badly, we can choose not to respond in kind.
We can surprise them by treating them well.
By the grace of God, we can be the game changers,
            like Jesus turning the other cheek
                        and forgiving from the cross.

But usually it isn’t that hard.
Usually we meet people on fairly level ground
            and can start the tone of the relationship on the right foot.
This is when we remember to “do unto others as we would have them

            do unto us” – because 9 times out of 10  they will.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


Some folks love the Church. Some folks hate it. As for me, I’m conflicted. Philos/ a-philos the Greeks called it. It’s like this:

Sometimes I see folks in Church who have been doing this thing for a long, long time. Yet, their hearts are small and often bitter. They say they want more people in the church – subtext: so long as they are white, English speaking, large contributors, do not have any bad habits or a questionable history, and do not bring any unruly children with them. Anyone who does not meet those criteria is shown the door. They fret over making sure the Church does not spend any of “their” money for anything they disapprove of. Not surprisingly they are afraid for the Church to do anything for the world outside their walls lest it run out of money. Faith is forgotten in the budget. Love is forgotten as hospitality and evangelism are shuffled to the rear. Years of Christian practice have left them miserable and mean-spirited. 

Disasters do not shake my faith in God, but some Church members do shake my faith in the Church. In the eastern states, we still have cultural Christianity. People attend church because it's expected. There I was not so surprised to find people in the pews who not only did not get it but also had no interest in it. However, here in the West, attending Church is countercultural. Our small-hearted congregants have chosen of their own libertarian free will to waste countless hours of their lives with us. I am simply mystified. And when young adults say they want no part of such a Church, I silently acknowledge that’s ok because such a Church wants no part of them either. It just wants to die in peace and in control.

But then there are the other folks – the ones who “give me hope, help me cope.” I’m not going to name this congregation or any of the people. But they will see themselves. One of our congregations was stuck in greater or lesser levels of acrimony in their ongoing conflicts for a long time – years, in a sense, decades. It culminated in one of the two bloodiest breakups of a congregation I’ve seen in my time here.

But the last time I visited them, the room had a different feel about it. Friendly but not intrusive greeters at the door handed newcomers a small tri-fold brochure. As newcomers left someone else introduced himself and invited them to fill out a contact card. (I imagined someone might actually follow up with them. It had that feeling.) During the offertory they collected food for poor people and at the announcements they announced a service project in the community.

At the potluck, I overheard a conversation between a new lady in her 60s and two women of the congregation. They invited the newcomer to tell her story. It was a colorful story with some real ups and downs. She was not afraid to tell them because they made her feel safe, accepted unconditionally and yet appreciated personally. She had recently had major orthopedic surgery. She said “I’ve been coming here these last few months. And every Sunday I see the same faces. I don’t  know many of them. But it feels good just to see them here. And when I couldn’t come (after my surgery) I missed being here.” And the two women from the congregation said, “When you weren’t here, we noticed it. And we missed you too.”

The vestry of one of our rural congregations with a decidedly conservative reputation in a decidedly conservative community recently voted unanimously to host a meeting of an LGBT support group. They said it was simple. “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.” Other congregations in town had turned the LGBT group down flat. That same congregation, which a few years ago was in the aging mode, some Sundays these days has the largest percentage of children in the congregation of any of our Nevada parishes.

I lead worship sometimes at our medium security prison. Later I see former inmates in the pews of our congregations on the outside being welcomed and included.

When a ministerial association voted to exclude the Mormons, our Episcopal clergy walked out in solidarity.

When Clergy & Laity United For Economic Justice protested unfair labor practices at one of our casinos, two of our priests were arrested as part of the civil disobedience.

We put out an appeal to buy 100 solar lanterns to send to Kenya to provide light in rural village households where there is no electricity. That project tis still under say but it looks as if we will be able to buy several hundred lanterns.

While one of our congregations was adopting a deficit budget trusting that if their mission was true God would provide, they expressed concern about other congregations that might need their help.

So often the Church actually works! So often the Church actually is “the hands of Christ, the feet of Christ, the eyes though which he looks compassion on the world!”

Back to the Church that had been bitter but became loving: how did they do that? I don’t know. If I did I’d sure like to bottle it. Some of the combatants left. But that had happened before and the conflict did not abate. Each side in years past had just replaced their lost, closed ranks, and fought on. I can say they did one thing different this time. They went through a Lenten study, using Canon Chuck McCray’s 4T Days curriculum, to discern their own identity and mission. They did not make up an identity and mission to suit any external expectations. They did not make up what I would have made up for them. They did not choose the ministry model I would have prescribed if I had been prescribing – I wasn’t. They figured it out for themselves and claimed it. It was a smaller, simpler vision. But it was from the heart. They are doing it from the heart to the glory of God.

What would it take to get people out of the small-hearted bitter mode to become open, caring, generous, and courageous? There are theological and philosophical answers that persuade me: things about God’s Kingdom and growing toward likeness with Christ. But I have a feeling that sort of talk won’t actually motivate much change. They’ve heard that all their lives an it isn’t getting through. Even the promise of heaven and threat of hell seem to have lost their persuasive punch. So what can I promise people if they will just open their hearts and truly live the Christian life in all its wild freedom and love? Dopamine.

Yes, dopamine – that feel good drug naturally occurring in the human brain. It’s the chemical word for happiness. It’s all quite naturally wired into our brains. You can read all about it in Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. We have the capacity to give each other a great deal more happiness in life than we would otherwise experience. Joy is contagious. If we give it to others, they will give it back to us – not every time on an individual basis – but on the whole living in healthy happy relationships not only ups the dopamine, it strengthens the T cells of the immune system. All this is theologically dubious. But at this point, I don’t really care about the theology. “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” Is it lawful to set people free with dubious theology.

It is simply true: We can make each other’s lives better, happier, healthier. “And the world will be a better place for you, for me.”

That is why I have recently committed to memory the blessing my Brother Bishop Brian Thom (Idaho) gives at the close of every Eucharist:

      Brothers and sisters, life is short.
      There is too little time to gladden the hearts
                     of our fellow travelers on the way.
     So be swift to love.
     Make haste to be kind.

So here I am definitely trusting in God, often not so sure of God’s people, but in the end realizing they are my people too. We are a mixed lot, but we are all each other have. Even the folks who challenge my faith need my care and understanding – yours too. If we cannot persuade them of the value of faith, hope, and love, even with the promise of dopamine and T cells, we can tweak their mirror neurons by living in Christ ourselves.