Monday, July 21, 2014


     Humanistic psychology aims to stir people into living out (“actualizing”) their full humanity, being fully themselves. You hear its echoes even in ads for the armed forces: “Be all that you can be.” I want to explore that “be.” This is our business as Christians because in the New Testament, “salvation” isn’t just -- or even primarily -- about pardon. It’s about becoming “whole” – being fully yourself, being “all that you can be.” When Jesus had his funny miscommunicating dialogue with Nicodemus, as they talked past each other, Jesus said you must “be born anathon.” That word could mean several things, but the only other time it is used in the New Testament, it clearly means from top to bottom, all the way. You must be born all the way. “Be all that you can be.”

     Humanistic psychology has its roots in existential psychology. Big names there: Rollo May and Erich Fromm. They hoped to stir people into living out their full humanity. They called that kind of living “being.” That’s because their thought is rooted in a slightly older set of writings, existential philosophy. Big names: Heidegger, Jaspers, Sartre, Camus – some of whom are comfortable with using the word “God” to describe the core of Reality; some, not. While you can’t tie down existentialism to a unified doctrine, existentialists are generally concerned with Being versus Nothingness. This takes us back to St. Thomas Aquinas who centuries earlier had described God as the Being of all beings – “the suchness of things,” Meister Eckhart called it.

     The term “human being” suggests that there is a distinctive way we humans are (be). When a person is authentically himself or herself, that person is living out of that human being quality, which is rooted in Being itself. Paul Tillich was the greatest 20th Century existential theologian arguing that God is “the Ground of Being” and we find our authentic lives when we are rooted in God. But he was not alone by a long shot. Even his greatest theological adversary, Karl Barth, held that God is Being and that the evils and failures of creation are the work of “das Nachtige (the nothingness).” Nothingness is the nature of inauthentic living because inauthentic living is futile. It is action that comes to nothing.

     Sometimes one can understand something better to consider its opposite. Being has two opposites – having and doing. Existential psychoanalyst Erich Fromm focused on the pathology of having instead of being. Fromm wrote in his book, To Have Or To Be that Western culture had gone off track, promising happiness through material possessions, but that the life of getting, spending, having, and clutching had failed to make us happy. It had drawn us away from authentic experience. As Wordsworth put over a century before, when this shift in culture was still new,

         “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.
          Little we see in nature that is ours.”

     It’s like Citizen Kane dying with the word “Rosebud,” the name of his boyhood sled, on his lips He had built an empire but died longing for the simple innocent humanity he had lost along the way. Fromm said our obsession with acquiring and retaining things had cut us off from our real selves, cut us off like Citizen Kane, from our humanity, reduced us to jumping through economic hoops. It does not make us happy because in the end it is futile. It leads to nothing. That’s why it is not “being.” And living that way is not the life of human beings.

      But Fromm said there is another way. It is possible to live deeply and happily
through participation in the whole dance of humanity. He called that experience “being” and said we develop the capacity for being -- the capacity for life -- through letting go of possessions in order to connect with each other.

         It isn’t that greed and stinginess are morally wrong. It isn’t that anxiety about having what we want or even need is neurotic or even unreasonable. It’s that our attachment to “having” and the things we “have” cuts us off from each other, from the dance of life, and even from our deep selves. In Thomas Dumm’s recent book, Loneliness As A Way Of Life, he devotes one chapter to an interpretation of The Death of a Salesman. He describes Willy Loman as lonely, alienated -- cut off from himself -- trapped in the ceaseless struggle to acquire, to succeed by amassing possessions, to have, have, have – because the alternative to having is to be had. We trust owning things to insure our well-being and our freedom.  We want to be people “of independent means.” Dumm’s point (and perhaps Arthur Miller’s) is that this is an empty life. Willy finally paid off his house, but the day he did he died, and the house was empty of himself. Our lives, our bodies, our hearts become empty. We have given ourselves away to nothing instead of Being, which is what Thomas Aquinas called God.

         All true, but Fromm’s and Dumm’s focus on the existential suffocation of attachment to material things is the tip of an iceberg. It is our culture’s most pronounced way of acting out a deeper problem, and more pervasive form of “having” instead of “being.” Gabriel Marcel was one of the major voices of Roman Catholic Nouveau Teologie, in the 1940s and 1950s. In his book, Being And Having, Marcel says the problem isn’t just material possessions. It’s how we relate to everything. It’s treating the world, even our own bodies and ideas,
as something we can watch, dominate, possess, manipulate.

         That’s what Gabriel Marcel means by “having.” We can have our families as well as having our homes. We can possess a reputation and use it as an asset to get more power or whatever other thing we want to have. So the vegan yoga-practicing purist in patched jeans can be just as caught up in having his spirituality as the investor is in having his mutual fund. “Having” is about control and credentials.

We acquire in order to invest our acquisition in order to acquire more. J. Paul Getty was, in his day, the richest man in the world. Near the end of Getty’s life, a journalist asked him how much more money he needed. “How much is enough?” the journalist asked, and Getty answered, “A little more. A little more.” He would live and die in pursuit of “a little more” – always investing rather than enjoying. Willy Loman is Willy Loman no matter how large or small the numbers that measure his assets may be, and no matter whether the assets are wealth, power, fame, popularity, or any abstract value.

     The problem with “having,” according to Marcel, is that we stand back one step removed from everything, using it instead of celebrating it. The opposite of “having” is what Fromm and Marcel call “being.” It’s the real life that comes from participation, from joining the dance. It happens when we give ourselves away to something or someone larger. Marcel of course understood being as derived from Being. It’s a God thing.

         Now let me clarify the significance of the issue of having possessions in light of the larger issue of having as a way of relating to life in general. In our culture, as Fromm rightly says, having possessions is the culturally prescribed way of seeking well-being. That makes having possessions the key. How we relate to possessions shapes, for good or for ill, how we relate to each other, to our environment and experiences, even how we relate to ourselves. So placing Fromm’s issue in the context of Marcel’s larger issue does not downgrade the significance of the problem Fromm identifies or the magnitude of the opportunity for genuine joy that Fromm offers us. Quite the opposite, Marcel magnifies Fromm.

         What Fromm says about possessions and happiness is obvious to anyone. But recently there has been a whole movement called happynomics to study the relationship between wealth and happiness. Again the results are no-brainers. If people are in truly dire straits, homeless, without the basic necessities for survival, they tend to be unhappy. If they acquire the basics for security, they are considerably happier. But after that, added possessions do not produce added happiness, sometimes the opposite. We all see this. We know it. What interests me is the reactivity of some economists. It is as if happynomics was a frontal assault on their prime article of faith – human beings pursue happiness through financial self-interest. Adam Smith said it. Karl Marx believed it. So it must be true. We do in fact live by that truth, but that’s the problem – it isn’t working. Fromm and Marcel invite us to step off the economic hamster wheel to stroll through real life meeting real people in a real way – being. Someone else said that awhile back – he even did it -- Jesus.

         The fundamental issue here is relating to reality instead of exploiting it. In fact reality is highly resistant to exploitation, which is why our attempts to exploit it do not ultimately succeed. What’s more, the elements of reality that can be extracted through exploitation do not satisfy. It is as if we are missing a particular nutrient so we keep eating more and more food to satisfy that need but the food we eat does not contain the nutrient we crave. The addiction, compulsion, violence, anxiety, and despair we see around us and all to often experience ourselves arise from this basic error in how we live.

         The other opposite to “being” is “doing.” But just as “having” is a bit tricky because it is a way of relating rather than the simple act of possessing something, “doing” is tricky too and is often misunderstood. It is something subtler than activity.

         The idea that “doing” is problematic goes back at least to 19th Century German sociologist Max Weber’s critique of Protestantism and Capitalism as objectifying people, making them into tools of production instead of unique persons valuable in their own right. But the real deconstruction of “doing” came from Joseph Pieper, a German Catholic philosopher who, alongside Hannah Arendt, provided the definitive cultural explanation for what went wrong in Germany leading to the Nazi madness. His book was Leisure: The Basis Of Culture. Pieper argued that utilitarianism had reduced people to cogs in a machine, dehumanized them, made them means to an end in contravention of Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant’s fundamental principle: never treat a rational agent (a person) as a means to an end but always as an end unto himself or herself. Utilitarianism made us means of production. In the utilitarian model, a person who is not a good means to an end is worthless. That leads to horrific treatment of some people and anxiety for us all.

         “Utilitarianism” here is not precisely the same thing that was meant by English Utilitarian thinkers like John Stuart Mill who wanted to measure ethics by the mathematical standard of the greatest good for the greatest number. It is more broadly the idea that value lies in utility. People are valuable for what they do for the larger project – the state, the market, the church, whoever is doing the evaluating. So people set out to validate themselves, to earn their right to occupy space on this earth, by doing something worthwhile.

         I was once accosted by a homeless crazy man on a New York City street. He learned I was a seminarian and demanded that I justify my right to be part of society when I didn’t actually produce anything. At the end of the day I had manufactured no widgets to be used in some product. Feeling sheepish about my own worthlessness, I admitted I had doubts about whether I was any good to anyone. But it turned out he was testing me and I had failed big time.  He called me a fascist and said it was people like me who put people like him in the gas ovens in Germany. Pretty devastating – because I knew he was right.  I had succumbed to the prevailing utilitarianism of our culture, which dehumanizes us all, puts us through our paces for the good of the machine, and is ready to isolate if it cannot eliminate the non-producers. Think Ayn Rand and her scary disciples.

         Problematic “doing” is the project of using activity to validate ourselves. Henry Nouwen famously said that in our frenetic activism we are at risk of devolving into “human doings” instead of “human beings.” We feel that we must do something to earn our right to be here. Insecurity about our own worth drives us to constant striving and the striving has a tone of desperation about it.

         But I believe Nouwen is sometimes misread as equating inaction with spiritual virtue and action as a fall from grace. I don’t think that is what he was saying. His point about the problem with frenetic striving is balanced by Parker Palmer’s book, The Active Life: A Spirituality Of Work. Creativity, and Caring. “Being” is engaged with reality. It participates. An isolated quietude is as cut off from reality as a mindless busy-ness. The problem of “doing” is not activity per se, but the drivenness of self-validation.

         Being is a mix of action and inaction. It is living and moving, breathing and praying, watching and waiting. Being is not simple. It is rich, complex, and varied. Being is still and knows that God is God. Being goes on journeys and adventures. It does all these things and more, does them gracefully and graciously because it is buoyed by grace. Being is of God, the God “in whom we live and move and have our being.” Acts 17:28.

         Can we then say something simple and direct about how to practice the art of being? This is by no means a comprehensive prescription. It is just a few pointers for how to start:

1.    Hold all possessions as steward, treating what you have as something you look forward to giving away, giving to other people, giving back to God – which is the same thing – possessions as opportunities for giving, not clutching.
2.    Act in service and friendship – doing something because it is kind or generous, not because it floats your boat or because you will get credit for it.
3.    Pray. Pray in a way that entrusts your own well-being and the well-being of others to God. Be still and notice that reality is miraculously present investing your hope in the source of reality.

        When we give things away, it set us free from the bonds of having. When we genuinely serve others it sets us free from the drivenness of doing for our own validation. When we pray, we sink into the grace of being as we remember and acknowledge the ground on which we stand, what Karl Rahner called “the whence and the whither” of everything.

Saturday, July 12, 2014


     Those who see stewardship as just a way to fund the church’s mission might do well to skip this post. It assumes stewardship is a life-changing interaction with God, a discovery of gratitude, a triumph of faith over fear, a step away from having into being. Those who don’t get that stewardship is a spiritual thing that benefits the giver more than the church might do better to read this instead: But the reason they may not already get that “stewardship is a spiritual thing” (Bishop Robert Wright, Diocese of Atlanta) is probably not their fault. It is in no small part because our church hasn’t conveyed the message through its language of ritual. Most of the churches I know say some really confusing stuff about stewardship via their ritual, and only a few actually send a strong, coherent message.

     I was recently blessed to attend The Episcopal Network for Stewardship 2014 Conference. There were a lot of great workshops led by big name presenters. But for my money the most helpful workshop was given by J. R. Lander, a well-respected stewardship teacher, formerly from the Diocese of Olympia, now serving in the Diocese of Los Angeles, but I strongly suspect him of being a Texan. J. R.’s workshop was on Teaching Stewardship in the Liturgy. My goal here is to simply recap what J. R. said, or more accurately, what I heard. Anything true and helpful here is from J. R. Lander. Anything wrong is my misunderstanding.

Prayers Of The People

     Write your own. The BCP provides a checklist of what we have to cover and provides some canned sets to use. But for the prayers of the people to really be “of the people,” get the people to write them.

     Pray specifically for the current needs of your local community. Connect the life of the church to the life of the local community. Stewardship is about relationship, not abstraction. Root the life of the church in the human context.

     Pray for your community partners – other churches, synagogues, mosques, and non-profit service and advocacy agencies. Stewardship is connection. So is prayer. If your congregation does not have any partners in service to the community, get some.

     Seed the thanksgivings. You know the murmur of hopes and wishes that waft up when we invite petitions and intercessions. Then we invite thanksgivings and there is a dead silence. It’s like a taboo against gratitude. Give a few folks in the congregation the job of being the first ones to say something grateful. If they can’t think of anything to be personally grateful for, tell them something the church is grateful for. Stewardship happens when we start with the attitude of gratitude. Take affirmative action to help the liturgy say “thank you.”


     The offering of alms, bread, and wine – together, with the people standing, as the rubric prescribes but hardly anyone does – has been a critical moment in the liturgy since the days of St. irenaeus of Lyons in the 2nd Century (this history wonk digression is me, not J. R.). To combat the gnostic idea of spirituality as something for the few, Irenaeus had the alms, bread, and wine processed from the back of the nave through the congregation to the altar to show that it is our ordinary lives and labors we give to God to be sanctified. The ritual presentation of our lives and labors is essential to our worship. Without this element of the liturgy – this element is eliminated when the bread and wine are already in the sanctuary, and it is obscured when the bread and wine are unceremonially brought up to the altar while the people remain seated, then all leap to their feet for no apparent reason for the presentation of the money – without this element properly done the rest of what happens in the Eucharist does not make sense. I actually participated in a Eucharist yesterday in which the alms basins were being passed during the last third of the Eucharistic prayer and then taken God knows where – not the altar. What does that mean? Is it any wonder most people don’t get the spirituality of a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving”?

     The common reason people defy the rubric is to avoid an awkward silence while setting the table after the gifts are bought to the altar. But that is why we have Presentation Hymns. “The Doxology” is for the presentation of alms at Morning Prayer when there is no table setting to be done. For the Eucharist, we need a full Presentation Hymn. If the people are attached to “The Doxology,” don’t worry. It’s the last verse of a real hymn that makes a great Presentation Hymn, though there are countless other gems that usually don’t make it into our worship if we don’t have a Presentation Hymn, for example Adore Devote (“Humbly I adore thee Verity Unseen”). That’s my historical and liturgical background to J. R.s point: If there is a Eucharist, there is an offering. You can’t have a Eucharist without an offering.

     One more Dan insertion: in a service with music, the offering of alms is collected while the musicians (choir, ensemble, soloist, or instrumentalist) make an offering of music. Three points here: 1. The people are not standing and singing a hymn during the collection. For one thing, that makes it very challenging to transfer anything from pocket to plate while holding a hymnal and passing the alms basin. 2. The offering of money and music is all one movement. The music, like the money, is an offering to God, not a performance to applaud. 3. The people sit for the collection so that when they stand for the offering it signifies something. Now back to J. R.:

     The alms, bread, and wine should be processed up the aisle together, while the people stand. Then they should all be elevated together at the altar. Leave the alms on the altar through the consecration. The traditional prayer of oblation (though not a favorite of contemporary liturgists) makes the point that is the core of stewardship: “All things come of thee or Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” It is a good thing to say while elevating the gifts. It is appropriate for the deacon to receive the gifts, but the priest should participate in the elevation and saying the prayer of oblation. It’s central to the priestly role in liturgy. A brief elevation by the deacon obscures the point.

     Before the procession of the gifts, there is the offertory sentence, the invitation to offer gifts. The stock sentences in the BCP are just options. By and large they don’t say anything to anyone. They have become rather blah, blah. So it is better to choose a Scripture that really says something. Following the example of Timothy Dombeck, I use: Jesus said, do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth where the moth corrupts and the thief breaks in to steal. Rather store up for yourselves treasure in heaven where the moth does not corrupt and the thief does not break in to steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

     If a church wants people under 35 to contribute, that church must – not should, must -- provide a way to give electronically. It is that simple. No electronic option, no gift. The church and the young adult are both the poorer for it. But swiping a card is not a ritual act – at least not a very good one. It is important to provide cards to the electronic givers, which they put symbolically in the offering plate to be presented at the altar.

     The vested clergy put money in the plate. Bishop Greg Rickel (Diocese of Olympia – our best stewardship bishop) insists that he be the first one to put money in the plate to set an example. It is axiomatic that the clergy should pledge. If they are poor, then the pledge may be a token. But the clergy must pledge. Some clergy may have the idea that they have done their part by giving time. But clergy are leaders. It is crucial that by their example, they lead into truth, not error. I say this in all gentleness for those who have not yet learned this vital part of what it means to be ordained. A priest or deacon who serves a church but does not pledge is doing more harm than good.

     The clergy do two things for stewardship: they pledge and they reach under their albs and put money in the plate. Absent that symbolic gesture, it looks as if the offering is being presented to the clergy as a kind of quid pro quo for the sacrament. Obviously, that is not true, especially when clergy are non-stipendiary. But the symbolism of the offering is twisted when the clergy do not make a visible offering. If the clergy are not visibly making an offering, how can they credibly preach about the spirituality of gratitude and generosity? Recently I celebrated the Eucharist at a small 8 o’clock service in one of our congregations, just a dozen people. But it was the first time in all my years of ordained ministry that the usher has ever processed an empty alms basin up to the altar. Never saw that one. That would have been a ritual blasphemy. But it was so easily fixed. I reached in my pocket, put some money in the plate, blessed it, offered it, and the service went on.

Weddings & Funerals

     Back to the point: if there is a Eucharist, there is an offering. No offering, no Eucharist. Does it feel funny to have an offering at a wedding or a funeral? J. R. suggests: in a wedding, let the couple designate the charitable cause to which the offering will go; in a funeral, let the family designate the offering to a charitable cause the deceased cared about. In both cases, announce where the offering is going and why. An offering is not a distraction from a wedding or a funeral. It shifts the meaning of those pastoral offices in a way that is edifying for all.

Seasonal Gifts

     It is a helpful stewardship practice to take up special seasonal offerings for special purposes. An example would be collecting school supplies for poor children at the start of the school year. Another example comes from Nevada. Last Epiphany (the season of light) we collected money from throughout the diocese to buy solar lanterns for rural villages in our companion diocese in Kenya.

     J. R.’s point: do something with those offerings liturgically. Bless them, celebrate them, pray for the people who will receive the benefit of the offering. Find a ritual way to bring the whole congregation into the gift, whether they have contributed or not. Put their prayerful fingerprints on the gift. Whatever a congregation does, it does it as a whole, not as individuals. So make the gift a congregational event in the liturgy (the work of the people).


     This post is about how – not why. But just a word on that larger subject: spiritual consumers are doomed to frustration. They live in what Buddhists call “the Hungry Ghost realm” – symbolized by a Caspar shaped ghost with a huge belly and a tiny mouth, so he can never get enough. As long as we come to church to “get something out of it,” as long as we are looking for what God can do for us to support our own life agendas, we will be frustrated, anxious, and disconnected. Transformation happens when we learn the joy of giving ourselves away. The Eucharist is a ritual intended to demonstrate that central point. Yet, we often obscure the meaning of our ritual and thereby distort the gospel we proclaim. I am enormously grateful to J. R. Lander and to The Episcopal Network For Stewardship for helping us speak out plain and honest about surrendering and God and trusting his grace for our well-being.