Friday, October 23, 2015


If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, then what am I? If not now, when?
                                                               -- Rabbi Hillel

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

Back when Jesus was learning his religion, the ideas of two great teachers dominated the theological landscape. Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel were the founders of two rival schools of Jewish morality. Shammai was a strict legalist while Hillel offered a more openhearted spirituality. Jesus formed his teachings in the context of their dispute. By and large, Jesus was in the Hillel camp. His arguments in the gospels with “the Pharisees” look like arguments with the House of Shammai, and we see Jesus leaning toward the views of Hillel. Jesus probably even learned the Golden Rule from Hillel’s disciples before he made it the centerpiece of Christian ethics.

One of Hillel’s most famous sayings is:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, then what am I? If not now, when?

1.   The Individual

The text loses a lot in translation. “I” renders anochi, which means the core self, our deepest being, our very soul. It is the in-God’s-image center that we are apt to miss except in times of prayer and reflection.  “Myself” and “me” refer to the personality formed by all sorts of external factors such as heredity, cultural imprinting, social pressures, life experiences, etc.

Our soul (I) is always in God’s image. In the Christian terminology of Lady Julian of Norwich, our soul is forever one with Christ. This is perfectly in line with several schools of psychology, most particularly the psychosynthesis model of Roberto Assagioli. Assagioli says we each have a Personal Self (soul), which is inseparably one with the Cosmic Self of the universe (Christ).

Our personalities on the other hand are all over the place. They have strengths and virtues, but they are also flawed, broken, erratic, sometimes irritable, sometimes downright sinful. Hillel teaches that our soul is for our personality, even with all the personality’s foibles. Our soul mediates God’s unconditional love, for if it did not, it would have no reason to exist. That’s what a soul is for, what it was created to do.

But Hillel also reminds us that the soul’s loving appreciative support for the personality cannot be confined to the personality. If this love radiates at all, it radiates right out through our personalities to others. If our soul were not “for others,” it would not be a soul at all. Love is not an ego-project. It cannot be contained for our own use.

Authentic Christian – or Jewish obviously – spiritual practices are not just about getting in a zone or having an experience. They are about opening our selves to God’s love flowing through us into the world. “Lord make me a channel of your peace . . . “

2.   The Congregation

In my previous Epistle I wrote about a congregation’s temperament. I said:

By “temperament,” I mean a habitual mood, a pattern of acting, a spiritual default setting. Just as individuals have temperaments, so too do congregations. Congregations have lots of feelings running about in them and various people behave in various ways. But the group has a basic was of being. Individuals have a lot of feelings in any given day, sometimes several feelings at the same time. But the individual has a basic temperament. It is the same with a congregation.

This “temperament” of the congregation is equivalent to the personality (me, myself) of the individual in Hillel’s adage. Just as our individual personalities are formed by multiple external influences, so too is the temperament or personality of a congregation. This includes traumas, wounds, betrayals, fights won or lost, people who left or stayed. Even the new Church plant is born with scars because the founding members come bearing baggage from their previous church experiences.

So two questions arise: 1. How does the congregation as a whole find healing? 2. Is the church there to serve its members or to serve the world outside its walls?

These are two questions, but from Hillel, we get a single answer to both: it is God’s love mediated through the soul. We are called as individuals to love our quirky congregations and all their quirky members with God’s love, to see them through God’s eyes. We are called to live soulfully in our congregations. The beautiful effect of that practice is to bring to life and consciousness the soul of the congregation itself, the soul that is none other than Christ himself. Then we have a congregation that can truly change the world outside and in.

There are two ways of being Church that do not work so well for this spirituality. Unfortunately both are rather common.

First, there are inward looking congregations who essentially exist to have worship on Sunday morning, having superficial conversations with each other before and after. Such congregations get stale. For new people, it is hard to break into such a group. They come a few times, but then drift away. The inward looking Church is invariably declining. In some small towns where the Churches are inward looking, I will mention at my hotel or a restaurant that I am there to visit St. Swithens and the people will say, “Oh are they still open?”

Second, there are the outward looking congregations. Canon Catherine perfectly nailed the problem with the outward looking congregation in her presentation to this year’s convention.
Trying to fix people out there can be a way to avoid dealing with the sticky issues inside – in our selves individually and in our own congregational relationships. It is so much easier to deal for five minutes with the homeless person in need of a meal or even 15 minutes with a hospital patient than to actually work out our relationship with the problematic people we see week after week. “The more chaotic my personal life gets,” as Canon Catherine said, “the more I want to fix you,” The reason such Churches are not as effective as they might be is that people need more from the Body of Christ than social services. What they need most is a sense of belonging but if we are not in the process of healing ourselves – both individually and as a community – we have nothing helpful they can belong to.

So what’s the right approach for a congregation to take?

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, then what am I? If not now, when?

If we not for our congregation, who will be for it? If we are only for our congregation, then what are we? If not now, when?

Authentic Christian spirituality starts with Christ in our souls and our souls in Christ. It starts with setting our ego agendas aside long enough to find our true selves where they have always been hidden. In Christ our true selves, our souls, are never judging, jockeying for advantage, carping, criticizing, keeping score. Such shenanigans are utterly foreign to the soul. The soul is always caring, curious, compassionate, and patient. The soul looks like Jesus. We find ourselves when we fall in love with “him who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2: 20 I wrote about this from Turkey while studying the spiritual teachings of St. Paul.

In Christ, we have the grace and power to look at each other more generously, to see each other as Jesus sees us. We can look past the difficult personality traits to engage the other person, to see the wounds that need healing compassion or at least patience. This does not mean giving people their way. In the church we too often either react against bad behavior judgmentally or we enable it by giving way to tantrums and manipulations. Compassion and patience do neither. Compassion and patience stand still, responding with a kind sanity and a sane kindness.

That habit of seeing cannot be constrained by the walls of the Church. If we practice our spirituality of community relationships faithfully, it will follow as the night the day that we will serve the wider community outside our walls.

But there is another side to this process. A congregation cannot form properly just for each other. If a congregation is only for itself, what is it? It is not a Christian congregation anointed to proclaim good news to the poor and set the captive free. It is not an apostolic community going to all nations to baptize them in the name of the Trinity. Paradoxically we form sanctified friendships with each other while we work shoulder to shoulder for someone else.

So which comes first for a congregation, the inner work or the outer work? The answer is: yes. The great spiritual teacher Elizabeth O’Connell wrote about this process at as it was lived at The Church of the Savior, Washington, DC in Journey Inward, Journey Outward.

Quaker teacher Parker Palmer wrote of it in The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring.

Clergy, if you want to learn how to better equip your congregations to form and deepen their own relationships while organizing to serve others, the go to source is Nevada’s own Arthur Gafke in Strong Ministry: Strengthening Your Pastoral Leadership.

We simply have to do both at once. Some congregations fund little or nothing for outreach. Others give huge percentages of their budgets to outreach but grossly underfund the worship, formation, fellowship, and pastoral care that sustain a congregation and equip it to actually do hands on outreach. A congregation can only grow strong and healthy with a balanced diet.

3.   Conclusion

So the basic point from Rabbi Hillel’s famous saying is it has to be both/and. We find our way into Christ though a spiritual discipline of relationship with each other – and that “other” includes both those inside and outside the church walls. This is clear in the New Testament and the theology of the Early Church. It is well supported by what we are learning from modern physics (Margaret Weatley, Leadership and the New Science

Seeing and serving each other as Christ would serve us is the challenge and the opportunity the Christian life affords. That opportunity leads us to Hillel’s final question: If not now, when?

Sunday, October 11, 2015


Friends, as I am coming up now on 8 years here,
I find that I do love this place.
I love driving down from Reno into the Carson Valley
         all gold or green or yellow depending on the season
 with a haze hanging just above the earth
 in the mornings.
And there is the breath-taking view
         of the Washoe Valley seen from high up
         on the Comstock Highway coming down from Virginia City.
I also like the not so popular valleys,
         like the broad flat stretch that runs up from Vegas
         until you come to that little Joshua tree forest that says,
 “It’s almost time to turn the radio back on and set the dial
         to 89.1 Radio Goldfield, the Voice of the Old West.

But the best of all may be the Pahranagutt Valley with its marsh
         and lakes all golden on an autumn afternoon.

We can’t have valleys without mountains, so we’ve got a few.
Everybody loves the Sierra Nevadas, and that includes me.
But the truth is I have a special place in my heart
         for the Pequops and the Rubies.
I am moved almost to tears by their humility and their loneliness.

In September, 1861, Samuel Clemens
opined that Lake Tahoe “is the fairest picture
the whole world affords.”
That is true.
But the sparkling Truckee River runs down from Tahoe
         to a not so famous body of water.
And let me tell you this.
I have been to Jerusalem, the Sea of Galilee,
         Ephesus and the Isle of Patmos where John saw heaven.
But I have never anywhere on this earth
         been so gob struck awed, driven to my knees,
                  by the majestic holiness of God
                  as I have been at Pyramid Lake.

Our land is a work of art,
         but displaying art is all about the light.
It may be that the reason Nevada is beautiful
         is of the unique and lovely light
         radiating down from that pale blue dome above us.
In the whole world over I have never seen such light
as we have here.
It falls soft and silver in the morning, warm and bronze
in the evening.
It shifts -- changes angles with the seasons,
         so that the same desert is new each time I look upon it.

And when night falls, the moonrise over Wells
         speaks mystically, glowing a message
         that bypasses the rational mind and goes straight
to the heart.

Ambling about all this spaciousness,
         I have met a lot of people.
And I have come to love them too
--  not in a sentimental way.
-- not even in a particularly moral or spiritual way.
I just enjoy them, find them hugely entertaining,
         and keep alert to their always-surprising wisdom.

There are the dozier drivers and forklift operators
         from Round Mountain
-- the nuclear engineers at the test site,
         and the Vegas activists trying to shut the test site down.
I like the teachers, the cops, the black jack dealers,
         and the folks who work backstage at the Vegas shows.
I number among my friends servers at the casinos
         and casino executives on opposite sides
of the labor management divide.

It is impossible not to enjoy Nevadans.
They are as wild and crazy as the land.
But it is a slippery slope from enjoying them
         to caring about them.
Just as we rise up in protest if someone tries to destroy
         a beautiful place,
         it hurts when the people we enjoy
         are suffering, their lives constricted,
         cut off from one another, disempowered and in despair.

A little recreational gambling is just fine,
         but when I see someone, especially an older person,
         at a Dottie’s or a convenience store gaming machine,
         chain smoking, and glued to the screen at 7 in the morning,
                  I groan inside.
The look on their faces is blank or sad.
There is a deadness about them.

The Rev. Helen McPeak, used to worry
         about having to lead her boys past the gaming areas
in casinos to take them to a movie.
So she made a game out of it.
She had them count the number of happy faces they saw.
They didn’t see many.

I don’t care whether these folks gamble.
But I do care whether they are happy.
I see a lot of regret and emptiness.

87% of Nevadans are functionally unchurched.
They may be on membership rolls somewhere,
         but 87% rarely inhabit a pew.
Obviously, no one has to go to Church.
But maybe we need to ask this question:
how’s that working for them?
 Let’s just do a spiritual needs
assessment of our home state.
 How are our neighbors doing when it comes to hope and joy,
         serenity and courage?
Do they have a “sure and certain hope” that “all will be well”?

Nevada has the 4th highest suicide rate in the United States.
So many people retire here that
we have the 2nd fastest growing elder population
                  in the nation.
As they arrive without family or social supports,
         we have by far the highest elder suicide rate.
But it isn’t just our elderly who are in despair.
Suicide is the 2nd most common cause of death
for Nevadans 15 to 24 years of age.
Nationally, in the 2nd decade of major drops in church attendance,
         suicides among people 35 to 64 increased by 30%.
Whether our neighbors come to our churches isn’t just a matter
of our feeling successful or attractive.
For them it is a matter of life and death.

It isn’t just suicide.
We have almost twice as many people
         dying of drink as elsewhere in America.
Meanwhile we lead the nation in women killed
         by domestic violence.
Does that sound like a people who have soaked
         in the 23rd Psalm or the Lord’s Prayer or Romans Chapter 8:

“Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,
neither the present nor the future,
neither height nor depth,
nor anything in all creation can separate us from
the love of God that is in Christ Jesus Our Lord.”

Our neighbors are missing that.
Have we told them? Have we shown them?

Because -- God help me -- I do love this people,
         I want something better for them.
I want something better for you – for all of us.
What I want may not matter much.
But the Church teaches me that my capacity to love
         is there in my human nature but only in a limited way.

God’s capacity to love is infinitely greater than mine.
I cannot begin to conceive how much God loves us.
And when the beloved of God are suffering like this,
         Christ is on the Cross.

I know as sure as I’m standing here
         that God desperately longs to save us – all of us –
from addiction, grief, loneliness, and despair.
He wants to save us the only way we can be saved
-- by giving us himself in the person of Christ Jesus.
That would be “Jesus, the name that charms our fears,
         that bids our sorrows cease.”

Now you are almost certain to misunderstand what I just said.
I do mean absolutely that what will save our people is Jesus.
But I don’t just mean the historical Jesus in the Bible.
Necessary, but not enough.
And I don’t just mean Jesus in heaven
         with his sentimental picture on a prayer card.
Again, necessary but not enough.

I mean the living breathing body of Christ,
         the fellowship of faith that lifts up the fallen,
         forgives the guilty,  and tells the shamed
what they are truly worth.
They are worth the blood of Jesus, shed to pay their price.

When I say Jesus,
I mean the Church --  the bodily, fleshly, human Church,
-- the Body of Christ who lives and breathes today
                  to heal the broken hearts of the very same people
the historic Jesus died to save.
When I say Jesus, friends, I mean you.

You are God’s agents to bear the Christ light
         to each other and to those lonely despairing people
                  outside our walls.
We serve a lot of sandwiches in our soup kitchens,
         and that’s a good thing.
But what about people who are hungry for some healing
         of the heart and spirit?
I mean the lonely, the despairing, the divorced,
         the addicted, the old, and the young trying to grow up
                  in a world that has lost its way.

We can be Jesus to them -- but only if we look like Jesus.
And we don’t look like Jesus when we are divided,
         cranky, quarrelsome, nit picking, and trying to get our way.
Before we can do anybody any real good,
we have to become the kind of community
that someone would want to join
– not the kind of community                                 
that will compound their pain with our own bickering.

But here’s the good news.
We can look like Jesus.
Blessed John said,
         “We are God’s children now.
          It does not yet appear what we shall be.
          But when he appears we will be like him.”
The Christian life is a process of growing
         into the likeness of Christ.
Now that is a process -- a group process.

It starts with how we treat each other.
Jesus was rarely hard on people.
The only thing he confronted people about
         was being hard on each other.

He talked about the way we look at each other.
We can bless someone or curse them,
         just by the way we look at them – or don’t.
So Jesus taught us taught us how to look at each other.

Take the plank out of your eye before you mess
         with the speck in your brother’s.
It would be better to tear your eye out of your head
         than to look on another person with judgment
                  and criticism.
The only thing that Jesus judged was the act of judging.

Other than that, he was about forgiveness, reconciliation,
         and saying to his ragamuffin followers:

         “You are the light of the world.
          You are the salt of the earth.
          As the Father loves me, so I have loved you.”

Brothers and sisters, we can do this thing.
We can look like Jesus.
We can resolve, henceforth, from this day forward,
         to encourage one another
         the way Jesus encouraged his disciples.
We can look for the good in each other.

Sure we are all quirky and irritating sometimes.
We are Nevadans – “battle born.”
But God didn’t make anyone without something to admire.
We can intentionally, deliberately, as a spiritual discipline,
think of each other the way Paul taught us.
He said when we think about each other,
         “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right,
whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable
– think on these things.”
Instead of faultfinding, we can make a spiritual practice
         of virtue-finding.

Then we will be a community that can do
         what Isaiah says we are anointed to do
-- bind up the broken-hearted
         and comfort those who mourn.
When we speak to someone, what we say
         will sound like good news.

People keep saying to me,
“Bishop we don’t know what you want us to do.
Just tell us what you want us to do.”
Ok, this is it. Do this. Become that kind of community.

That’s the kind of community I’d want to join.
That’s the kind of community God wants us to be.
And wouldn’t that be beautiful.
Wouldn’t that be the kind of community
         our land deserves and our people need.

But brothers and sisters, don’t just wish for it.
Do it.
“It’s hard work. It’s intentional work.”
But it’s God’s work.
Go back to your parishes, get your leadership together,
and do what Canon Chuck
has taught us at this Convention.
Get your leadership to review your congregation’s sacred bundle.
Create two or three specific ways to be church
         for the wider community.
Jesus did not say build yourself a building,
         and do lovely rituals inside until the nations come to you.
He said “Go. Go to the nations.”

St. Catherine’s, Reno is our model for how to do that.
Ask them their story. They’ll tell you how they did it.
Make an intentional plan so that
when a visitor comes your way,
         you don’t try to sell them on your church.
Befriend them. Then adopt them.
Then make them insiders.
St. John’s, Glenbrook is our model for that.
Visit there and see how they do it,
         or call them up and ask them.

And do more.
Last year, St. Paul’s, Sparks decided to become
         an open community where people can belong
                  without having to fit in.
The results have been fantastic.
You can do it too.
Ask them how they did it. They’ll tell you.

Or form a Reconciliation Project group in your parish.
So the yeast-in-the-loaf group in your congregation
can help each other go deeper into the spiritual life.
Those groups are revitalizing congregations
         at least from California to Nebraska that I know of.
Your priests know how to do this.
I’ve been peppering them with ads for it for months.

Or send someone to an Art of Hosting conversation training.
-- you can Google it  or go to --                                                           and get them to lead your people  in the spiritual practice
of talking to each other in a new way.

Or send someone to Parker Palmer’s Circles of Support
         so they can come back and teach your congregation
         how to listen to each other with respectful open curiosity
                  instead of judgment and critique.

Or invite Canon Catherine to come to your congregation.
Give her a chance to help you become a safe place
where your members can let each other see the cracks
in their lives because the light of Christ
will stream through those very cracks.
Changing the way we do Church doesn’t just happen.
It takes work.
But it’s God’s work.
It will transform our souls and bind up the broken-hearted
         in our midst and outside our walls.
By the grace of God, we can be Jesus
         for a beautiful broken world
                  that needs Jesus desperately.
Glory to God whose power working in us

         can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.