Monday, January 31, 2011

The Monday Funnies


God would like to thank you for your belief and patronage. In order to
better serve your needs, He asks that you take a few moments to answer the following questions. Please keep in mind that your responses will be kept
completely confidential, and that you need not disclose your name or
address unless you prefer a direct response to comments or suggestions.

1. How did you find out about God?
___ Newspaper
___ Bible
___ Torah
___ Book of Mormon
___ Koran
___ Other Book
___ Television
___ Divine Inspiration
___ Word of mouth
___ Dead Sea scrolls
___ Near Death Experience
___ Near-life experience
___ National Public Radio
___ Tabloid
___ Burning Shrubbery
___ Who?
___ Other (specify): _____________

2. Which model God did you acquire?
___ Yahweh
___ Jehovah
___ Allah
___ Just plain God
___ Krishna
___ Father, Son & Holy Ghost (Trinity Pak)
___ Zeus and entourage (Olympus Pak)
___ Odin and entourage (Valhalla Pak)
___ Gaia/Mother Earth/Mother Nature
___ None of the above; I was taken in by a false god

3. Did your God come to you undamaged, with all parts in good working order
and with no obvious breakage or missing attributes?
__ Yes __ No

If not, please describe the problems you initially encountered here.
Please indicate all that apply:

___ Not eternal
___ Not omniscient
___ Not omnipotent
___ Finite in space/Does not occupy or inhabit the entire universe
___ Permits sex outside of marriage
___ Prohibits sex outside of marriage
___ Makes mistakes (Geraldo Rivera, Jesse Helms)
___ When beseeched, doesn't stay beseeched
___ Requires burnt offerings
___ Requires virgin sacrifices
___ Plays dice with the universe

4. What factors were relevant in your decision to acquire a God? Please
check all that apply.
___ Indoctrinated by parents
___ Needed a reason to live
___ Indoctrinated by society
___ Needed target for rage
___ Imaginary friend grew up
___ Hate to think for self
___ Wanted to meet girls/boys
___ Fear of death
___ Needed a day away from work
___ Enjoy organ music
___ Needed focus on whom to despise
___ Needed to feel morally superior
___ Graduated from the tooth fairy
___ My shrubbery caught fire and told me to do it

5. Are you currently using any other source of inspiration in addition to
God? Please check all that apply.
__ Self-help books
__ Tarot, Astrology
__ Star Trek re-runs
__ Fortune cookies
__ Ann Landers
__ Psychic Friends Network
__ Dianetics
__ Playboy and/or Playgirl
__ Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll
__ Biorhythms
__ EST
__ Television
__ Mantras
__ Jimmy Swaggart
__ Crystals (not including Crystal Gayle)
__ Human Sacrifice
__ Wandering around in desert
__ Burning shrubbery

__ Other:_____________________

6. Have you ever worshiped a false God before? Is so, which false God were
you fooled by? Please check all that apply.
___ Odin
___ Cthulhu
___ Lottery
___ Baal
___ Beelzebub
___ The Almighty Dollar
___ The Sunday New York Times
___ Mick Jagger
___ Bill Gates
___ The Great Pumpkin
___ Bill Clinton
___ A burning cabbage
___ mushrooms
___ Other: ________________

7. God employs a limited degree of Divine Intervention to preserve the
balanced level of felt presence and blind faith. Which would you prefer ...
(circle one)?
a. More Divine Intervention
b. Less Divine Intervention
c. Current level of Divine Intervention is just right
d. Don't know - what's Divine Intervention?

8. God also attempts to maintain a balanced level of disasters and
Please rate on a scale of 1 to 5 God's handling of the following:
(1 unsatisfactory, 5 excellent):


1 2 3 4 5 flood
1 2 3 4 5 famine
1 2 3 4 5 earthquake
1 2 3 4 5 war
1 2 3 4 5 pestilence
1 2 3 4 5 plague
1 2 3 4 5 AOL
1 2 3 4 5 Congress
1 2 3 4 5 Jerry Lewis
1 2 3 4 5 my last relationship


1 2 3 4 5 rescues
1 2 3 4 5 spontaneous remissions
1 2 3 4 5 crying statues
1 2 3 4 5 water changing to wine
1 2 3 4 5 walking on water
1 2 3 4 5 stars hovering over towns
1 2 3 4 5 VCRs that set their own clocks
1 2 3 4 5 my present relationship

9. Please rate the following on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 unsatisfactory, 5

1 2 3 4 5 God's Courtesy
1 2 3 4 5 answers to your prayers
1 2 3 4 5 Are your spiritual needs being met?
1 2 3 4 5 How are your shrubs doing?

10. Do you have any additional comments or suggestions for improving the
quality of God's services? (Attach an additional sheet(s) if necessary.)

Thanks to bud Patrick Hill for the above; blame it on him.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Who is in and who is out? Peter and Paul and their arguments

The question ripples across the pages and down through the ages:

Who is in, and who is out?

The passages in this week's Daily Office biblical readings ring with an ancient argument between Peter and Paul that may have something to do with that question.

We sometimes lump Peter and Paul, the two giants of early Christianity, together as superhero supersaints. Some ancient icons even show them embracing (see below).

But their differences were many, their distrust of each other was deep, and their disagreement as relevant today as it was in the first century. In reading the biblical texts closely, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Peter and Paul didn't much like each other, and they worked hard at keeping their distance.

We get an echo of their differences in this past week's readings. The other day, we heard Isaiah 49:1-12 with the prophet proclaiming that Israel comes as a light to all nations, not just a small band of monotheistic tribesmen. In Paul's Letter to the Galatians 2:11-21 he proclaims that Isaiah's proclamation has come to life in Christ, and then lays out his grievance with Peter:
But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction [Jewish Christians]. . . But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’
We don't get to hear Peter's reply, and that is too bad. But we might get an indirect hint. The next passage in the Daily Office readings is the gruesome story in Mark 6:13-29 of how John the Baptist was beheaded because Herod made a promise to a young woman who had beguiled him at a party. Herod tells her he'd give her "whatever you wish, and I will give it." She demanded the head of John the Baptist on a platter, and got it. Life was cheap, and heads could be chopped on nothing more than a party bet amongst the powerful.

I tend to think that story is Peter's reply to Paul. Maybe their conversation went something like this:

Paul, filled with the spirit of Isaiah, says to Peter: "Don't you get it Peter? We Christians are the light to all the nations just as Isaiah proclaimed! Jesus came to set all of us free from traditional religion, from the curse of strict legalisms. You need to drop all of your pointless food rules and sit down to dinner with all of these new people who Christ includes in God's kingdom. You need to show them that they are included."

And Peter, knowing how precarious this new religion is, replies: "Don't you get it Paul? We will lose our heads over this. Many already have. We've got to show respect for the old ways if we are to have any chance of reaching people where they are in this violent world where power dominates and we can be snuffed out at any moment. Be careful Paul, none of this is simple. And, Paul, G-d found people in the old ways; don't be so quick to dismiss them. G-d still dwells with them and they hear him speak in the old ways."

Paul might have replied as he did in today reading from Galatians 3:23-29:
"There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise."
And Peter might have countered by quoting today's passage from Isaiah 51:1-8:
"Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many."
Both Paul and Peter right. And both would lose their heads anyway.

Yet it is all too easy to lose sight of Peter and Paul in the fog of time and the caricatures we create of them. We wrongfully project too much of our own controversies onto them. Truthfully, mostly what we get is Paul's view of Peter and very little of Peter speaking for himself.

Their argument was considerably more nuanced than at first glance, and we do well to appreciate the nuances. Peter and Paul -- and Jesus -- were Jewish, and this was an argument among people who felt their Judaism deeply. None renounced being Jewish, all saw in Torah -- the Law -- the written manifestation of God's promise of redemption to humanity. All were looking for how to bring that message among people who were hurting and disconsolate.

In a way, we hear Peter and Paul talking past each other, as we do ourselves sometimes. The two lived in a tension of opposite poles. We live in that tension too, every Sunday in our Episcopal liturgy as we celebrate both the coming of the new and the steadiness of the old traditions.

Peter was willing to include non-Jews in the promises Torah -- a radical position for him to take, all things considered. And Paul held strictly to the Jewish ways, including submitting to purification rituals, even as he argued that these ways were not in of themselves the way to God's salvation. Paul's letters, including the rest of Galatians, are his explanations for how that happens.

And, most crucially, while Paul vigorously argued with Peter (and others), he always sought unity with them in the "Body of Christ." Paul never sought separation; indeed, his argument with Peter was about strengthening bonds, not loosening them. Parting ways was not an option for Paul even among people who don't much like each other.

And the letters of Peter, in so far as we know that they came from Peter, are soaring testaments to how Christ goes beyond the grave and into Hell itself to bring all people to himself. Peter moved well beyond this world and into the next as he sought ways to include all of humanity in the promises of Christ, even those people who had lived before Christ. In a way, Peter's sense of inclusion was bigger than Paul's, and so we might forgive Peter if he was a bit bewildered by Paul's accusations.

In the end, both Peter and Paul are including everyone in the promise of salvation, and on that we can rest our hope.

Icons thanks to Padre Mickey's wonderful blog.

+ + +

I am away at our annual Vestry retreat. We are building the retreat around Paul's Letter to the Ephesians 4:1-16. Please keep us and St. Paul's in your prayers.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Lighthouses: Let There Be Light

"In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Luke 1:78-80

The title of this blog, Fiat Lux ("Let there be light") seems particularly apt in Epiphany, the season of light. And while you can't see it very well, the motif of the blog includes a lighthouse in the upper left corner.

Lighthouses have a storied history. They've guided mariners for centuries, only recently replaced by high-tech radars and GPS systems. Many lighthouses are still functioning, each unique monuments to the men and women they've guided to safety.

My friend Brian Baer, a former photographer with The Sacramento Bee, now works for the California State Parks Department, and he's been documenting the lighthouses along the Pacific coastline of California. His photographs are stunning, and I share a few with you today from the Pigeon Point Lighthouse which is about 50 miles south of San Francisco. Brian wrote this:
The 115-foot Pigeon Point Lighthouse, one of the tallest lighthouses in America, has been guiding mariners since 1872 but is closed to the public public but the grounds remain open. In December 2001, a section of the cornice on the exterior of the lighthouse fell off. It is estimated that it will take $12 million to refurbish the lighthouse.
Photos by Brian Baer.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

An excursion to the back porch

We are overdue for a poem, and I've had this one rattling around in the cue for so long I forgotten who sent it to me (my apologies).

Maybe I like this poem because it is too cold to go on our back porch. A poetic excursion to the porch will have to do until the world tilts and the warmth returns. Blessings on your day . . .

On the Back Porch
by Dorianne Laux

The cat calls for her dinner.
On the porch I bend and pour
brown soy stars into her bowl,
stroke her dark fur.
It's not quite night.
Pinpricks of light in the eastern sky.
Above my neighbor's roof, a transparent
moon, a pink rag of cloud.
Inside my house are those who love me.
My daughter dusts biscuit dough.
And there's a man who will lift my hair
in his hands, brush it
until it throws sparks.
Everything is just as I've left it.
Dinner simmers on the stove.
Glass bowls wait to be filled
with gold broth. Sprigs of parsley
on the cutting board.
I want to smell this rich soup, the air
around me going dark, as stars press
their simple shapes into the sky.
I want to stay on the back porch
while the world tilts
toward sleep, until what I love
misses me, and calls me in.
Painting "Back Porch" by Mary Ogle.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Dan Edwards: Planting seeds where he goes

I've been posting a fair amount here lately, and so today I bring you a guest blogger, Dan Edwards, the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Nevada.

He writes a very thoughtful blog about his many travels through the sage brush state, his experiences of God and his theological reflections along the way. He plants many seeds where he goes.

Bishop Dan posted this last week, and I bring it to you today:

Envivo De Michoacan
By the Right Rev. Dan Edwards
Every day I forget that my purposes for what I do are only my purposes. God invariably has larger plans. Today I set out to study Spanish, and so I did -- in the morning – more irregular verbs and rules for when to use and when to omit articles. (Those who speak languages are strictly bound to obey the rules; but those who create the rules make up exceptions at will. Where is the justice in that?)

This afternoon, I was supposed to go with the other students on a guided (in Spanish) walking tour of the city. But the tour was cancelled so I walked alone and found myself at the Cathedral – a beautiful old Gothic building. Along with a scattered group of clearly devout people, I spent some time praying in the nave, then went to pray in the Lady Chapel which was crowded with people praying fervently on a Wednesday afternoon. It is a holy thing to be surrounded by so much reverence. As I began to leave, I heard the beginning of mass at the main altar so I stayed for worship. It was an unexpected blessing.

I then walked back to the school for Conversation Club, an informal gathering for casual discourse, the point of which is to practice one’s language. I went to practice Spanish, but found myself at a table of young Mexicans who needed to work on their English. So we spoke English most of the time, as we sat outside on the roof the school, the darkness falling around us.

One of the young men at my table is an artist, a sketch artist who wants to become a “real” artist and his passion is to paint sacred art. He was a bit shy about this since his teachers and fellow students have told him he is in the wrong century for that kind of painting. This issue set me off and I found myself giving a lecture on theology – how religion is a language about the ineffable mystery, it is a set of symbols pointing toward things that cannot be spoken – and art can sometimes suggest the mystery better than words – Caravaggio was the greatest theologian of his day.

Then I rambled on to what we mean by “God” and how for the past few centuries we have identified “God” with dominating power – and if “God” means our highest value and God is defined by such power, then we worship power. The effect on our souls is to make us power mongers and that is the religious root of violence.

But an older view of God as the Supreme Beauty has been reclaimed by contemporary theologians beginning with Hans Urs Von Balthasar. We call to mind the greatest beauty we can imagine. Then we consider that there may be a beauty beyond that, something we cannot touch even with our imaginations, and in that thought we begin to approach God. Such a view of God opens us to pay attention, to apprehend beauty, to be transformed by beauty. The transforming power of spiritual beauty is the meaning of the beatific vision in Dante.

I noticed this group of young people was utterly and completely with me, caught up in my spontaneous sermon on faith and the visual arts. The artist was genuinely inspired. So I said to myself, “And I thought I was just here to study Spanish. Maybe God intended to nurture my soul with the silent reverence of those people praying in the cathedral. And maybe God gave me a message someone needed to hear.” I actually believe God did. Maybe someday someone’s soul will be touched in some blessed way by a painting, and they will be grateful for this work by Rivera (his name, like Diego) but will never know that Rivera’s approach to painting drew in a small way on spiritual guidance he received from a nameless American cleric in Morelia circa 2011 – or that the nameless cleric spoke out of the silence he had just experienced among the nameless faithful gathered to pray on a Wednesday afternoon in the Cathedral, people who prayed for their own purposes, not knowing that God intended their piety to touch a foreigner who would in turn touch a young artist who would someday touch someone not yet born.
Above: Semeadores ("Seed Planters"), painting by Diego Rivera.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Monday Funnies

We've made it to the tail-end of January, the beginning of another work week, and the end of another Diocese Council, Convention, Convocation, or whatever you call it in your jurisdiction, synod, diocese, district.

And that reminds me of a joke. . . Enjoy your Monday Funnies:

* * *

The little boy noticed a plaque in the back of the church and asked the priest what it was.

"Oh, those are the church members who died in service," the good Father explained.

"Which," the boy asked, "the eight-o'clock or the ten-o'clock?"

* * *

Do you know what Mahatma Ghandi and Mary Poppins have in common?

Ghandi walked everywhere he went, which produced enormous callouses on his feet. He ate very little, so he was a very fragile man. Also, his strange diet caused him to suffer from bad breath.

So Ghandi could be described as a super calloused fragile mystic hexed by hallitosis.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A few final impressions from Diocesan Council

Diocesan Council is ended, and Lori and I are back in Charlottesville. There were several milestones at this Council, particularly on same-gender blessings.

Bishop Shannon Johnston said he would move ahead "immediately" on such blessings with those congregations that are ready to proceed with such blessings.

The Council approved a resolution thanking our bishop for his work in this issue, and urging him to go forward with the issuance of guidelines for such blessings.

That it won approval overwhelmingly was a bit startling, especially for those in the diocese who have been rebuffed on this issue for years.

That was the big news item. But I'd also like to share a few other impressions.

First, I came away with a deep appreciation that this diocese trusts its bishop. The votes on same-gender blessings were an affirmation that he has gone about this in the right way, and that the leadership of the diocese is overwhelmingly committed following his pastoral leadership on this and other issues.

Second, the presence of people from St. Paul's Memorial Church was impressive, and showed us at our most vibrant and committed to ministry at every level. A group of our Canterbury students were there to support campus ministry. They not only showed that by their presence but by speaking up that they need to be included in the election of the next suffragan bishop.

Our Integrity booth was staffed by St. Paul's folks, led by Wayne Nolen and Buck Smith. I was impressed by how many St. Paul's people were there to help with the booth, including members of our Shalom Group of young adults, many of whom are also active with Integrity. Megan Brett, Janice Dean and Danny Dean staffed the table and I am grateful for their presence at the Council

Our delegates, Buck Smith, Bruce Carveth, and Joan Burchell were present and voting throughout. Mildred Robinson was elected 4th alternate deputy to General Convention amidst a crowded field of candidates. Canterbury students Megan Tiller and Olivia Hutton served as University Commission delegate and alternate.

We had an impact. I am very proud of everyone who came.

I am especially admiring of our own Paul Brockman, who many of you know is battling cancer and is having a difficult time. Paul is a member of the Standing Committee, an important governance body of the diocese. Athough clearly weary, Paul was present at every floor session and hung in there throughout the Council.

As you may also remember, I proposed a resolution, BR-1, to double the diocesan financial support for campus ministry. The proposed budget of $4.6 million would have cut nearly $5,000 out of the $135,000 budget. The resolution gave voice to our position that cutting campus ministry is short-sighted.

The final agenda item of the Council was the budget. The Budget Committee recommended restoring the campus ministry funding back to $135,000. Although restoring the cut represents the status quo -- and not a move forward -- it was a good faith effort by the budget committee to at least acknowledge the importance of campus ministry. So I withdrew the resolution with thanks to the budget committee for their effort.

Although we did not get all that we wanted -- far from it -- I believe we got the conversation going at the diocesan level and we were heard. The conversation will continue only if those who are committed to campus ministry keep this front and center.

One last item: The bishop appointed me the Dean of Region XV. The duties are a bit unclear to me, but I will be asking my clergy colleagues in our region how they would like to proceed as a clericus. I am honored to be appointed, and look forward to the days ahead.

This was my second Council of the Diocese of Virginia (I missed last year's because the Presiding Bishop was visiting us). I am pleased to have participated, I am impressed with how delegates were respectful of each other and conducted business, and I am glad it is over and I am home.

Photo by the Rev. Peter Carey.

News update from Diocesan Council: same-gender blessings resolution passes

RESTON, Va. -- The Council of the Diocese of Virginia passed a resolution this morning calling upon Bishop Shannon Johnston to move forward with issuing guidelines that authorize the blessing of same-gender unions.

Passage of the resolution was a major milestone on the issue. The Diocese of Virginia has been a battleground on sexuality issues for many years, but has engaged in a process of discernment through meetings throughout the diocese.

"This is a simple resolution," said John Schwartz, from St. Anne's, Reston, and the primary author. He noted that the "whole body hurts" because some people are excluded from the full life of the church because they are gay or lesbian.

The debate was impassioned at times, but delegates remained respectful of each other. The viewpoints expressed included that the traditional view of marriage is limited to unions of men and women.

"I don't believe God blesses same-sex marriages," said one delegate.

The Rev. John Sheehan, rector, The Church of Our Redeemer Aldie, also opposed the resolution on the grounds that it will further strain the Episcopal Church relationship with the Anglican Communion.

Others expressed opinions that the Bible is not as clear cut on this topic as some believe. One speaker noted that we do not justify the stoning of adulterers or condemn people for wearing mixed fabrics, which are also subject to biblical law.

And The Rev. Sue Eaves noted, "I am an ordained person that Scripture does not authorize."

The vote was taken by orders, with clergy and lay delegates voting separately by holding up green and red cards. The yes votes outnumbered the no votes in both orders, and so no count was taken.

Yesterday, Bishop Johnston said he is prepared to work with those parishes that are ready to have such blessings. He gave no specifics, but other bishops have issued guidelines for such blessings. A task force (upon which I served last year) has recommended to the bishop such guidelines which he may issue, amend or reject.

The resolution R2a approved by Council states:
R-2a: Blessings of Same-Gender Unions Resolved, that the 216th Annual Council of the Diocese of Virginia thanks Bishop Shannon Johnston and the diocesan team for the very fruitful "Listen ... And Be Heard" sessions in 2010, and urges our Bishop to “provide a generous pastoral response" by moving forward with guidelines with regard to public blessings of same gender unions.

Same-gender blessings on deck today at Diocese Council

RESTON, VA -- Here at the Council of the Diocese of Virginia, the topic of the day is likely to be same-gender blessings.

On the floor of Council this morning is a resolution (R2a) requesting that Bishop Shannon Johnston issue guidelines on same-gender blessings. We will also hear an oral report from Ed Jones, who chaired our task force on same-gender blessings (you can read the written report of the task force by clicking HERE).

In his pastoral address yesterday, Bishop Johnston said he is prepared to work with congregations that are ready to move forward with such blessings:
"I realize that there are presently clergy and congregations who have addressed these questions of blessing, community, society and Scripture in ways that could be deemed thorough and conclusive. Furthermore, you may remember that I have always affirmed that committed, monogamous same-gender relationships can indeed be faithful in the Christian life.
"Therefore, I plan also to begin working immediately with those congregations that want to establish the parameters for the “generous pastoral response” that the 2009 General Convention called for with respect to same-gender couples in Episcopal churches. Personally, it is my hope that the 2012 General Convention will authorize the formal blessing of same-gender unions for those clergy in places that want to celebrate them. Until then, we might not be able to do all that we would want to do but, in my judgment, it is right to do something and it is time to do what we can."
He left open the details on how he will work with such congregations, but his declaration yesterday was a major step along the way. Other bishops have issued guidelines in their dioceses for how to proceed with same-gender blessings, and we can expect that our bishop will follow a similar practice.

The same gender blessings task force, upon which I served, drafted proposed guidelines as recommendations to the bishop. Whether he issues them, or how, of course remains entirely up to him. We may learn more today.

To read the bishop's full address, click HERE.

Friday, January 21, 2011

News update: Bishop Jones to retire

RESTON, VA-- A quick update from our annual diocesan Council (or convention): Suffragan Bishop David Jones announced his retirement in a year. Bishop David has served in this role for 17 years, visiting parishes and much wisdom to the Diocese of Virginia. Suffragan bishops have all of the sacramental authority of bishops, but their duties are set by the diocesan bishop.

In the short time I have been here, I have found Bishop David to be a caring pastor and a wise counselor. He will be very missed.

After the retirement announcement, our diocesan bishop, Shannon Johnston, then called for an election of a new suffragan bishop on April 21, 2012. In the intervening year, candidates will be nominated and a diocesan profile will be developed.

In other news, our own Mildred Robinson was elected 4th alternate deputy to the 2012 General Convention (our national governing body) amidst a crowded field of candidates. The practice of the Diocese of Virginia has been to include alternates in all discussion of issues, so Mildred's elections puts her into the loop of how our diocese works through national and international church issues.

Part III: Original sin, arguing with God, forgiveness, healing and a few other Big Hairy topics: My theological reflection

I’ve taken you on a roundabout theological journey the last few days, starting with questions about the concept of “original sin” as an explanation for the brokenness of the world and the calamities we endure. If you are still with me, thank you and congratulations for coming this far.

As my reflection has unfolded, I’ve seen “original sin” not as a transmission of wrongful acts by a proto-human (Adam and Eve) but as an allegorical statement of the human condition of being born into disconnection from God.

I might add that the original author of the original sin doctrine, Augustine of Hippo, viewed the Bible primarily in allegorical terms.

As an Augustinian Christian, this brings me ultimately to the story of Jesus, but also raises questions about finding the meaning in Jesus dying on the Cross. Often Christians use the shorthand “Jesus died for our sins” to explain the crucifixion, but that phrase has some disturbing implications for how we view God.

The phrase comes partly from a Christian interpretation of the “Binding of Isaac,” the biblical story of Abraham nearly killing his son, Isaac in Genesis 22:1-24, discussed yesterday. In this strain of Christian interpretation, Jesus becomes the lamb – the substitution – for the sacrifice of Isaac, who represents us, hence we call Jesus “the lamb of God.” He died so that we might be spared of being sacrificed ourselves, or the “atoning sacrifice.”

But there is something deeply troubling about this concept of atonement. It leaves us with a blood-thirsty God demanding a blood ransom of his own son for human wrongdoing. And if Jesus is divine, is God killing himself?

And if this was a ransom to get us off the hook from our own sins, why is the world still a mess and full of evil and sin? The ransom didn’t seem to work.

There is another way of seeing the Abraham-Isaac story (see yesterday’s post) and that might also bring us to another way of looking at the meaning of the Cross. But rather than getting bogged down in theological abstractions, let me tell you a few stories:

In my time as priest (and even before) I've heard many stories of people who have had experiences of the Holy coming to them in an extreme crisis; a friend nearly dying in a car accident, and feeling enfolded by the arms of God; patients in hospitals seeing a gleaming face; a woman who thought she was about to lose her daughter to cancer and then feeling the presence of the Virgin Mary.

Recently a young mother told me how one of her children suffered a terrible accident and nearly died. The doctors told her they weren’t sure they could save her son, that it was touch-and go. As she waited in the hospital, she felt she was standing on the edge of the most terrible abyss imaginable.

And then she felt this amazing unexpected presence, and a voice telling her “I love you. I will hold you. I don’t know how this will come out, and it may not come out the way you want, but I will be with you, and I am never going to let you go. I will love you forever and I will always love your son. I will always be your companion.”

Call him Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, or the Hand of God, the divine came to each of these people and absorbed their pain. Each of these hurting people saw and experienced a divine presence in a way that spoke to them personally, and each felt their burden lifted from them.

To me, all of those experiences come from Christ speaking from the Cross. The woman in a car accident had not “sinned” – nor had the young boy who nearly died, nor his mother. None of them deserved to be standing at the abyss.

This was not about a ransom or a sacrifice. It was about Jesus being with them because he had been there before, on the Cross, on the edge of the abyss and beyond.

The message each heard was not about moral failings, but about unconditional love in the worst moment of their lives. The salvation they received was not delayed for their afterlife, but came then and there. Jesus spoke to them from the same place of suffering where they were suffering. He could do that because he had been there.

The story of Jesus, as it unfolds in the gospels, is a story of how he willingly lived with fractured people in their broken places to the point of going to his death with them. He sought out the hurting and the sick, touched them when others thought they were dirty, healed them of their wounds, and traded places with them when they died.

The point of the Cross is that Jesus was willing to dwell with us in our most painful place imaginable. By sharing our pain and showing us we are loved unconditionally, he also points us to a life without fear, here and now by reconnecting us with our creator. It is not about an insurance policy for the next world, but about a way to live in this world.

The biblical stories of healings by Jesus are not about cures that make bodies invincible – that never happens in the stories – and that, I would suggest, is a huge clue about the underlying “original sin.” The healing that comes from Jesus is about reconciling people with God so that they might live no matter what happens to their bodies. Even Lazarus, raised from the dead, passes from this earth again.

Here is where I believe this “original sin” concept is crucial.

Notice that Jesus nearly always mentions forgiveness of sin when he is healing people. The two are usually spoken of together, for example with the paralyzed man in Luke 5:17-26 who is healed and told “your sins are forgiven.” Jesus underlines three times in the story that healing is connected to forgiveness.

Yet we may ask, what sin did the paralyzed man commit? What did he do wrong to deserve being paralyzed? Luke doesn’t tell us. We should presume none at all. Nor does the paralyzed man “repent” of any "sins," or even ask Jesus to be healed (his friends do that for him). He’s done nothing to “accept” Jesus or anything else to deserve healing. He’s paralyzed and he is completely incapable of doing anything, good or evil. He is healed with no strings attached and told he is forgiven.

What then is this concept of sin and forgiveness that Jesus is getting at?

It may be that the sin Jesus is talking about is living in this fractured broken world that seems perpetually disconnected from God – the “original sin.” The paralyzed man, like Job, has done nothing wrong. But by being born and paralyzed he is living in a sort of silent paralyzed disconnection from God. He can do nothing. The forgiveness he receives is not about moral forgiveness, but about reconnection and ending the silent paralysis.

That same disconnection from God begins for each of us when we are born from our mother’s womb. The Garden of Eden is an allegory for the womb, and the “fall” of Adam and Eve an allegory of human birth.

We must be born to be human; we must learn many things including good and evil to survive. To be born is to learn how to live in a fractured broken world. To be healed and forgiven – to have salvation – is to be reconnected with God despite the brokenness of the world that we enter.

As I see it, the forgiveness Jesus pronounces is about reconciliation with God and not about moralistic dogmas. Jesus says to the paralyzed man, in effect, “You are healed, your body mended, and you are reconnected with God. The fracture with God is healed, the brokenness is now unbroken. Go now and live acting in this knowledge.”

That does not mean there are no morals or ethics, quite the contrary. Our morals and ethics spring from our compassion and connection to God and each other. We live morally and ethically because it is the right way to live, not because of an expectation of reward and punishment. Our sin – our silence with God – is forgiven, and that healing brings us back into conversation with God about how to heal this fractured out-of-kilter world we inherit by our birth.

Jesus throughout the gospels links forgiveness and healing to action, or “discipleship.” You are healed, you are reconnected to God, so get up, go forth and do something. To be a follower of Jesus – to be a disciple – is to do likewise: "Forgive others, be an agent of healing and be there with others who are on the edge of the abyss. When you do, I will be there with you because I've been there before."

This call for discipleship weaves throughout the story of Jesus, beginning even before his birth. In Luke 1:68-79, Zechariah tells his baby son, John (the Baptist), how he is to be a follower of Jesus, and it is a mandate for action to all of us:
“To give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
To walk with the way of the Cross is to agree to live in the fractured places with others because that is where Christ truly dwells. That requires being vulnerable to our own brokenness, to touching our own pain (Psalm 23): “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me…”

By being there in those painful places with others, we are also reconnected with God as they are reconnected with God. The silence ends, the paralysis is over. At the very end of the Bible, comes this declaration that the story of original sin is ended, once and for all, because God dwells with us forever: (Revelation 21:3-4):
“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
+ + +

Thanks for coming along with me the last three days on this journey of reflection. To any who have been offended, my apologies. Where I have strayed, forgive me; this reflection is mine alone. Whether you agree or disagree, I hope it has given you at least food for thought and prayer. I am also much influenced in this view of forgiveness and the Cross by the writing of Jesuit Jon Sobrino in his book Christ the Liberator: A View from the Victims, and former-Domincan James Alison in his book Raising Abel: The Recovery of Eschatological Imagination. And now I am off to the Diocesan Council. Keep me and those who take council in your prayers.

Crucifixion art above: Folk art from Cameroon; Medieval stained glass; painting by He Qi, China; "The Ascension of Christ," Salvador Dali.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Part II: Original sin, arguing with God, forgiveness, healing and a few other Big Hairy topics

Yesterday I wrote about my difficulty with the concept of “original sin” as an explanation for the brokenness of our world. If you haven’t read that, you might want to skip below before reading the rest of this.

Recently, I’ve taken a new look at “original sin” and I’ve begun to see it differently. I’d like to take you on my journey of reflection.

This is going to be a round about path, as much of theological reflection always seems to be. To get there, we need to travel deep beneath the biblical text, and go to a biblical story that is a tough read for most of us. We also need to let go of our modern obsession with literal facts.

First, I need to back up to give credit where it is due. For many years, Lori and I have been involved in leading small groups through the Education for Ministry (EfM) program, which has at its heart the sharing theological reflections.

One of our EfM groups recently wrestled with the story of Abraham nearly killing his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God in Genesis 22:1-24. No one likes the story; it portrays God as homicidal and seems to celebrate Abraham for nearly murdering his son.

In the story, Abraham is told by God to kill his son, Isaac. At the last second, just before he commits the deed, a lamb appears, and Abraham slaughters the lamb, and Isaac is spared.

Why on earth would this hideous story be in the Bible at all?

The story is often preached by Christians as a moral tale of obedience to God: do exactly as God commands no matter what and God will pull it out in the end. If God doesn't, then you did something wrong (sin) to deserve it.

The story is also heard as foreshadowing Jesus being sacrificed on the Cross, opening up all sorts of troubling theological implications about a God who needs a blood sacrifice of his own son.

Yet there is another way to hear the Abraham-Isaac story, and it might bring us to another way of viewing Jesus and the Cross, and I would submit, another way of viewing "original sin."

This reading of the story, known as the Akedah, or the “Binding of Isaac,” comes from an interpretation in Judaism. Rather than seeing Abraham as the obedient servant of God, Abraham is seen as the prideful father who should have been questioning God and not acting in blind obedience. An angel saves Abraham from slaughtering his son, and only at the last second.

Forever after, God stops speaking to Abraham. And that may be the message. In this interpretation, Abraham’s sin was his silence.

Abraham's sin was his blindly disconnecting from God without asking the question: “Why should I kill my son?”

The silence of Abraham was out of character; previously, Abraham constantly questioned God, bargained with God, and kept talking no matter what. He did all sorts of dumb things, but always stayed connected to God. This time, Abraham stayed silent, and he nearly murdered his son.

A disappointed God provides an animal for the slaughter, and then God never talks to Abraham again. God’s silence speaks volumes about God’s disappointment with Abraham.
Disconnection from God is the sin. And that gives a big hint about the "original" sin and the nature of sin.

The test was whether Abraham would question God, and this time he didn't. The test was whether he would engage with God and he flunked.

My friend Ilana DeBare pointed me to a poem on her blog by rabbinical student Rachel Barenblat that captures this interpretation:
The angels say
Avraham failed the test.
For Sodom and Gomorrah he argued
but when it came to his son
no protest crossed his lips.
God was mute with horror.
Avraham, smasher of idols
and digger of wells
was meant to talk back.
Sarah would have been wiser
but Avraham avoided her tent,
didn’t lay his head in her lap
to unburden his secret heart.
In stricken silence God watched
as Avraham saddled his ass
and took Yitzchak on their last hike
to the place God would show him.
The angel had to call him twice.
Avraham’s eyes were red, his voice hoarse
he wept like a man pardoned
but God never spoke to him again.
Someone in our EfM group recently pointed out something else in the story I hadn’t noticed before, and it leads me back into this question of "original sin." Although Isaac is saved from calamity, and Abraham is saved from himself, all of the characters end up isolated. We don’t hear much about Sarah again; Abraham wallows in his loneliness, never hearing from God again; Isaac is thereafter portrayed as a hapless man manipulated by his wife and sons. Redemption for this family is fractured.

And that got me thinking about other Bible stories, beginning with Adam and Eve. Biblical stories tend to have cycles of sin, calamity, judgment and redemption.

It is the redemption part of the stories that got my attention this time around. Each of the redemption stories is left incomplete, fractured. Life is renewed, but still broken in some way, and that leads to the next cycle of sin and calamity. The seed of sin -- the disconnection with God -- is dwelling within the redemption.

Nothing in these stories is ever left finished, not since the Garden of Eden. And that got me thinking about human life itself. Nothing is ever finished since the time each of us was in our mother’s womb.

The “original sin” is really the original brokenness from God that begins with our own birth, and the fracture continues as we grow up and learn how to live in this world. We don't get to stay in our mother's womb, the Garden of Eden. We "fall" into the world, and we need to learn quickly how to function -- "good and evil" -- if we are to survive.

The classic definition of sin is to be disconnected from God, and we start life disconnected. That means sin is not about sexual relations. It’s about being born human into an imperfect and incomplete world. To be born human is to be disconnected from God in a profound and unremitting way.

And that leads me to the Cross and the story of Jesus. I will say more about that tomorrow in Part III.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Part I: Original sin, arguing with God, forgiveness, healing and a few other Big Hairy topics

The calamitous events of our world in recent weeks are many: the attempted assassination of a Congresswoman in Arizona and the murder of six people, floods in South America, an earthquake in Pakistan, war in Afghanistan, the death of friends.

The list begs many questions. Some of those questions are about public policy and democracy, and our response as human beings to the plight of other human beings.

Other questions are about God.

Why is it that our world is broken? Why does God put up with this? Where is God? Those are theological questions; many have proposed answers, none fully work.

For some, the answer is that we are being tested by God. Life is a big test, and for those who pass, there is a prize at the end in the here-beyond. That concept, however, seems to blame God for everything that goes wrong, and the logical extension of that is to give ourselves credit for everything that goes right. That seems backwards to me and not very satisfying.

The classic response of the Church is that the brokenness of the world reflects the “original sin” of Adam and Eve, as told in Genesis 2:4-3:24.

But I must confess that I’ve struggled with the concept of “original sin.” It has never made much sense to me. How would the “sin” of Adam and Eve be transmitted to me? Where is the “original sin” DNA located in the human genome?

And if our human species evolved from earlier primates, as I am certain beyond a reasonable doubt is factually true, just who is Adam and Eve? The fossil record shows our human ancestry to be far more complicated than the myth of two people who were created whole out of mud.

We’ve crossbred with other earlier hairy hominids (now called “hominins” by scientists). From which branch of the human species do Adam and Eve get and their “original sin”? And, even if there were an Adam and Eve, how would their sins be transmitted to me?

To put this another way, I don’t buy it, at least not the way much of Christianity has warped science to fit the concept of original sin.

I suspect those who hold to a “creationist” view of the Genesis biblical story do so not out of any genuine interest in scientific pursuit, but to defend the concept of “original sin” transmitted from Adam and Eve. A lot of sin-punishment-repentance-election-salvation theology hangs on that story being literally true. If the story goes away, the doctrinal edifice collapses, hence there are people willing to die in the ditch to defend the historical veracity of the Adam and Eve story.

Yet even of the story doesn’t go away, you don’t have to reach the New Testament to call into question human sin as the explanation for all that is wrong in the world. The sin-punishment etc. doctrine is picked to pieces in the Book of Job, and rather convincingly.

So we are back to the original question: How do we explain the brokenness of our world? Something is out of kilter, of that I am also certain. Science is not getting us off the hook either.

Recently, I’ve begun to see this original sin concept another way, and I hope you might go with me here. There is considerably more depth to this concept than meets the eye or the popular religionist’s lore.

I will say more about that tomorrow. Please join me then for Part II.

Illustrations: "The Creation of Adam," Sistine Chapel, by Michaelangelo; the fossil "Lucy," a 3.2 million year old hominid found in Ethiopia.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Our annual meeting and the St. Paul's Cross recipients for 2011

We had a terrific parish potluck supper Sunday evening, followed by the annual meeting. Vestry members hosted tables, and each table had a theme, ranging from "Happy Birthday" to "Canada" and a lot else. You just had to have been there. All of them were wonderful, and I table hopped a bit and sampled the delicacies at each table -- rector's privilege!

At the annual meeting, we reported on our finances (we finished the year with a small surplus) and gave reports on ministries and highlights from the year.

Then continuing a tradition begun last year, I gave The St. Paul’s Cross to seven individuals, and I will tell you more about them below.

I want to be clear about the purpose of this. Many, many people are deserving, and by singling out the few, I am aware that I am in danger of slighting the many.

So please do not think of this as an “award” for service. Rather, those chosen represent a cross-section of ministry in this church, and join with many as the backbone of all we are and do here. They have given of themselves in extraordinary ways but sometimes are not noticed. There are many people I could recognize, it was hard to keep this to seven. So please consider these seven servants as representatives of many.

There are also two caveats to this. Members of the staff are not eligible for the St. Pauls’ Cross, nor are current sitting members of the Vestry. Only one St. Paul’s Cross is granted per lifetime.

And so, with that, here are seven people we recognize and honor for their extraordinary service of ministry this past year:

Her life is founded in prayer, Scripture and service to her family, her church and her community. Her kindnesses are many, her heart gentle, her spirit caring, the very core of her being the epitome of grace. She is wise, witty and patient. In recent years, she’s been an office volunteer, led women’s Bible studies and our Generation Wise group for our retired members of St. Paul’s, and that is just a short list of all that she does and all that she means to us. It gives me great pleasure to give this year’s first St. Paul’s Cross to Louise Sinclair.

She probably would cringe at the word “evangelist” but she is exactly that in the best sense of the word. She’s helped bring many young families into our parish by simply being herself. Her ready smile and irreverent humor brings many through our doors. Her commitment to social justice is deep. She has worked on projects including PACEM and IMPACT. And for two summers, she has organized our Shrine Mont parish weekends. I am very pleased to give this St. Paul’s Cross to Cindy Cartwright.

His gifts of hospitality, humor and friendship represent the best of St. Paul’s. He has served on vestries, conducted adult education forums, and pitched in wherever and whenever he is needed. He brings others through our doors with his inviting gentle way. His commitment to the inclusion of all the baptized is deep, and his giving in the community is boundless. For many years, he has been here nearly every Sunday to coach our acolytes. And he is the founding president of our Integrity Chapter, the organization that works within the Episcopal Church for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian and transgender people in the life of the church. It is my honor to give this St. Paul’s Cross to Buck Smith.

She is a dynamo of energy and commitment, always looking for opportunities to build God’s kingdom in every avenue she can find both inside and outside the church. She exudes ideas and creativity at every turn, ranging from serving the homeless to arranging flowers. She can be found at St. Paul’s in the middle of the week -- and sometimes in the middle of the night -- picking up in-gatherings for the Salvation Army or nursing homes. She has brought drive and prowess to the organizing of the Flower Guild, and now as chair of our Ministry Beyond Our Walls team, she is bringing great drive to our ministries to the poor and neediest in our community. It is with tremendous gratitude that I present this St. Paul’s Cross to Joan Burchell.

He is a life-long learner and a life-long healer in the widest possible sense. With a lifetime of service in medicine, he has brought his considerable talents to bear in guiding our parish and diocese in understanding its responsibilities to the healing of the earth. He’s been a mainstay of our Stewardship team and our Green Team, and in his gentle way, continues to show all of us how the two are connected. He has served in many capacities, including on the Vestry, and as one of our un-official official photographers, he has for years documented the life of this church. It gives me great pleasure to give this St. Paul’s Cross to Dudley Rochester.

Her compassion is extraordinary, and her spiritual grounding is apparent by her words and actions. She meets people where they are, whether learned University professors, street people, choir members or befuddled clergy. Her willingness to do the hard work of caring for all of God’s people is truly inspiring, whether by singing in the choir or serving dinner at the Salvation Army. Her advocacy for the voiceless and the poor is towering. It is no exaggeration to say that she knows nearly every homeless person in Charlottesville by name. She’s organized our efforts with PACEM and reorganized our Ministry Beyond Our Walls team and outreach grants committee. It is a high honor to give this St. Paul’s Cross to Marsha Trimble.

She brings tremendous intellect, organizational skill, and a drive for excellence in all that she does. She is faithful and fearless. Her grounding in the life of the Spirit and her breadth of knowledge is apparent to all who come in contact with her. She has touched many lives in many places, from Bible studies, to committee work, to the councils of the Church and her work in the community. Here at St. Paul’s, during a time of great anxiety between rectors, her inner strength and firm hand on the helm helped guide this parish into our next era. She has the firm conviction that every member of this parish deserves the opportunity to participate, and she’s unafraid to ask anyone to do their part. In this past year, she brought that conviction to bear as she led our Stewardship Ministry Team in its first Every Member Canvass in many years. It is with tremendous gratitude that I give this St. Paul’s Cross to Virginia Ritchie.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Monday Funnies

We are in nearing the end of the American football season. For some that is cause for mourning, for others cause for relief. I must admit I am not much of a football fan, preferring basketball and baseball, and I've promised to never do a sports sermon.

That said, why not poke fun at both football and the church, all in one joke. And a cartoon by Dave Walker that is about a different kind of football, but the comment stays the same. Enjoy the Monday funnies. . .

Church Football

Quarterback Sneak - Church members quietly leaving during the invitation.

Draw Play - What many children do with the bulletin during worship.

Halftime - The period between Sunday School and worship when many choose to leave

Benchwarmer - Those who do not sing, pray, work, or apparently do anything but sit.

Backfield-in-Motion - Making a trip to the back (restroom or water fountain) during the service.

Staying in the Pocket - What happens to a lot of money that should be given to the Lord's work.

Two-minute Warning - The point at which you realize the sermon is almost over and begin to gather up your children and belongings.

Instant Replay - The preacher loses his notes and falls back on last week's illustrations.

Sudden Death - What happens to the attention span of the congregation if the preacher goes "overtime."

Trap - You're called on to pray and are asleep.

End Run - Getting out of church quick, without speaking to any guest or fellow member.

Flex Defense - The ability to allow absolutely nothing said during the sermon to affect your life.

Halfback Option - The decision of 50% of the congregation not to return for the evening service.

Blitz - The rush for the restaurants following the closing prayer.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Lift Every Voice and Sing

"We must maintain faith in the future."
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
from his 1963 speech at the University of Virginia's Old Cabell Hall

Amid all of the political rancor and tragedy of recent days in our nation, let us pause to remember the birthday today of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and how he implored us to build a better nation based on love, freedom and respect.

St. Paul's Memorial Church was very much a part of the turbulent history of civil rights and the conflict over integration. When the U.S. Supreme Court, in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, ordered the schools to de-segregate in 1954, the public schools of Charlottesville closed rather than to allow black children to attend.

Shamefully the white churches of Charlottesville opened their doors to conduct school for white children only. One church, though, stood against the wind: St. Paul's and its courageous rector, Ted Evans, refused to cooperate with the whites-only "massive resistance" and called it for what it was: evil.

In the coming two weeks, the University of Virginia will host a series of events examining that era and commemorating those events. Civil rights veterans including Julian Bond will be on the grounds. On Jan. 23 at 2 pm I will be taking part in an interfaith prayer service at the Jefferson Theater downtown, a theater that once reserved the upstairs balcony for "Colored Only." Please come if you can.

To learn more about the UVA-sponsored events, please click HERE, and I hope to see you at some.

Let me leave you with this today: This is one of my all-time favorite hymns, and it has a hallowed history as the "African American National Anthem" bringing inspiration in moments of pain and joy. May we celebrate the triumph of the human spirit and God's faithfulness to us.

Friday, January 14, 2011

One year later: We still have work to do in Haiti

A year ago, Haiti was devastated by a terrible earthquake. More than 200,000 people died, a number that is still mind-numbing. The country was left in ruins, and more lives have been lost from epidemics related to the destruction wrought by the earthquake.

I am proud -- and humbled -- to report to you that St. Paul's Memorial Church gave more than $23,000 to relief efforts in Haiti through Episcopal Relief and Development.

There is still a great deal of work to do, and you can still contribute to ERD by clicking HERE. You can read about ERD's efforts in Haiti by reading a report HERE.

This came the other day from Bishop Shannon Johnston, and it bears discussion and action by our congregation, and I commend it to you:

* * *

January 12, 2011

One year ago, January 12, 2010, the world shook--both literally and figuratively--for the people of Haiti. In 35 seconds, nearly 300,000 lives were lost, millions were displaced and an already desperately inadequate infrastructure was largely destroyed.

Since the poor always suffer the most in times of hardship, Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, is enduring a catastrophe that remains unimaginable even for those who have been there to see for themselves. The toll on human life has been devastating. In Port-au-Prince alone, a million people are still housed in tents, a great many street-side. Need, injury and illness are constant specters. Now, a cholera epidemic looms with a legacy of more death and fear.

What can we do in the face of such horrors? To be sure, the sheer scale of it all is more than daunting. I've often heard comment that whatever groups or individuals might do is so little that it seems almost useless. All too easily we can despair of being able to be of help. On the contrary, I would argue that the need is so great that we--all of us--simply must become involved in any way possible. To be unconnected to the tragedy in Haiti is not a faithful choice. Our faith in the grace and sovereignty of God through Jesus Christ leads us to take action, both for immediate relief and long-term recovery and rebuilding.

In October 2010, I led a small group drawn from three of our congregations to meet with the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti, the Rt. Rev. J. Zache Duracin. Bishop Zache, along with the Rev. Kesner Ajax, his coordinator for partnerships, and Ms. Angela Galbreath, a missionary from the Episcopal Church, escorted us to see not just the destruction and the needs that exist but also the effectiveness of ongoing relief and recovery. The faithfulness, courage and dignity of the Church in Haiti are not merely impressive but absolutely indomitable. Despite the fact that the earthquake destroyed 80 percent of the diocesan infrastructure, children have been back in school since May, truly a remarkable achievement and testament to what the Church there can do even with so little. And I can tell you that our support does indeed make a difference in real day-to-day lives. It was great to be driven in two of the 13 pick-up trucks that have been provided to the Diocese of Haiti by the Diocese of Virginia, and then to see how the others are being used so much as well. In his Christmas letter to fellow bishops, Bishop Zache said that the donations of expertise, labor, food, housing material, medicines and money have helped the people of Haiti to "rise, stand and walk."

Still, as the bishop also made clear, it will take years to rebuild their structures and heal their spirits. So, I am writing this letter to encourage the congregations and individuals of the Diocese of Virginia to become involved in the recovery or to redouble your current efforts. There will be a lot to do over a long period of time. As the people of Christ, we should do no less together with our brothers and sisters in Haiti. There is a reason that we are all "the body of Christ and individually members of it" (I Cor. 12:27).

Begin with your daily prayers. Certainly remember the needs and despair in Haiti, but do not forget prayers of gratitude for the grace and strength of the Episcopal Church's ministry there. Pray that we ourselves would be moved by such a witness. You may wish to visit the Episcopal Church's Web site for various prayers to offer:

Other dioceses and persons have posted prayers to share with you at

Consider a partnership between your congregation and one within the Diocese of Haiti. Please contact Buck Blanchard (800-DIOCESE x16), our diocesan director of Mission and Outreach, for more information about this program. Pere Ajax in Haiti will work personally and directly with you to discern the best way to create a mutually beneficial relationship. If, for one reason or another, a full congregational partnership seems like it would be too much then please contact us to discuss working through your region or with another Virginia congregation.

Money is always a primary need and is the most efficient way to get the appropriate aid to the places it is needed most. You may designate a contribution to the "Diocese of Virginia Haiti General Fund" for humanitarian efforts. Alternately, you may also designate a donation for the Diocese of Haiti's first rebuilding priority, the Cathedral complex.

Visit our Haiti table at diocesan Council. Several knowledgeable and involved persons will be staffing the table with material, information and encouragement. Go to the diocesan Haiti Web site for updated information about the Diocese of Haiti and the ongoing ministries for recovery and rebuilding there.

Last October, Bishop Zache told me that he was "overwhelmed" by the generosity of the Diocese of Virginia. I hope and trust that we're just getting started. May we be a light to the darkness where we find it and may we be illumined by the beacon that is the Episcopal Church in Haiti.

Faithfully yours in Christ,

The Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston


Thursday, January 13, 2011

Marking my ten years as a priest today

He brought me out into an open place;
he rescued me because he delighted in me.
-- Psalm 18:20

Today I am taking a moment of personal privilege. Today is the tenth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood in God's One Holy and Apostolic Church. I am writing this the night before because today I want to sleep in a little. I am going to take the day off, and I might not read any email.

Today I want to pause and take stock a little. Maybe that's because I am still a journalist at heart, and we journalists like round anniversaries, and this is one.

Ten years ago today, I was ordained at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Sacramento, my home parish, the faith community that sparked and nurtured my adult spiritual formation.

Lori and I came to Trinity because we were working in Sacramento, and we found in Trinity a community of faith that was open and inviting and welcomed exploring the hard questions of faith.

For two decades I was a newspaper reporter, working everything from the crime beat to covering the inside of the California Legislature. I went off to seminary in 1997 at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, commuting from Sacramento while Lori continued to work at The Sacramento Bee where we had met as colleagues. When I finished, I went back to work at The Sacramento Bee for awhile. And then, to my amazement, I was called to return to Trinity Cathedral to serve as an assistant and eventually as Associate Dean. I also got to return to the Legislature for four years as the Chaplain to the California Senate and reconnect with many friends there.

All told, Lori and I spent 18 years at Trinity, including the six incredible years I served on the staff with many friends. I was especially privileged to serve with The Very Rev. Donald Brown, the dean of the Cathedral. His friendship, guidance, mentoring, wisdom, irreverence and humor means more to me than anyone can imagine and still does. He and his wife Carol Anne, and their children Kevin and Meredith are our second family (and Meredith will be joining us Friday for a little celebration).

In 2006, Lori and I were invited to leave Trinity when a new dean took over after Don's retirement. Leaving was hard, and we are very grateful for the many friends from Trinity who have stuck with us in our low points. We did not want to leave Trinity, or Sacramento, but leave we did.

We've been on the road ever since, serving brief stints at St. Luke's Auburn, St. John's, Marysville, and then a wonderful year at All Souls Parish in Berkeley (my home town). I will be forever indebted to the people of All Souls for their confidence in me. God has kept us in open places.

We've been at St. Paul's Memorial Church since July 2008. It's been delightful at times, difficult at other times. We've had many joys and many heartbreaks. We are still in transition. I am continually amazed at the depth, the smarts, the dedication to mission, and the energy of the people of St. Paul's. I am ever growing with you.

Throughout Lori has been at my side. She married a journalist and ended up with an Episcopal priest. She has rolled with every wave on the high seas. She's been unfailingly supportive, ever willing to try the next adventure. I love her more than life itself.

Finally, truth be told, I don't remember much about my ordination ten years ago. I remember we had a great party, and my dad was there. Bishop Jerry Lamb laid hands upon me along with an assemblage of priests and that was an emotional moment for me. Jerry was and still is a great friend and a wise counselor. But I felt more relief than anything for having reached this major milestone. I do remember one thing: Don Brown's sermon. I've tried to live up to it every day of these ten years, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so successfully.

Thank you for the privilege of allowing me to be your priest and your friend, for your patience and forgiveness, and for hanging in there with me and supporting Lori. May all of you have many blessings in the years to come.

Here below is Don's sermon from January 13, 2001. We were very mindful that it was the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the feast day of Hillary of Poitier. The lessons we used that day were Isaiah 6:1-8, Ephesians 4:7,11-16, and John 15:9-17.

Sermon at the ordination of James Richardson
By The Very Rev. Donald Brown
Dean, Trinity Cathedral, Sacramento
We are gathered here this morning as a community of Christ's people to participate in making James David Richardson as a priest in Christ's holy catholic Church.
Now for those of you who are Jim's friends and supporters who may not be from this congregation, the Episcopal Church or any other Christian Church, let me assure you that your presence and support for Jim today and in the years ahead are very important. God's Holy Spirit works through those who are baptized and those who are not. God's Holy Spirit works through Churches but also through other institutions, like the Sacramento Bee and the California State Legislature, neither of which would officially claim any special divine blessing even though certain individuals in each of these organizations consider themselves more knowledgeable and enlightened than God.
When I first met Jim 12 or so years ago he was deeply immersed in the life of both of the Bee and State government. Jim was, and still is, very good at political reporting and at maneuvering through the machinations and the good, the bad, and the ugly of the public fa├žade, as well as the smoke filled back rooms, of the political and journalistic world.
As Jim's relationship with the Lord of all life deepened, he became aware, perhaps precisely because of the Bee and the Legislature, of God's calling him into another avenue of ministry.
In fact, Jim much like a modern day Isaiah, as his sense of calling to ordained ministry became more intense, may very well have said to God as Isaiah did so long ago in a smoke filled religious setting: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips."
This comment of Isaiah's is a simple recognition that he was unworthy of a holy calling. The same is true of Jim….who probably is thinking right now, "Why did I ask this guy to preach?" But the truth is that Jim and all the rest of us, ordained or not, are flawed human beings and are in need of God's grace, God's love, and God's Spirit if we are to know healing and hope in our lives. For Isaiah the assurance of that healing came in the form of a seraph, a winged creature of some sort, who carried a live coal from the altar and touched Isaiah's mouth with it.
The point is that Isaiah experienced a sense of holy cleansing that prepared him for ministry. Fortunately for all of us this painful sounding coal routine for cleansing was ultimately replaced by the act of baptism. By virtue of our baptism all of us who are baptized are called to ministry. We are not made worthy by our own efforts. We do not earn God's forgiveness and love. No, God gives these to us as gift…pure gift.
During the first century when St. Paul was busy planting churches in cities that bordered the Mediterranean Sea, he constantly emphasized that in Christ’s Church, each follower of Jesus has been gifted to play an important role in the building up of the Realm of God.
In the powerful and poetic language we heard this morning from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, Paul reminds us that grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. We who are part of the Church are members of a living body "joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, [and] as each part is working properly [we] promote the body's growth in building itself up in love.”
What we are about here, in this service, is asking that God’s grace be given in special measure to Jim, not so that he can become markedly different in rank or importance in the Church, but in order for Jim to be especially gifted so that he can do the work and mission God has given him to do within the body of Christ.
Like Isaiah in this morning’s first reading, Jim has heard a call from God and he has responded, “Here am I, send me.” Bishop Lamb and the priests who will soon lay their hands upon Jim’s head and shoulders, do so as an outward and visible sign of God's gift of grace which will empower Jim to live out his call to be a priest in this branch of Christ’s Church.
Bishop Lamb will give specific instructions to Jim which affirm that he is to work within the Body of Christ as a pastor, priest, and teacher, and to share with other clergy in the councils of the Church. In other words, Jim is being ordained to a position of leadership within the Church.
But as the Gospel reading from John makes abundantly clear, this is to be a ministry of love as modeled for us by Jesus, Jesus who says to us, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." Jesus calls all of us to a radical love and respect of others even as we are to love and respect ourselves. Jesus is even so radical as to call us to love our enemies and do good to people who are evil to us.
This is a particularly fitting reminder to one who is called to be a priest. It is also very appropriate on this weekend when our nation remembers the life and witness of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His commitment to non-violence was rooted in Jesus' Gospel of love.
Worldly wisdom teaches and practices the conviction that force and power will change people and societies. Press, politicians, priests, people of all sorts and conditions easily slip into thinking that coercion will change behavior and it can, at least for a while. But unless the heart is changed, the old and usually destructive patterns of human behavior will reassert themselves.
Jesus' way, which Dr. King emulated, demonstrates that only radical love of even the worst and most reprehensible of neighbors can change hearts and lives, and in time even societies. This is a lesson all the baptized, including those of us who are clergy or elsewhere in the public arena, can never be reminded of too many times…. only radical love of even the worst and most reprehensible of neighbors can change hearts and lives, and in time even societies.
Perhaps more than any other attribute, the love that Jesus lived must be at the heart of Christian ministry. This is true for all the baptized and especially it is what we seek in our priests. And there are other qualities that are needed such as integrity, trustworthiness, courage, a passion for knowing God more fully, intellectual inquisitiveness, a love of people, a heart for service, and a vision for living life that is anchored in trusting the goodness and mercy of God. Furthermore, in the sometimes rough and tumble of congregational life, a thick skin and a sense of humor are also very helpful. These are the qualities that enable one to be a faithful pastor, priest, and teacher so that each member of a congregation can respond to the call of Jesus can be engaged in ministry to a world which is full of broken, hurting, needy people.
Jim, my brother in Christ, please stand.
All of your life experiences have led you here to this Cathedral and this holy time. Your baptism, the congregations you have been a part of from childhood until now, your experiences with your friends and co-workers in the field of journalism and politics, the love of your family and especially of Lori, your years of questioning and wondering how you were to respond to God's call to you, the intellectual and spiritual challenges you encountered in seminary, your ministry as a transitional deacon in this congregation, all have been gift and grace filled, each playing a part in forming you into what you are about to become: a priest in the Church of God.
May you always be a priest of vision and have the faith and courage to live that vision. Do not settle for mediocrity. Remember that the Lord of Life always deserves the best you can give. Pray hard, trust God, work collegially, don't ever take yourself too seriously and laugh a lot.
And to paraphrase a line from the prayer of St. Hilary which you included on the back cover of today's program: May the sails you have hoisted for God always be filled with God's Holy Spirit and carry you forward on the journey which lies ahead. AMEN.