Monday, December 12, 2005

The Coming of the Light

I've been thinking about the statement about John the Baptist in John's Gospel: "He came as a witness to testify to the light ... The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world." The coming of the light is a source of hope; by contrast it also sharpens our awareness of the darkness. As Jesus says in Luke's Gospel: "For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light."

That is why so many oppose the coming of the light and the truth it reveals: the truth doesn't always put us in the "best light." The coming of the light can be upsetting, confronting us with the need to change. There is an undercurrent of unease in the expectation of Advent. We too easily miss the tension and conflict unleashed by the coming of the light, the birth of the Christ. There is nothing sentimental about Christmas.

The coming of the light reveals the torture chambers; the sweatshops where children toil; the "honor killings" of women murdered for the "crime" of being a victim; the fear and grief in our own hearts. Part of the suffering we are called to bear as followers of Jesus comes from simply acknowledging so much truth. Do we really hope for the coming of the light? How much truth can we stand?

The coming of the light at Christmas is the coming of the truth that sets us free. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, because he denies nothing and no one: he offers it all up to be transformed by God's deathless love, even to the point of his own self-offering on the cross in witness to all the painful truths of the world that we would rather not bear. The resurrection Jesus offers us follows from our acceptance of the light and all that it reveals. Advent is a time for joy, yes: thank God for the coming of the light that liberates us. But Advent is also a time for courage.

Friday, December 9, 2005

The Next Bishop of California

The Episcopal Diocese of California is preparing to elect its eighth bishop on May 6, 2006. Our Episcopal Search Committee is gearing up for its final phase of interviewing nominees and will announce a slate of 4-6 final candidates in February. There are seven nominees remaining, and they will be interviewed in January. Needless to say, curiosity is rising.

Thus far, our Search Committee has done an exemplary job. I am confident that we will be blessed with an embarrassment of riches from which to choose. The difficulty is prayerfully discerning which choice is consistent with God's call. The wisdom of our polity is such that this discerment will be done communally and transparently. May 6 will be an exciting and Spirit filled day.

I trust it will be a diverse group of candidates: male and female, gay and straight, from a variety of backgrounds and geographic locations. I'm proud of our diocese's commitment to an open, non-discriminatory nomination and search process in accordance with the canons of our church. Much speculation has focused on whether we will elect a gay or lesbian candidate. I'm not worried about that one way or the other. My concern is that we elect the person whom God is calling to serve as our shepherd. Our only responsibility is to be obedient to the prompting of God the Holy Spirit in so far as we can discern it. It will be up to the rest of the church to decide whether or not to consent to our decision at the General Convention in June.

Among the qualities that I'm looking for in the next bishop of California, the chief one is a person of prayer. My hope is for a bishop whose ministry is grounded in Christian contemplative practice. I believe that authentic, compassionate, and prophetic leadership must be rooted in a personal commitment to attentive listening to God. Visionary and courageous action emerges from the still center, from a confident relaxing into the presence of God that allows for real discernment of God's will.

It is tempting to think that it takes a big ego to fill the office of bishop. I suspect that just the opposite is true. Perhaps I am naive, confusing bishops with saints; perhaps, but I dare to hope and pray for a saint. Whoever, that saint may be, she or he will have some real challenges to face in this diocese: 80 congregations, among which far too many are small and no longer financially viable; a context that is increasingly both multicultural and post-Christian; a complex, globally interconnected urban/suburban setting that is scandalously polarized between affluent and impoverished people, with a shrinking and frightened middle class.

Our diocese is good at building institutions; it needs to be better at creating vital, flourishing congregations. We are good at providing charity; we need to be better at practicing justice. We are good at welcoming educated, affluent people who readily assimilate to the literate culture of Anglican liturgy; we need to be better at worshipping as diversely as the people and cultures in our communities.

All of this is a tall order: far too much for one person, even a saint, to do alone. It will require someone able to flow from the center to the margins and all around the edges of the circle, rather than from the top, down. It will require someone self-differentiated enough to articulate a Gospel vision without being threatened by the gifts of others necessary to make the vision a reality. I'm not asking for "Jesus with an M.B.A." I am praying for a bishop whose own experience of God's love for him or her, for each and all, is so firmly rooted that she or he can delight in the challenges ahead.

Wednesday, December 7, 2005


Today is the feast of St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, and the anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. I'm filled with a real sense of gratitude for my vocation and feel blessed indeed. It is a privilege to be able to do what I love in a place that I love, a privilege that too few people on the planet get to enjoy.

This anniversary date has put me in mind of the nature of priesthood. What is it exactly that I do and how do I do it? I wrote yesterday about imagining the priest as a mirror in the center of Christian community. Today I want to reflect a bit about how such mirroring "works."

Fundamental to sacramental ministry - mirroring back to people their own reflection of the image of God - is the discipline of seeing people and situations "whole." It is a contemplative discipline to learn to see people as they are in themselves, rather than how we want or need them to be for us. My tendency, perhaps the human tendency, is to either idealize or demonize people. We edit them down to serve our own projections, fantasies, and fears. We only see the parts of them the reinforce the image of them that we desire. Learning to see people whole is about intentionally getting to the point where "the honeymoon is over," the point where we can see them warts (or gifts) and all.

The practice of this discipline requires listening to people and observing them as they tell their own stories and enact them over time. One of the wonderful things about priesthood is being able to see people over an extended period in a variety of "real life" roles and contexts, as well as in the practice for "real life" that we call the liturgy. With some amount of attention on our part, people will begin to reveal themselves to us, and the Christ within them.

The contemplative discipline of "seeing people whole" also requires the practice of meditation. I must be attentive to God as well as to people, so that I can come to recognize that which is of God in them. Meditation is about putting aside my ego, my preoccupations and intentions, turning everything over to God so that I can simply be with and in God as I am. In that practice of "turning over" and "paying attention," I gradually become free of my need to heal, correct, control, or manipulate other people, to make them in my image, so that I can see them as the image of God.

I suspect that other priests find other ways, suited to their own temperament and personality, to practice what I call the contemplative discipline of seeing people whole. Thankfully, the efficacy of sacramental ministry doesn't depend upon my practicing this discipline perfectly or even well. God makes use of whomever God chooses, quite apart from our abilities and qualifications. The Body of Christ, the mystery of the presence of God, is manifest by the gathering of the assembly, and not simply by the actions of its presider. I do believe, however, that practicing this discipline is vital to my capacity to "get out of the way" so that God's image within people can be reflected back to them more clearly.

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

What Are Priests For?

"So, what do you do?" I sometimes find myself cringing a bit when asked this question by people whom I've just met. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, a large number of folks don't have any religious, much less Christian, background, and so they look somewhat confused or even shocked when I respond, "I'm an Episcopal priest." I might as well have said, "Oh, I'm a cat."

Even worse are those folks whose point of reference is a very negative one. "Oh, you're one of those." I might as well have said "I'm a . . . well, a pedaphile." The associations attached to priesthood are not always positive and, sadly, often for good reasons. Alas, thus has it ever been. Being a priest in late 18th. Century France or, say, early 20th. Century Russia, wasn't easy either. Literature is full of images of priests as ignorent, greedy, subversive, reactionary, predatory, or pompous.

Still, it does give me pause to ponder, "What are priests for?" Especially in a world where the Church itself is often deemed irrelevant, why have priests? Especially in a Church in which the ministry of all the baptized, the priesthood of all believers, is finally coming into its own again, what are priests for? Its a good question.

When I think about my own exercise of priesthood, the image that comes to mind is that of a mirror. My purpose is to reveal to others the Christ within them, to hold up before them the image of God that is their own reflection; and to do so in such a way that they may catch a glimpse of the Christ reflected in the image of their neighbor and even of their enemy. I'm not sure which is harder to see: the image of Christ in ourselves, our neighbors (literally, those who are near to us), or our enemies.

There is a tradition in the Church that sees the priest as a stand-in for Jesus. The purpose of the priest in this line of thinking is to reveal Christ in his or her own person, to represent Christ to the people (and vice-versa). The image here is of the priest as a window, rather than a mirror. The people see Christ through the priest (and Christ sees the people through the priest?). I find this to be a very problematic image. Here the Protestants were right: we don't need a priest to be the window for us. That window is open in each and every heart.

What at least some Protestant traditions failed to appreciate, however, is the need for a mirror in Christian community. The sacramental ministry of the priest is a matter of smoke and mirrors; not in the sense of magic or illusion, but of boldly setting forth the primary symbols of faith that allow us to see the glory of God reflected in the ordinary and everyday stuff of life, our own lives. Things like water, bread and wine; oil, light, and . . . the tacky people sitting around us in the pews!

The priest is not the apex of a pyramid of holiness. She is rather the mirror in the center of a wheel, allowing each point on the wheel to see itself in relationship to the others and to the whole of which it is a part. Now, this does not mean that people should not be able to see Christ reflected in the life of the priest as well. I don't mean to absolve priests of the call to holiness, as if their job was to reflect the image of God in the lives of everyone except themselves! Rather, I wish to point to the mutuality involved in this mirroring. If Christ can not be seen in the lives of priests, the Church is in trouble. But if Christ can only be seen in the lives of priests, then the Church qua Church has ceased to exist.

What are priests for? To serve as the mirror in the center of the Christian community. How that mirroring works, is another matter.

Thursday, December 1, 2005

Reading the Signs of the Times

I must admit, I don't agree with the retired Bishop of Newark on everything, but the following message from Bishop Spong is a good example of the kind of spiritual discernment of the signs of the times to which Advent calls us.

Is History Repeating Itself?
by the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong

"Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." These words of philosopher George Santayana are terrifyingly true. Recently, I have looked again at what happened to the Jews in Christian Europe in the 1930s and 1940s and compared that to what I believe is happening today to homosexual people in the United States. The similarities are both eerie and frightening. Lest we prove guilty of not learning from history, allow me to recall that anti-Semitic horror from the last century for the sake of comparison.

The latent hostility against the Jews began to be stoked by Adolf Hitler in his book Mein Kampf, which was written during the mid-twenties while he was in prison. The historic roots of this hostility, however, had been nurtured by years of Christian rhetoric that had portrayed Jews as Christ-killers and as the cause of such catastrophes as the Bubonic Plague. Killing Jews had been legitimatised by the Vatican during the Crusades and it was fed by the writings of Martin Luther during the Reformation. In each instance the Jews were defined as the cause of all the trouble the ruling authorities were experiencing. When Hitler's political star began to rise this killing prejudice was newly affirmed. The Pope, Pius XII, saw nothing in Hitler's attitude that he deemed worthy of condemnation. Instead he offered the Fuhrer his stamp of approval. The German Protestant Church leadership, with one or two notable exceptions, was also generally silent. Political leaders in the United States, Great Britain and Canada acted so as to lead others to think that this German behavior was not inappropriate. Hitler's anti-Semitic rhetoric was unchallenged allowing a specific group of people to be regarded as worthy of persecution.

Today, a similar drumbeat of hostility is being loosed in our world against a different victim. Listen to the words that emanate from high places regarding gay and lesbian people in our time and compare it with the hostility spoken against the Jews during the 1930s in Nazi Germany. There is much to suggest that attacks against gay and lesbian people today serve the same political purposes that attacks on Jews served in that earlier time. Prejudice at its core is a diversionary tactic to shift responsibility toward an identifiable enemy. Hitler blamed the depression on "Jewish bankers." His inability to bring about an alliance with Great Britain, which in his mind made World War II inevitable, was, he said, the result of an "international Jewish conspiracy." Political and religious leaders in America today blame homosexual people for the breakdown in family values, the rising divorce rate and the decline of public morality. Having a designated scapegoat always makes hostility seem legitimate. I shudder at the direction in which I see my nation and the world walking.

The episode that for me ignited these fears in an incontrovertible way came with the recent announcement from the Vatican that the new Pope Benedict XVI, the former grand inquisitor Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was planning to make the signature issue of his pontificate the purging of all gay candidates studying for the Catholic priesthood. The directive indicated that this purge was to be total. The Pope, like Hitler, is acting on a long history of prejudice that has also been justified by the dominant voices in the Christian Church. His own church has consistently called homosexuality "deviant, unnatural and depraved." In our slang homosexuals are called 'faggots,' the name of the stick used to ignite the fires that burned numbers of homosexuals at the stake. Roman bishops do not allow homosexual groups like 'Dignity' to meet in their churches. Yet these prelates know full well that a major percentage of their clergy, including bishops and cardinals are in fact gay men. In this new campaign for public favor, however, the Vatican is suggesting that it matters not that gay men seeking ordination live celibate lives, or even lives of exemplary holiness. If they are homosexual, they are to be purged. One's behavior is no longer to be the basis of judgment. People are now to be removed because of who they are. That was also Hitler's rule. 'Jewish,' for Hitler, meant anyone who had at least two Jewish grandparents, or one Jewish parent. If a gentile married a Jew he or she was also to be treated like a Jew. Hitler's purge, like Benedict XVI's, was not about one's doing; it was about one's being. The very being of a homosexual person is deemed to be sufficiently evil as to warrant action, for homosexuals are assumed to infect the purity of the Catholic faith like Jews were thought to infect the purity of the Aryan race.

Interestingly enough this Vatican Report stated that those already ordained would not be subject to this purge. That was to be avoided since the scandalous revelations would be a public relations disaster. The goal of cleansing the ordained ranks of homosexuals was thus only to start at the entry level. This means that the task of freeing the priesthood of its homosexual pollution, as they regard it, would require a time span of 50 years or so. In this manner the Pope promised that the "stench of homosexuality" would ultimately be removed from "the citadels of holiness."

Church leaders have blamed the recent publicity regarding the abuse of children by priests, rather conveniently it seems to me, on homosexual clergy, as if homosexuality and pedophilia were somehow the same. There is absolutely no evidence to support that assertion. In fact, 90% of the child abuse in America takes place in the family of the abused child and it is overwhelmingly heterosexual in nature not homosexual. So this new anti-gay initiative is little more than a campaign to clear the church's image. That hardly has integrity. I recall that the hierarchy met this child abuse crisis not with honesty but with massive cover-ups. The greatest culprit in this cover-up was Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who in an overt act of duplicity was transferred to a place of honor in Rome, thus removing him from the possibility of being brought to trial and having to testify under oath.

When attacking homosexuals becomes an acceptable thing to do then we have surely entered a dangerous period of history. Yet the Vatican is only one of the symptoms of this impending 'Dark Age.' During the last presidential campaign, the incumbent President of the United States, George W. Bush, and his top political advisor Karl Rove, managed to exacerbate the fears of the people of this land about the threat that homosexuality is supposed to bring to the institution of marriage. By placing this issue on the ballots of eleven states, Bush and Rove called out the mob spirit and blatantly encouraged America's growing homophobia. It proved to be a winning tactic. Once the seeds of hostility are sown and the victim identified, however, the result is inevitable. America's homosexual population has been, in effect, nominated to play that role. When Mr. Bush called for an amendment to the Constitution to ban gay marriage, he sought to institutionalize this prejudice. If hating or fearing homosexuals is proper for the Pope and the President then it quickly becomes proper for all. One has only to look and listen as this destructiveness, now unleashed, roams the land relatively unchallenged.

Television evangelist, Jerry Falwell, has already suggested that the disaster of 9/11 was an act of divine punishment because America had begun to tolerate homosexuals. His not so subtle message is that if you do not want to be attacked by terrorists you must oppress homosexuals. Not to be outdone by his fellow Virginian, Pat Robertson was busy denying that he had said that the hurricane was divine punishment on New Orleans because it is the hometown of lesbian comedian, Ellen DeGeneres. In his denial, however, he repeated the same mentality by stating that God was planning an earthquake for Hollywood, where the one he calls Ellen 'Degenerate' now lives. It was bizarre thinking, but both of these men have convinced themselves that God hates everything that they hate. That seems easy in today's world of religion.

The Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell, has stated that "Homosexuality is a greater health hazard than smoking," and has let it be known that homosexuals and their sympathizers are not welcome to receive communion at Catholic altars in Australia. At the funeral in Wyoming of a murdered gay man, Matthew Shepard, picketers organized by a Baptist preacher from Topeka, Kansas, carried a placard that read, "God said fags should die (Leviticus 20)." Does everyone not yet understand that when religious or political voices suggest that prejudice is both legitimate and blessed by God, they are opening this society to violence?

Adding to the weight of our cultural homophobia today are the voices of third world Christian leaders who, far more than is publicly acknowledged, are aided and abetted by right wing sources of money in America. Finally, there are the waffling main line Christian leaders, best symbolized by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who cannot bring himself to confront this blatant prejudice that impacts his church because he believes that "Church unity" is more important than countering this rising evil spirit. People simply do not seem to realize that if hostility, prejudice or persecution against any person on the basis of that person's being is considered legitimate today, then no one is safe tomorrow. History can repeat itself.

One German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemoeller, who did oppose Hitler, wrote these words, which I believe, are as true for us today as they were in the 1930's:

"First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a communist. Then they came for the socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me."

I intend to speak out against this rising tide of homophobia in both the church and the world today. Silence constitutes the betrayal of all that I hold sacred. I hope you will also join in this public witness.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Required Reading Before Christmas Shopping


Buy gifts for all your friends without supporting sweatshops at this year’s Just Christmas bazaar.

Two thousand-odd years ago when the Three Wise Men showed up bearing the world’s very first Christmas gifts, did Mary, Joseph or the shepherds ask whether the gold-miners had a union, or whether the frankincense and myrrh resin harvesters were given a decent wage and benefits package? Whether they did or not, it’s clear that gift-giving is a tradition worth hundreds of billions of dollars... but concern for justice at Christmas is hardly worth a penny.

But surely Mickey Mouse and his friends love children so much that they make every day of the year special for them, and Christmas time just extra, extra special, right? Uh, no. For instance, according to the U.S.-based National Labour Committee, young people in China are being forced to work 10 to 13 hours days, six or seven days a week, making Disney’s kids books in some of the company’s outsourced sweatshop dungeons, where unionization is as forbidden as going to the ball.

Read it all at

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Kairos

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time [Gr: kairos] will come.”
Mark 13:32-33

For a brave band of women in Bolivia, Christmas Day, 1977, was a kairos moment. Nellie Paniagua, Angelica Flores, Aurora Lora, and Luzmila Penmental witnessed the government murder, imprison, or exile their husbands, all leaders of the tin miner’s union in Bolivia. For them, this suffering was a sign that the time of God’s deliverance, the kairos, was drawing near. And so, they began a hunger strike at the residence of Archbishop Jorge Manrique.

Three days later, on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, their children joined them in the hunger strike. When people protested, the mothers responded by inviting adults to come and take the place of their children. Soon nearly 1400 people joined the hunger strike. Tension mounted, and international human rights workers and Church officials tried to negotiate a settlement. At one point, negotiations broke down and some strikers and human rights observers were arrested. The four women then began to refuse water as well as food.

Eventually, the government accepted the demands of the striking women in full, proving amnesty for 19,000 political prisoners and exiles, reinstating jobs for union activists, and granting freedom to all those arrested during the strike as well as the right to organize unions in the future.

The practice of justice, rooted in sacrificial love and subject to prayerful spiritual discernment, is the stance of alert watching appropriate to those waiting for the kairos, God’s saving action in history. The command to stay awake is not a counsel of passivity, but rather a bold assertion that almighty God is the Lord of history, and that God’s reign is a reign of justice.

Against the televangelists and authors of best selling books predicting when Jesus is going to return, Jesus himself says, “you do not know when the time will come.” I suspect that the kairos is a potential within every moment, equidistant from every time and place. It is not subject to calculation, like chronological time, it is not a matter of sooner or later. Nor is it subject to evaluation, like psychological time, a matter of better or worse, more or less interesting. It simply is, and it breaks in upon us as an expression of God’s inscrutable freedom and loving purpose. We prepare for it and we receive it as sheer gift.

Our job is not to predict the kairos. Our job is to get ready for it, to discern the actions appropriate to the times in which we live. Advent is the Church’s way of reminding us that time is not simply a chronological or psychological experience. The Church does not tell time with clocks, but with colors: the liturgical colors of royalty, sacrifice, blood, birth, life, growth, death and resurrection; each season a different practice of reading the signs of the times, reminding us that all of human experience is a potential kairos moment: pregnant with the presence of God.

Monday, November 7, 2005

Just Say "No"

When will the Bush Administration learn that it just needs to say "no" to torture, in any way, shape or form? It is simply unconscionable that President Bush is pushing for an exception to the blanket ban on torture contained in the McCain Amendment overwhelmingly approved by the U.S. Senate. It is immoral under any circumstances for one child of God to torture another child of God. Torture dehumanizes both the victim and the perpetrator. Would you really want your son or daughter to be trained to torture other human beings by the C.I.A.?

Not only is torture immoral - it is simply bad policy. It increases the risk of captured U.S. servicemen and women being subjected to torture and its use generates bad information; a victim of torture will say anything to stop the pain, whether it is true or not. In practicing torture, the U.S. Government has become what it says it hates - a terrorist of the worst order.

I'm sure that Pilate thought torturing and executing Jesus was within the compass of Roman national security interests. Jesus' death and resurrection demonstrates that God has nothing to do with torture and the culture of violence upon which it is built. The Episcopal Diocese of California recently passed a resolution calling upon the General Convention of the Episcopal Church to condemn torture and call upon the U.S. Government to renounce the practice of torture, including the practice of extraordinary rendition (outsourcing torture to other countries), and to compensate victims and their families. It is time for the Church to speak out in solidarity with the victims of torture, whoever they are, and to end our complicity in the justification of torturers.

Friday, October 28, 2005

We've Come a Long Way, Baby

Tomorrow Bishop Gene Robinson will preach at a Eucharist at Grace Cathedral, honoring 25 years of ministry with the LGBT community in the Diocese of California. Our Ordinary, Bishop William Swing will preside. It will be a grand celebration of Oasis/California, our diocesan LGBT ministry.

There is much for which to be thankful. A lot has happened in 25 years. There very fact that we will be worshipping with Bishop Gene Robinson indicates that "we've come a long way, baby." We bore the brunt of the HIV epidemic and taught the rest of the Church how to respond to the crisis with grace and love. Bishop Swing has ordained more gay and lesbian clergy than probably any bishop in the history of Christendom, and the ministries of LGBT people have flourished here. This will be one of his most enduring legacies as he prepares to retire after 27 years of episcopacy. And we've blessed a lot of same-sex unions, providing the Church with rich experience in liturgical practice and theology at the grassroots level (though Bishop Swing's record here has been poor IMHO, seeking to hide our light under a bushel for fear of backlash from the wider Church). We've been radical in our advocacy of life-long, monogamous relationships. The nerve!

And yet, we still have a long way to go. Same-sex blessings, like civil unions, are NOT the equivalent of sacramental marriage (in terms of canon law and liturgical form). The ecclesiastical equivalent of Brown vs. Board of Education lies in our future, declaring that separate is not equal. The backlash against Bishop Robinson's consecration has been intense, shaking the foundations of the Anglican Communion. It remains to be seen whether or not the General Convention of the Episcopal Church will sacrifice gay and lesbian Christians on the altar of Anglican unity (although I'm hopeful that it will not). And in the civil sphere, we are facing ballot initiatives in California next year that would amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage AND rescind the current domestic partner laws.

Oasis/California is partnering with the California Faith for Equality campaign to identify voters opposed to this blatant act of discrimination. People of faith need to be loud and clear about their opposition to this attack on our families. It is time for the "religious left" to be as well organized in its advocacy efforts as the "religious right." What a wonderful evangelism opportunity! Let us be bold in declaring that God loves absolutely everybody.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Reflections on Healing

The anonymous English 14th Century mystic, who wrote The Book of Privy Counselling, encourages his spiritual charge to

Take the good gracious God just as he is, as plain as a common poultice, and lay him to your sick self, just as you are. Or, if I may put it another way, lift up your sick self, just as you are, and let your desire reach out to touch the good, gracious God, just as he is, for to touch him is eternal health . . . Step up bravely, then, and take this medicine . . . Nothing matters now except that you willingly offer to God that blind awareness of your naked being in joyful love, so that grace can bind you and make you spiritually one with the precious being of God, simply as he is in himself. (p. 153 of the Image Books edition, 1973)

This is a beautiful description of salvation, of healing in its ultimate depth and transcendent meaning. Healing in its deepest sense is this simple resting in God’s love, allowing that love to penetrate our awareness in all the circumstances of our life, however difficult they may be. Acceptance of God’s love for us “just as we are” is the first and last step in the process of transformation we call healing.

Resting in God’s love may be simple, but it is not always easy. There is much that gets in the way of our communion with God, not the least of which is the experience of illness. The sheer pain, boredom, and isolation that often accompany illness can narrow the scope of our world to the point that we become preoccupied, not just with our self, but with this particular ache, this particular loss of function, this particular form of relief. Life constrained by illness, especially chronic disease or a debilitating accident, whatever its nature, can leave little room for other people, much less God.

I think it is important to point out that this experience of constraint, of bondage to illness, is often imposed on the sick person by others far more than by the nature of the illness itself. It is all too common for a newly diagnosed individual, not even yet symptomatic, to find others withdrawing from her in fear or embarrassment. Not knowing what to say or do, we may, despite our best intentions, further undermine the conditions necessary for health.

In any case, illness is fundamentally a rupture of relationship, a skewing of our basic orientation toward reality. Healing, then, is fundamentally about restoring relationships. Thus there is always a spiritual dimension to healing, even, perhaps especially, of physical illness. It is here, I think, that we find the connection in Jewish and Christian traditions between healing and the forgiveness of sin.

The sage writes in Ecclesiasticus,

My child, when you are ill, do not delay, but pray to the Lord, and he will heal you. Give up your faults and direct your hands rightly, and cleanse your heart from all sin. Then give the physician his place, for the Lord created him; don’t not let him leave you, for you need him. Ecclesiasiticus 38:9-10, 12

There is wonderful practical wisdom here, a refusal to accept the body/soul dualism of modern Western medicine. “God’s works will never be finished,” the creative process of medical research rooted in Holy Wisdom is ongoing and has its proper role to play; but we cannot ignore the context of relationship with God and other people in which illness and healing occur.

St. James picks up on this theme, making the relational matrix of healing even more explicit.

Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, to that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. James 5:14-16

There is an intimate connection here between healing and relationship, under the rubric of confessing and forgiving sin. Now, this is a tricky business, talking about illness and sin in the same breath, so let me try to be clear about what I mean. Illness is not a divine punishment for sin (hence the inclusion of the Book of Job in the canon of Scripture and Jesus’ own clear teaching on the matter). Neither is there a monocausal relationship between sin and illness: I commit X sin and Y illness results.

What the tradition does affirm, is that among the multiple, complex factors that interact in illness and healing, we cannot neglect the emotional, spiritual, and yes, moral factors involved. Sometimes we are complicit in our own illness, either actively or passively. And certainly our society is complicit in much illness, for which we all bear some measure of responsibility: from the toxins we put in our soil and dump in our rivers, to the emissions that destroy the ozone layer, to the addictive patterns of consumption that sustain our economic life. I know plenty of people who have gotten sick from carrying resentment or unrelieved guilt. Again, the soul/body dualism just doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny; our experience tells us otherwise if we are honest with ourselves.

All this is not to “blame the victim,” but rather to place healing in the broadest possible context – the restoration of broken relationships, the healing of the body politic, our inclusion in the Body of Christ. More often than we realize, forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of healing, reconnecting us with God, with others, and with our true self.

In Jesus’ ministry, proclaiming the nearness of God’s kingdom and forgiving sin is always of a piece with healing. Healing is the sign of God’s presence, of the restoration of the bonds of relationship that sustain our well-being. In the announcement of his mission in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus’ sets healing within a comprehensive vision of release from all the constraints that diminish our humanity and foster estrangement from God and other people. Poverty, slavery, illness, oppression – salvation is release from all of these and more, so that we no longer need be defined by our experience of suffering, resting instead in joyful love with the God who accepts us just as we are.

“God’s work is never finished; and from him health spreads over all the earth,” the sage reminds us. Jesus invites us to join him in the ministry of healing, to become a recipient and an agent of God’s love until health spreads over all the earth. God loves us just as we are. And our bodies, however broken, disfigured, or diseased they may be, are, as Archbishop Rowan Williams reminds us, “in the profoundest sense a place where unconstrained love comes to rest.” (On Being a Human Body, Sewanee Theological Review 42:4)

Acceptance of this love, as The Book of Privy Counselling tells us, is the medicine that matters most. Healing begins when we accept that we are the object of God’s deathless love, and allow that acceptance to reorient us to the world and reestablish the bonds of communion with others. The forgiveness that we and others may need to renew that bond is readily available, and our prayers for one another will “raise us up,” restore us to Resurrected life, life in communion with God and each other. Our circumstances will be transformed, and new possibilities for healing will emerge.

Thursday, September 8, 2005

Why I Believe in Gay Marriage

The following, published last year in the Pacific Church News, is by way of response to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's terrible decision to veto the gay marriage bill in California yesterday.

A gentleman once asked Mark Twain, “Tell me, do you believe in infant baptism?” To which Twain replied, “Believe it? Why, I’ve seen it!” When asked if I believe in gay marriage, my response is the same. I’ve been married to another man for more than ten years, and I know scores of other same-sex couples who also have made a commitment to life-long fidelity and mutual care. Many of them, like us, are also raising children.

The question isn’t whether or not there is such a thing as gay marriage. The issue is whether the State will license such marriages and whether the Church will bless them. These are two separate questions that must be decided on the basis of different criteria. There is an important distinction to be made between civil and sacramental marriage.

Marriage in our society is a love relationship marked by personal choice and commitment. This love relationship creates a profound union between the spouses, an intense sharing in the whole of life. Marriage, as an intimate partnership, is formed by a covenant of mutual personal consent. A marriage is initiated when two people give themselves to each other in a free commitment to life-long love.

While marriage begins as a private, interpersonal act of self-giving, its consequences are public in nature. Married couples unite distinct family (and, frequently, cultural) systems, realign economic resources, and often choose to raise children. The community therefore has an interest in deciding whether and how to support married couples. Whose marriages should be legitimated by the wider community and why?

The State has largely limited regulation of marriage to concerns about insuring mutual consent and protecting public health. In 1967, when the United States Supreme Court voided anti-miscegenation laws in Loving v. Virginia, the Court said: “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness. . . .” The Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that discrimination against same-sex couples’ access to civil marriage violates constitutional principles of individual liberty and equality.

Same-sex couples’ equal access to the obligations and benefits afforded by civil marriage is a simple matter of justice, consistent with the resolution of the Episcopal Church’s 65th General Convention affirming “. . . its conviction that homosexual persons be entitled to equal protection of the laws with all other citizens and [calling] upon our society to see that such protection is provided in actuality.” It is also consistent with our baptismal covenant to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.

Justice and respect for human rights are the relevant criteria in determining whether or not the State should license same-sex couples’ marriages. The Church’s blessing of our marriages, however, raises additional questions. In blessing a marriage, the Church gives praise and thanks to God for the couple and invokes God’s favor upon their life together. In doing so, it recognizes in the couple’s self-giving love a sign of the Paschal Mystery, the mystery of God’s self-giving love for all creation revealed in Christ Jesus and made present by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Christian marriage, therefore, is a further specification of one’s baptismal covenant to accept and imitate God’s self-giving love. Marriage isn’t a narrowing of love, a justification for not loving others. Rather, the particular love of one concrete individual provides an understanding of the sacrificial nature of love more generally. As the lover comes to love the beloved precisely for him or herself, and not as a projection or an illusion, the capacity to love others in this way deepens.

Christian marriage is a sacrament, a sign of God’s love and a means of grace whereby our own capacity for love is strengthened. Can the total sharing in life and love of same-sex couples open them to the depths of the Paschal Mystery, making their marriages sacramental signs of God’s self-giving love? This is the relevant criterion for determining whether the Church should bless their marriages. Do I believe that same-sex couples can meet this criterion? I’ve seen it.

Forgiveness part 2

The Forgiveness Project includes a powerful collection of stories that witness to the way in which forgiveness leads to spiritual freedom. These stories also remind us that forgiveness is a process. When we have been harmed, our first response is often (rightly) one of anger. Our anger serves as an assertion of our human dignity and re-establishes boundaries that have been violated. It is here, however, that a crucial decision must be made.

After the 9-11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., the Dalai Lama urged us to seek causes, rather than blame. Will our anger provide the energy to search for causes, leading to understanding and the possibility of reconciliation and resolution? Or will it remain stuck on blame, clinging to resentment for days, months, years . . . a lifetime? That is the choice we must make. Will we search for causes, or blame? Seeking causes, we can move into the process of forgiveness and reconciliation. We can move beyond being defined by the dynamic of perpetrator and victim. Choosing blame, we remain stuck in our victimization, becoming almost dependent upon the perpetrator for our identity, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said.

Blame keeps us trapped in resentment, trapped in the past. Seeking causes leads to forgiveness and opens up a way into the future. That way isn't easy. Sometimes it feels impossible. But Jesus invites us to follow him there, a journey of discovering depths of compassion and possibilities for reconciliation that mark the dawn of the kingdom of heaven with us and amoung us.

Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Forgiveness - part one

Peter: "Lord, if a member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus: "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times."

I say that "I believe in the forgiveness of sins" whenever I affirm the Apostles' Creed, and I pray the prayer that Jesus taught us, saying, "Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us." And yet, all too often I fail to see that it is incumbent upon me to forgive and that, if I don't, there are real spiritual and moral consequences. God forgives, yes, absolutely and always. But do I?

My tendancy, and the tendancy of the Church historically, has been to try to limit the scope of forgiveness. Forgiveness becomes conditional, dependent upon the expression of true contrition or, at the very least, remorse on the part of the sinner. A genuine intention of amendment of life is necessary. And this seems perfectly reasonable. If we forgive everything indiscriminately, then nothing really matters, right?

Jesus, however, is not reasonable. He does not teach conditional forgiveness. Peter is essentially asking, "Must my forgiveness be perfect?" And the answer is "More than perfect, perfectly perfect; absolute and unconditional." Notice that Peter didn't say, "If my brother asks my forgiveness," but rather, "If by brother sins against me." Forgiveness, not repentance, is the first step. It is not that I have to "get my act together" in order to be forgiven. Rather, having been forgiven, I can relax into a love that empowers me to "get my act together." Forgiveness creates the space in which we, and the world, can begin to heal.

Now this seems an impossible ideal. And yet, in my experience it is true. As James Alison has noted, forgiveness makes repentance possible. It is only in trusting at some level in the compassion of the one I have sinned against that I can even find the courage to ask forgiveness. It is the prior experience of forgiveness that makes repentance and amendment of life possible. God's forgiveness always precedes our repentance - always. It is always available and never denied. The imitatio dei requires that our practice of forgiveness should operate in this way too. That is what life in the Kingdom of God is like.

Indeed, forgiveness of sins is essential to Christian life because it is the doorway to true spiritual freedom. It is in opening the door of forgiveness that we enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; not only the receiving of divine forgiveness (that is the easy part), but our willingness to offer it to others. The capacity to forgive precipitously, promiscuously, without even being asked to do so, is the mark of Christian freedom. There exists a direct correlation between the two: the greater the forgiveness, the greater the freedom.

Monday, September 5, 2005

Thoughts on Mary

In the apocryphal Gospel of Bartholomew, a 5th Century Coptic text, we find the following story about Blessed Mary, Virgin Mother of God Incarnate: The resurrected Christ was teaching the apostles the mysteries of salvation when he suddenly vanished. Mary is with the apostles, and they decide to ask her “how she conceived the incomprehensible or how she carried him who cannot be carried or how she bore so much greatness.” She warns them that she cannot describe this mystery: “For if I begin to tell you, fire will come out of my mouth and consume the whole earth.”

The apostles are relentless, however, and continue to press her to tell them about the conception of God. Mary responds by inviting them to pray. She spreads her hands to the heavens and calls upon God, the creator of the cosmos saying, “The seven heavens could hardly contain thee, but thou was pleased to be contained in me, without causing me pain, thou who are the perfect Word of the Father through whom everything was created.” Mary then instructs the apostles to sit around her, each one holding a part of her body, lest her limbs fly apart when she describes the mystery of bearing the Creator of the universe within herself.

She then begins to tell the story, beginning with the angel who brought her the news of Christ’s conception. “As she was saying this, fire came from her mouth and the world was on the point of being burned up. Then came Jesus quickly and said to Mary, “Say no more or today my whole creation will come to an end.”

This story wonderfully exemplifies the mystery of salvation and the power that Mary has exercised in the Christian imagination from the very beginning of the Church. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 officially declared Mary, Theotókos, literally God-bearer. For at least two hundred years before Chalcedon, early Church fathers (and mothers, too, no doubt) had pondered Mary’s role in the mystery of our redemption, and countless Christians already were calling upon her to pray for them.

There were surely a variety of impulses at work in this devotion to Mary. Theologically, understanding Mary as the Virgin Mother of God is an important way to affirm that Jesus is both human and divine, protecting the unity of the two natures in one person. Mary, as mother of Jesus, serves as a hedge against those who deny Jesus’ humanity and despise bodily existence generally. Mary, as Virgin Mother, serves also as a hedge against those who deny Jesus’ divinity and the idea of Incarnation generally: materialists of various stripes who deny the capacity of creation to reveal the glory of God, to display its transcendent depth.

This may seem a bit abstract and, frankly, fanciful, if we fail to see that what is at stake here is not gynecology, but soteriology: what is at stake is human salvation. Christian orthodoxy proclaims that God became human so that humans can become divine. Salvation is a process of divinization, of realizing our identity as children of God; not by denying or denigrating our humanity, but rather by affirming its transcendent origin and end in God.

Jesus calls us to put do death our false self, that fragmented, defensive self born of our fears and fantasies, and embrace instead the freedom that comes with living in reality. As St. Paul said, even though born of a woman, born under the law, Jesus broke the bonds of human slavery to biology and culture, to all those partial loyalties that determine our identity, and invites us to accept that divine adoption which establishes our true self. Humans were made for divinity.

Dogmatic formulations about Mary serve to maintain the unity of humanity and divinity in the economy of salvation. Mary’s spiritual power and symbolic resonance, however, has never been contained by such formulations, no matter how true and liberating they may be. When the Council of Ephesus proclaimed Mary Theotókos in 431, the people of the city danced in the streets. Formerly devoted to the goddess Artemis, a manifestation of the Magna Mater, the Mother Goddess worshipped by Mediterranean peoples for centuries, the people of Ephesus saw in Mary a renewed expression of the divine feminine.

We see something of this in the story from the apocryphal Gospel of Bartholomew, with which I began. While set within a perfectly orthodox framework, the story confronts us with the full force of feminine spiritual power that Mary conveys. Jesus has to step in and shut her up, less this voracious power consume the whole creation. Perhaps there is more than a little projection of male insecurity and fear of female creativity in the telling of this story, but the grace in it is that Mary has kept alive a sense of the divine feminine in our tradition, preventing us from collapsing into complete patriarchal nonsense when it comes to imagining God; who is, of course, finally unimaginable. This is not the demure, passive Mary of later popular piety. This is the creative power of the divine erupting into human history, mighty and terrible to behold.

Mary, as Virgin Mother of God Incarnate, is also a type of the Church. She is us and we are Mary. We are God-bearers, too, and the whole mystery of divinity, of creation and redemption, is contained in us, waiting to be born. Our whole purpose in life is nothing less than to give birth to the Christ in us, individually and collectively, for the sake of the salvation of the world.

In imagery that may seem scandalous, Grant Gallup vividly portrays Mary’s importance as model for Christian life. He writes that “As Mary ‘broke her water’ Jesus was baptized into our humanity before he was baptized by his cousin John in [the] Jordan. Mary became the first Christian herself in that flood she let loose, and the first Christian priest, who consecrated the Eucharist in her own womb and in her arms, as she offers him to us, the True Bread that comes down from heaven.” Jesus, the Incarnate Word from all eternity, was baptized into our humanity, just as we are baptized into his divinity. The mystery of this dual baptism subsists in Mary, Mother Church.

How do we even begin to plumb the depths of the mystery of Christ being born in us? When the apostles pressed Mary for an answer, she invited them to pray. Then she instructed them to hold on to her, to keep her grounded; she is afraid she might literally be blown away by this mystery. I think this story is a parable of our own spiritual practice. Approaching the mystery of our being in God, and Christ being formed in us, should inspire a certain amount of awe and humility. The movement inward, in prayer and meditation, is the means whereby we touch the mystery, allowing it to transform our very identity and life into the likeness of Christ; but it must be balanced by a movement outward into community. We need to hold on to one another, to keep each other grounded so that our inner journey does not degenerate into sheer narcissism or escapism.

At the same time, our involvement in community and all the busyness of caring for others can degenerate into mere codependence and flight from the deep inner transformation that God seeks to work in each of us. Each of us must undergo her or his own crucifixion of the false self and resurrection of the true self in union with Christ. Authentic Christian spirituality has nothing to do with either flight from the world, or flight from the self; it has everything to do with the transformation of both self and world.

Mary is Theotókos, God-bearer, and icon of the Church. As such, she teaches us that we need both solitude and solidarity. Christ must be born in us and in this gathered community. Our God-bearing is not for our own sake, or even for the sake of the Church. It is for the sake of the salvation of the world.

It is here that we need to read the apocryphal Gospel of Bartholomew in light of the canonical Gospel of Luke. The words of the Magnificat, Mary’s prayer of thanksgiving that we heard read this morning, remind us that the grace which works our transformation into the likeness of Christ is in service to the reign of God. This reign is not simply an inner state of mind, the consolation of personal serenity. God’s reign is the presence of justice for the poor and peace among the nations.

Mary praises God, not only for the favor shown her in being chosen to be Theotókos, but because she knows that the Christ born in her will be for the healing of the world. This is the source of her joy and astonishment: that God is pleased to become manifest through her to join in the struggle and suffering of humanity. Mary is the instrument of the great reversal whereby God takes the nobodies of this world and from them makes a holy people consecrated for the blessing and renewal of the earth. And so are we.

Each of us has her or his part to play in the drama of salvation. We are the body of Christ in solidarity with the poor, the little ones, the endangered species, the desecrated planet that is our home. We are the agents of the transformation, the great reversal, that God is working in history through us and in spite of us. It is for this that Mary consented to give birth to God Incarnate. And that is why we call her “blessed.”