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.