Saturday, December 29, 2012


Recently Maureen Dowd in the NY Times (12.26.12) wrote an article called “Why, God?” I frequently like to read response comments after the article online. In this case, there were many supportive and predictable ones, but there also was a large number of agnostic/atheist,  rather mean spirited, reactions to Maureen’s column. I was interested to see so many such critiques were based on “objective” science and so on. . . all the old tired rationalistic scientific arguments against God we have heard for over  two hundred years, not much new.

For over seventy years science has developed many experiments that destroy the ultimacy of rational certainty. Much science (meaning historically scientia moderna or just “new knowledge”)  points ontologically to a blank parenthetical horizon between tentative conclusions and ultimate Truth.  At that fearsome point, the scientists, poets, mystics and faithful people all together  may raise their hands  in awe knowing that we  can see no further into the mystery. The first time I encountered such a notion was  when at fifteen years old, I met Professor Carlton Berenda who, having encountered Heisenberg’s Indeterminacy Principle,lost his faith in the absolute predictability of science, becoming a philosopher and mystic. Fortunately I got to be a pupil for seven years  from high school through studies I did at the University of Oklahoma in the history and philosophy of science. He taught me that in the face of mystery, we are all subject to subjectivity!

Ms. Dowd ends her column:  “What I do know is that an unconditionally loving presence soothes broken hearts, binds up wounds, and renews us in life. This is a gift that we can all give, particularly to the suffering. When this gift is given, God’s love is present and Christmas happens daily.”

Loving presence is the closest to truth we can achieve, this God/Love presence and without the need for a reason or concept of love or an idea about God. So no creeds, no ecclesiastical authority, no weight of history, no law, no science, no nothing precludes this unconditional being/love.  To me, then, the Book of Common Prayer has it right about prayer as ultimately adoration. Further, the Church’s essential role is to be with us all in finding the ways and means, the mission, to be present more fully with one another. The work of clergy in general and bishops in particular is less about management than it is about authentic presence that may help us in our “official” and personal relationships to see the way to Love lit and nit together.

It seems to me that little about our formal descriptions of ecclesiastical roles helps at all and hinder us being present unconditionally. Perhaps a new year is once again a time to be more present for us all and for the whole Episcopal Church and its clergy to do more real presence  without the incumbrances of battered and terribly inadequate institutional rituals,roles and rules. The first step might be to remember who Jesus spent his time with and organize our lives around the abundance found in the nearness of sharing presence with the poor, the sick, the destitute, the marginal, the spiritually humble, the ones  who teach us well to be well.

Friday, December 21, 2012


In the parish of my youth it was a practice to fall down on one knee at the creedal phrase "for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man."  This small gesture of collapsing onto the kneeling rail brought a profound sense of mystery, awe and fascination in my age of theological innocence.  All I knew then was that I felt deeply humble and grateful to kneel weekly before the Christmas miracle.  This was before seminary; before the time of intellectual arrogance and before a lifetime of parish ministry where my halo became crooked and bent and my soul was gradually chipped raw by the foibles of ecclesiastical machinations.  It has only been in retirement that my soul has been restored and healed and I can once again behold the glory of the infant Christ and feel deeply the Incarnatus.  Behold, I am young again and this is very, very good.

The Celtic Church knew all about this.  Thomas Cahill writes that the Celts owned an incarnational world view:  "Our Father in heaven, having created all things, even things that have become bent or gone bad, will deliver us, his children, from all evil.  But our Father is not only in faraway heaven, but lives among us.  For he created everything by the Word, which was with him in the beginning, which became flesh in the human Jesus, and flames out in all creatures."

Like the early Christians, the Celts saw no separation between heaven and earth; mystery and phenomena.  Christ was very near indeed; near in the earth, near in the sea, near in the heavens, near in the soul.  The Incarnation was alive and well in the ancient Celtic Church, which is represented in these familiar words:  "Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me.  Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger."  This is Christmas within the yearning human soul; the baby Jesus embedded in the very flesh of every human being.

As we have learned from Quantum Physics that a particle can be in one place and everywhere else simultaneously, we believe that the Word became one human being, Jesus, and is everywhere else in the universe.  The majestic Anglican notion of the Incarnation is that the Word is present in all of broken humanity, in the cosmos, in the earth and interstellar space.  As Paul wrote, "nothing can separate us from the love of Christ."

On behalf of our Episcopal Journey authors, I pray and hope that you will have an insanely joyful celebration of the Incarnation of the Word of God.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Bishop Speaks How to Begin

The Bishop Speaks How to Begin

The life of the church would be much better if more bishops wondered how to get started in a diocese as apposed to arriving with a boat load of agenda and lots of new rules. The tendency is to be elected and then hit the ground running. Big mistake in most cases.

The better choice would call for them to be more like children. This is not saying they should act like children. Some arrive with that built in. Rather, they should arrive with the way children engage life in a new place. They ask questions, learn, are curious, they seek, ask why, dream, and generally stay open to what is going on and what has been going on before their arrival. They hit the ground softly and then, they crawl and then, they walk. It keeps them from falling down on their faces.

Now I am talking to you, Bishop. This is not an emergency. You are not suddenly the CEO of a corporation which is running so fast you have to catch up or be run over by the dust. It is a church. We talk about peace here. We try to be thoughtful. We are about respect. We are the people of hope. We are a community with a mission.

You don't belong here. You have been invited to live among us and give us inspiration, fellowship, Good News, hope, and joy. Please do not come here thinking you have to fix everything. It is perhaps bruised, but it is not broken. If you do it right, we will adopt you as one of us. If not, the snakes (and they are among us) will take control of you and all will not be well. Show us your manners. We want to welcome you.

There may be a problem, though. You may mistake the new clothes, ring and stick for armor which will protect you. It will not protect you. It will look like a Bulls Eye. Believe it, these things will only bring you closer to the altar of sacrifice. Which, incidentally, is where you belong.

It is quite easy to focus on that which is, in your opinion, wrong. This may tempt you because it is a potential enemy which you can repair and hence be a hero. You will be hero to some, but that is not your calling. You are not called to be a hero. You are called to be a Preacher, Teacher, Evangelist, and Sign of Unity.

I held a kind of Town Meeting in 6 different locations all over the diocese. This was a great time for me to introduce myself to the people who had yet to meet me. The cornerstone of my approach was to have a very clear focus and a single goal.

I could have had many things to work on in the beginning, but I determined (probably through a combination of intuition, experience and blind luck) that the best way for me to proceed was to have a single goal for the first year. That goal was to build trust within the diocese. This was not a matter of saying “trust me.” It was rather the use of a style of leadership that invited trust as a response.

I listened more than I spoke and I worked on getting to know people personally through mutual sharing of history and ideas. People were asked to think about the church of their dreams. How would that place look? What would the priest be like? What would make it a place that would be attractive to you and make you want to be there? What is missing and what goes on which is a blessing to you? Give them an opportunity to write these things privately on a form which will be given to you.

Listen to the people. Ask them about the church of their dreams. Give them your time and attention. Care about what they think. If you already had a different start, it is not too late to start over. You may be surprised at what you learn.

If you, reader, are not the bishop – you might give the bishop a little night reading. If you are one of the snakes - - - you know what to do.

The bishop is the newcomer and would do well to learn how the community thinks, how the community worships, and where their hunger resides.

AS WE WERE SAYING – there is more to come.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Via Media and Postmodern Spirituality


                The Episcopal Church explains its identity as the Via Media, meaning the middle path. Anglicanism in its structure, theology and forms of worship, is commonly understood as a Christian tradition representing the middle ground of the extreme claims of 16th century Roman Catholicism, Lutheran and Reformed traditions.  This middle path ideal has been a constant source of identity for Anglo Catholics. The Tractarian formulation of a theology of Via Media was reworked in the ecclesiological writings of Fredrick Denison Maurice.

                This Via Media identity has become essential to the Episcopal identity. In point of fact, as Episcopalians attempt to solve pressing theological and social conflict-ridden issues we call for unity around the principle of Via Media i.e. finding an acceptable common ground.

                I like the concept of via media, but in a postmodern culture there is a problem with the historical understanding of the Via Media. Namely, today people are not really interested in the struggle for identity between Roman Catholic and Reformed theology, i.e. the difference between Roman Catholic and Protestant doctrine.

                Even though the issues have changed, I still champion a spiritual theology of Via Media. In other words, we might give attention in our Episcopal journey of hope to developing Via Media spirituality. I am using Via Media in the Aristotelian sense of always searching for the golden mean when engaged in an ethical pursuit. It was his teaching that truth is disclosed by avoiding the extremes of a spiritual and moral pursuit.  In Buddhism, there is a similar teaching, where the spiritual path is also known as The Middle Way. It avoids the extremes of asceticism and indulgence.  The Buddha left his life of wealth and indulgence and turned to a path of disciplined asceticism and mortification. In his journey, he discovered enlightenment via the middle path.

                In the Postmodern culture, we are facing a new spiritual divergence much different than the Protestant/Catholic issue. Today, spirituality is either shaped by an authoritative biblical monotheism as opposed to a relativistic spiritual pluralism. The Western Church is moving from a clear boundary theology to a pluralistic spirituality.

                Of course, the issue of east meets west spirituality has been around for some time, but it is now a major element the in emergence of spirituality in Western culture. I believe my first encounter with the new via media dialogue between west-east spirituality was in Somerset Maugham’s novel, The Razor’s Edge.  Somerset Maugham includes himself in the novel as an observer of the various characters who represent the voice of his spiritual quest for meaning.  He is a Roman Catholic contemplative intellectual who finds incompleteness in Catholic spirituality; consequently, he explores Indian philosophy and mysticism.       

                Two characters in the novel express his inner west-east via media spiritual pursuit.  Larry Darrell and Elliott Templeton, I suggest, represent Maugham’s inner east-west via media spiritual quest. Larry is the spiritual seeker who feels incomplete with his Catholic spirituality and it is Elliott who is the Catholic holding to his church and living with its incompleteness. Darrell must search beyond a biblical authoritative monotheism, and Elliott holds obediently to his Catholic Church.

                In Larry Darrell, we hear the eastern spirituality of mindfulness, “Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it. If change is the essence of existence one would have thought it only sensible to make it the premise of our philosophy. We can none of us step into the same river twice, but the river flows on and the other river we step into is cool and refreshing too.”

                Still, Maugham holds to his Roman Catholic historical spirituality. “Our wise old church…has discovered that if you act as if you believed belief will be given to you; if you pray with doubt, but with sincerity, your doubt will be dispelled; if you will surrender yourself to the beauty of that liturgy the power of which over the human spirit has been proved by the experience will descend upon.”

                These two characters represent Maugham’s inner spiritual dialogue between the eastern spirituality of consciousness and his Catholic spirituality of a transcendental divine power greater than the consciousness of self. This is, I suggest, the new Via Media, and it is essential in our Episcopal journey of hope that we are in a constant dialogue between the tension of a biblical monotheism and a spiritual pluralism. In other words, we might be known as a house of Dynamic Spiritual Formation and not just a house that does liturgy well.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Resolution for the New Christian Year

Happy New Year.  Tomorrow is the first Sunday in Advent and we begin anew the annual spiritual journey with our Lord from birth to death to Resurrection.  Each year we resolve to do better in this faith quest.  We admit that lack of spiritual growth is ours to own but couldn’t our fellow Christians, our parish leaders, our clergy help us? 

For example, what is the purpose of the Sunday Service?  Is it just to carry on a tradition?  Is the focus the (few) faithful who show up?  Could it be to entertain visitors who may or may not come back next week?  None-of-the-above would seem to be the best answer.  Try this on for size; the reason we worship is to honor our Creator, our Redeemer, our Sanctifier. Therefore everything we do should make God proud – the way the buildings look when he drives in the parking lot – the music – the sermon – the fellowship – and, yes, even the way the announcements are shared.  One author wrote, “If God brought his friends to church, would he be proud to show then what you are doing to bring glory to his name?”  Can you imagine God bragging about the service to the angels?  To be sure, worship will look very different from congregation to congregation – but each parish should give their very best effort every Sunday and not just pay lip service to the concept of honoring God.

It is difficult to know what first time visitors see and feel because most do not come back and we don’t do follow-up anyway.  So to gain that perspective congregational members could invite friends to visit a service and then ask them to be candid about what they saw and felt.  Clergy could invite retired priests to visit and then debrief then over coffee during the week.
Members and clergy alike need to honest about the quality of music, liturgy, education and, of course, preaching.  As Chief of Chaplain Services in the military it was a privilege to superintend over 200 clergy from 40 Christian Denominations.  Many were outstanding preachers; many were not.  Retirement has facilitated visiting many Episcopal congregations and perhaps a dozen churches in other faith groups.  Again, many sermons were outstanding and many were awful. One fellow used “I”, “me”, and “my” more than 100 times in the first ten minutes of the sermon; too much ego to have room for the Gospel.  Another preacher used the entire sermon to describe taking her husband to a tattoo parlor and paying for an addition to his body art.  Good grief, where did these folks take homiletics?  Can anyone preach a sermon without personal pronouns and ridiculous stories?
Perhaps a suitable New Year’s resolution for laity and clergy alike would be to make the Sunday Service the most important event in the week.  Mark Batterson, church planter and Pastor of National Community Church in Washington, D.C., said “It doesn’t matter what size your church is: you’ve got to give God everything you’ve got every weekend!  Excellence honors God.” He then added, “If you want to experience growth . . . you have to prioritize the weekend service.”
We have ample evidence of what happens when we ignore this wise counsel.