Friday, December 25, 2009

Last night at 6:00 p.m. families entrusted their little ones to special ladies at church who dressed them hastily in a variety of costumes. As I read the story of the first Christmas these cuties were sent or led down the aisle to the altar area, where they variously sat on the step, climbed under the altar rail and ran back down the aisle. I'm not sure anyone heard I word I said.

Afterwards, since wisdom has never been my long suit, I sat down in the middle of the horde and proceeded to try to deliver a children's sermon. I had three presents to open up, and instantly had nine volunteers. The last present got opened by a very eager little girl before I needed its contents. When I finally sent them back down the aisle to the same ladies, who stripped off their costumes and delivered them to their parents I wasn't sure they had heard a word I said.

Afterwards people crowded into the parish hall and talked about how beautiful the mass had been.

Older people gathered in the cold later last evening and a high and solemn mass began at 10:30 p.m. Beautiful music that I could not produce punctuated the hour and a half we were together. The scent of incense hung in the air. Candles lent a reverent glow to the whole church as we left, singing "Silent Night, Holy Night."

Afterwards people gathered in the Narthex and talked about how beautiful the mass had been.

Once again I realized that I'm not the center of this thing called Church, I'm at best a catalyst, someone who seems to cause things to start happening, but in the end has little control over how things end. Humbling, this priestcraft is, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

This is just to wish you all a very Merry Christmas, a delightful day with those you love and something besides coal in your stocking!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Elizabeth Scott of a suburb of Dallas, has an autistic child, but you would never know it. Born with Pervasive Development Disorder, little Roman began to show signs of withdrawal and fixation that are so typical of the autism syndrome. After three years of literally bath-time to bed-time intensive behavioral therapy in the loving hands of his mother, the boy no longer tests on the autism spectrum. He and his mother appeared this morning on Good Morning America.

Yet even I could see that the 8-year-old's social interactions, while accurate, were still a little parroted and stilted. It was obvious to me that the boy, while he had learned to overcome the symptoms, is not truly "cured;" whatever neurological disfunction that causes autism has not been rewired correctly, and still remains. It has just been driven into a recessive state. Nonetheless, his mother's herculean interventions probably paved the way for her son to live a relatively normal life with a minimum of assistance.

Amazing as that story is, what is more amazing to me is the way this mother has reflected the work of the Holy Spirit. All of creation is infected with the sin syndrome, and it causes disfunctional behaviors that alienate us from one another, from the rest of creation, and from our Creator. Whereas the guilt of sin is forever granted in Christ's atoning sacrifice on the Cross, yet that great loving act does not rewire our souls, but merely begins another herculean intervention by the Holy Spirit, a process called by some Christians "sanctification," by the early Eastern fathers, "theosis." We learn to overcome the negative symptoms of sin and to live in a way that more and more approximates the ideal for which we were created. We'll never make it in this life, any more than little Roman will be "normal," but we will progress, and every little step of progress will cause our Father more joy and rejoicing than what Elizabeth feels as she watches her son's progress.

The issue that I think is central is that just as the stygma of autism did not put Elizabeth off from working with her son, because of Christ, the stygma of sin does not put the Holy Spirit off, either, but rather rouses her powers to meet the challenge.

The Collect for the third Sunday in Advent (this year it fell on December 12) from the Book of Common Prayer reads:

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Tiger Woods just got dropped by Accenture, the first and so far only major sponsor to completely cut free from the golf star. They say he is no longer the kind of representative that they need. What changed? Well, the golden boy sullied his crown with allegations of mistresses and marital problems. They all do it, there's not a golden boy who ever lived who died without some shadow to darken the horizon. Did Accenture think he wouldn't?

President Obama is chastising the big bankers for not helping to support his financial recovery plan now that their bail-out money has done its work. He is calling on the big CEO's to not take their insanely fat Christmas bonuses and to free up lending to small companies. But capitalism doesn't work on the basis of altruism, it works on the basis of greed. Banks sit at the top of the capitalist food chain. To ask them to be "nice" is nicely naive.

Think about it, in the Westerns on TV have you ever seen a nice banker? No, our corporate myth ascribes them the role of the greedy tycoon who will do anything to turn a buck. I know a banker who told me when I first arrived in this city nine years ago that people were already giving to the extent they could. I found out subsequently that his monthly contribution to his church was significantly less than mine, and I certainly don't make as much as he. I also found out that people in this town are as generous as anywhere--he wasn't describing the town, he was describing himself. Banking is not "nice," and their bosses are not in it to be nice. Does anyone really think they would?

No, and the point is not that they should do right, or that golden boys should never sully their crowns, but that none of us ever do. All of us have skeletons in our closets, and all of us deal with the realities of life. Honesty about the realities is probably a more solid basis on which to make decisions. There are really only a few stories in the world, relived in each person's life in limitless variations.

Someone wise said that maturity as a person is achieved when one realizes that one's glories and one's horrors are not really any greater or worse than anyone else's.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Amanda Knox got 26 years in jail in Italy for murder. Predictably, the U.S. is in an uproar. How could this innocent young college exchange student who had fallen for one of the local cuties be the black widow she is portrayed to be? Is there a hidden side to Amanda that finally came out, or is there a hidden side to Italian courts that is coming out? Are the Italian courts really the mob in robes, or are we so unable to accept that other cultural systems work on different values than ours that we insist that our people be treated like we would treat them, even when they play in someone else's sandbox? Is this about Amanda or America?

On the same day on Good Morning America the news broke of potentially harmful amounts of the heavy metal antimony in the very popular pet-of-the-day, the Zhu Zhu Pet Hamsters. Antimony or acrimony, the watchdog group GoodGuide and the manufacturers of the very lucrative toy were at eachother's throats. But is this about a potentially hazardous material in a toy, a hidden threat to our kids' well-being, or is it about a hidden aspect of our society that is so scared of something scary that we spook at the slightest hint of danger? Is this about the toy or about us?

Today's GMA reported nothing on Amanda. Apparently the appeals process is going on predictably with nothing to report. The Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a statement that the testing process used by GoodGuide did not conform to industry standards, and GoodGuide has issued an apology.

So now we don't know whether it's about Amanda or America? The Toy or Us? But we do, really. It's always about us. Whatever we do reflects the values and assumptions we hold so deeply that they are no longer obvious to ourselves. One of those assumptions is that children should not be exposed to anything that can be considered a threat. But we hold that value in tension with other things like the need for transportation, so we put our children in cars (in safety seats, yes, but the argument still holds) and transport them at high speed down lines of traffic that have already proven to be infinitely more dangerous than antimony. So what's with the antimony thing?

And we've all seen the TV shows, "Locked Up Abroad," and the horrors foreign prisons can dish out. (Perhaps our prisons wouldn't be so overcrowded if they weren't so cushy!) Legal systems are icons of the value structure of the society that utilizes them. If in Italy functionally someone is guilty until proven innocent, then that's the way it is. That's the world Amanda chose to live in, and she had been there long enough to probably get an inkling of that fact. Ignorance is no excuse--nobody ever tells you all the rules. And it won't get you off in court, obviously. The appeals process is appropriate, and for her sake I hope it works for her. But getting upset over another country's legal system is to forget that all cultures are a mixture of glory and horror, nobody's perfect, and even our legal system's flaws are painfully obvious to outsiders.

Someone's got to figure out a way for Americans to be able to take responsible risks and bear the responsibility themselves. When they do, and if they can really sell it, it will solve the healthcare crisis, overcrowding in the prisons, and put a whole lot of sleazy lawyers out of work.

All that said, I'm glad that in God's eyes we're not guilty until proven innocent, we're guilty because we are and God knows it. But I'm also glad that that's not the end of the story. God forgives as only God can, so in the Kingdom we have the best of all worlds: We're guilty but forgiven, we get help dealing with the consequences, and strength to take responsibility for them!

Now, go sell that to Congress!
Recently the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles elected a partnered lesbian as Suffragan (assistant) bishop. The election now awaits consents from half plus one of the Standing Committees (highest ranking committee in a Diocese) and of the bishops with jurisdiction. It may take as much as 4 months to complete the process. Our bishop, the Rt. Rev. C. Andy Doyle, has told us that he will not give his consent. The actions of the diocese of Los Angeles fly in the face of the Windsor Report that calls for a moratorium on such actions, to which he is committed. I wrote the following response:

I am deeply saddened by this turn of events. I do not believe that the good people of Los Angeles are trying to stick it to us, they have been living with this question for a very long time and came to believe as they do many years ago. Nonetheless, I disagree profoundly with them. Not only does it fly in the face of recently reaffirmed teaching on sexuality and the urgings of the rest of the Anglican Communion, but it is another example of how as Americans we are usually arrogantly unconcerned with the rest of the world's issues. I wish our Episcopal church could rise above that, but obviously this part of it didn't.

On the one hand, it pains me deeply that our church is being such a pin-head about this. It leaves me wondering what the future holds, as I'm sure it does you. I am confident that our Bishops will not consent to this consecration, and I believe our Standing Committee will do the same. What the rest of the church does remains to be seen.

On the other hand, there has been a lot of talk about the option of the Anglican Church in North America. The ACNA is theologically conservative, and so am I, but the approach that underlies the movement is profoundly troublesome to me. As soon as we define ourselves primarily theologically we sell out on the unity that Jesus prays for so ardently in John 17 (and we lose touch with one of the genius elements of Anglicanism that roots our unity in worship.) Some of the methodologies used by the ACNA compromise any claim to high moral ground on their part, as well. I cannot espouse that option either.

What will I do? I will continue with the Episcopal Church, and so will St. Christopher's. I do not agree with everything that the church is doing, though there is still much good. Our particular corner of the church is still safe and I do not see that changing in the near future. Besides, none of us fully comprehends the nature of the will of God. We are all seeking to understand what we will never fully plumb. Therefore I am cast back on my conviction that schism is a worse sin than heresy. It is virtually impossible to be schismatic without pride being the driving force behind it, whereas one can be humbly and sincerely wrong. The one is teachable, the other is not. The one is redeemable, the other cuts itself off from part of the community gathered around our Lord Jesus Christ, just because we do not like or agree with them.

I have a body that is 52 years old and is starting to show its age. There are things about my body that I do not like, and sometimes it rebels against what I ask it to do. But for that reason I do not chop off those offending parts, I love them and seek to live with the condition of my body as it is. Likewise, I have no intention of leaving the Episcopal Church. WE are the Episcopal church in Killeen, not the Diocese of Los Angeles. The statement we make in this place is what the Episcopal Church is saying here, not what the Diocese of Los Angeles is saying. They are speaking to their location in the terms that they believe are right. It still stands to be seen what the larger church thinks of it.

As for us, it is precisely at times like this that we need to pull together, focus on what God has given us to do here, do it well, with faith and love, and leave the larger battles to the ones who are fighting them.


If the only prayer you say in your life is "Thank you," that would suffice. --Meister Eckhart

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


This morning after a brief hearing in court I watched as a previous employee was fingerprinted by the sherriff and escorted off to jail. It largely brings to a close a nightmare we have been living quietly for almost two years. She confessed to having misappropriated fiduciary assets of St. Christopher's in the amount of over $81,000. She will be in prison for a total of six months, then she will be parolled for 10 years. During that time she must make no contact with the Church, pay restitution of all losses, and serve 350 days of community service. Initial payment was made to the church in the amount of $590.

Feelings are certainly mixed. On the one hand, there is relief that this is finally in the final stages. We do not really hope to get much money back, the woman has no real skills and now she has a record. Without authority to garnish wages there is no guarantee we will see much money. It's easy to sweep it under the rug and move on. But there is also the anger and sadness, the sense of betrayal and outrage that linger. This event helps, but in the end the resolution of those feelings has to do with what goes in inside us, not outside.

As Christians we talk about forgiveness. Is it forgiving to be glad when justice is served as it was today? The illustrious and martyred Dietrich Bonhoeffer would disagree in his book, The Cost of Discipleship. He says we should love our enemies and serve them as a brother or sister. He would have us have the conditions of her parole changed so that we could provide for her the opportunity for the community service hours. He might even say that, claiming a Christian faith like ours, we should never have taken her to law. But we didn't do that, and I feel no remorse for what we did.

No, forgiveness does not forget the past, but requires the best of us. Facing the reality of the past, we refuse to get caught up in the negative emotions of it, we refuse to let the wrong control us, and we decide very deliberately to take appropriate risks again. Risks of what? Reengagement in a way that respects the past and gives opportunity for redemption in the future. We cannot contact her, the law bars us from doing so. But we can simply move on, refusing to drag behind us the intolerable burden of resentment that is so temptingly at hand. In this case she must, with her God, seek reconciliation on the level she can, and to make restitution as is required. In this case we must put in place the controls we have and stick to them, be more realistic about human nature without getting cynical, and focus again on the mission and ministry God has granted us in this time and place.

I don't know what redemption will look like for this situation, but God does. Forgiveness is willing to wait for God to reveal it at the proper time.
This morning's news covered President Obama's pending announcement of 30,000 new troops for Afghanistan. He is expected to work hard to defend the decision to a country a bit war-weary. He has come to this decision through a long and involved process, what seems to me to be more deliberate than perhaps previous commanders-in-chief, but there will be those who immediately decry the decision.

Whether he is right or not to do so is an interesting question to ask. The fact is, we are in the middle of a conflict, we've punched the tar baby and there's no easy way out, that's all there is to it. An increase in troop-force in order to eventually let us leave could make sense. I'm not on the ground there to be able to say. On the other hand, the ultimate question of whether this war is even winnable is on the tongues of increasing numbers of Americans. I've had a number of soldiers in my office in the past three years or so, wondering about the moral defensibility of this war effort. It puts them in an awful spot. They have vowed to uphold the constitution and laws of the United States, and their commanders have put them in harm's way on our behalf. That's all stuff we know and hold dear. On the other hand, they have seen the devil in the details, and have begun to wonder.

It is an interesting dilemma. The concept of a holy war is something only a religious people can address. A religious nation wages holy war, believing that they are defending the truth about God and humanity. On the other hand, a religious nation is the only one who can also declare a war unholy and refuse to participate. Why is it that heaven and hell are both at hand when we talk about them? And why is it, as Barbara Brown Taylor said, we never behave more badly toward one another than when we feel like we have to defend God?

In our increasingly secular culture the question becomes, How does one establish moral authority without invoking divine backing? Claiming that certain rights and principles are unreducible and unailable only makes gods of those rights and principles, and usually reveal, on greater scrutiny that they serve the purposes of the people who hold them in some very utilitarian way. So much for moral authority. It all boils down to "might makes right," and "survival of the fittest." If that is the bottom line then the ultimate good is the integrity of my own skin, I make a god of my own, or my society's continued existence, and create God in my own image. The Kingdom of God has already come, because the world is already a place where goups of people beat up on each other in order to continue their way of life. So much for "no greater love has he than to lay down his life for his friend." (--Jesus.)

What's my answer? Nations wage war for a hundred reasons, almost none of which are the stated ones. Morality in war in that situation is something determined in the policies of each nation, which ultimately becomes one of "might makes right." It is unrealistic to expect the government of a nation to wage or not wage war on its moral defensibility, no matter what your criteria. The question is, can I as a religious person, or can we as a religious community engage in warfare defensibly? Like most theology, we will differ about this one until the coming of the Kingdom. Thank God it doesn't go to the heart of our salvation!