Tuesday, September 12, 2006
Every time I am struck by those words, my mind and my heart go back to the story an old friend of mine, Ben Cheesman, told about his youth. The story began when Ben, at age 14, was enrolled by his parents in Miss Ellsworth's Dancing Class in Columbus, Ohio. For a young boy(Ben said), it was a terrible experience, having to get new shoes and a white shirt and a tie and slicking down his hair every Sunday afternoon before the dreadful Miss Ellsworth's class.
The worst part (he said) were those black shoe prints on the floor, so the boys would know where their feet were supposed to go as they waltzed, did the fox trot or the tango. He said the weekly drill included showing up squeaky clean with our hair slicked down; being respectful towards the girls, being paired off with a girl for the afternoon (and never getting my first choice) and then following the rubber or plastic feet on the floor to music none of us would have listened to on our own.
Some time later, after the classes had finished, Ben's school had its Spring prom -- and somehow (he said) after about four hours preparation, he finally got up the nerve to ask a girl to the prom. Next came the obligatory shopping trip with his mother to pick out a suit -- and then to order his date's corsage (a yellowish-purple orchid to go with her purple Prom Dress).
Then, on the night of the prom, there they were ... at the edge of the dance floor, surrounded on every side with black and gold crepe paper, their school colors ... both trying to look cool, but also trying not to let their hands touch. Both were very excited and very, very nervous. And then just as the band began playing "Embraceable You," they saw the dance floor: it was covered with those rubberized foot prints from Mrs. Ellsworth's class! Nobody. . . but nobody . . . was dancing. Miss Ellsworth had ruined their prom.
And then Miss Ellsworth, herself, appeared. She quieted the band and she asked that the footprints be picked up and put away in a box on the stage. And then Miss Ellsworth spoke to the students. She said that the footprints were important; they were the path towards dancing.but they were not the point of the dancing. "The real reason and real purpose of the footprints," she explained, "was, that in knowing them and trusting them, you are then free, while dancing, not to be looking at your feet, but to be looking only into the eyes of your date, your beloved."
And so it is with the rules and the rituals of our faith. The rules, the rituals, the sacrifices and responsibilities, they are so important. . .but they are not there for their own sake, but that by knowing them and doing them, from the inside, we are enabled to dance the dance of life, focusing not on our inadequacies and doubts, but only on the face of our Savior.
It is always a good time to honor our teachers, the ones who, week after week, lay down the plastic footprints, who give our children the very things they need to dance the dance of faith on their way to knowing fully the presence of God. There is no more important ministry in the church.
Jesus has said, to each of us, "Follow me." The invitation is to a journey -- of life and love and service and sacrifice into the presence of God. And so we journey, step by step.
Thursday, August 24, 2006
Thomas B. Woodward is an Episcopal priest who has served The Episcopal Church over 23 years as university chaplain at a number of campuses and as rector of St. Paul's, Salinas, California, John Steinbeck's parish church. He has written two books for Seabury Press, Turning Things Upside Down and To Celebrate, and his book, The Parables of Jesus Your Pastor Never Preached, is being considered by Fortress Press for publication. He and his wife, Ann, now live in Santa Fe, NM.
One of the most frustrating things about being a moderate in The Episcopal Church is the constant need to respond to various bizarre charges made against you by groups like the Anglican Communion Network (ACN), American Anglican Council (AAC) and allied groups. Those groups have now been joined by leaders in the Nigerian church who are organizing a mission to cleanse our church of its traditional teachings.
These groups justify their attacks on The Episcopal Church by claiming our leaders hold and teach “pagan or alien doctrines.” They seem to take delight in claiming we hold beliefs such as the following:
- Jesus is only one of many paths to God instead of the Only Way (John 14:6)
- Loving a person means acceptance and love of that person’s sins.
- The Holy Scriptures are merely historical relics and are not be taken seriously.
- People can propound any new teaching as long as it makes the listeners feel good (2Timothy.3:3-4).
- Heaven and Hell are only figurative terms used in the Bible; liberals believe it is wrong to frighten people with such old ideas in the modern world.
- The resurrection of Jesus never happened, and
- The Episcopal Church has abandoned its faith and embraced the heresies of Bishop Spong and Marcus Borg.
It is quite possible to find some or all of these views extant somewhere within The Episcopal Church; but to do so, you have to look very, very closely to find them. However, it is dishonest and complete distortion to jump from finding one person holding such a view to charging hundreds or thousands of others for holding the same belief. For example, a couple of years ago a clergy couple was discovered to be interested in Wicca (pagan religion). Anglican Communion Network (ACN) spokesmen immediately rushed to charge the entire progressive leadership of our Church as embracing paganism!
That kind of attack reached its peak in the DVD, produced by the ACN for distribution to households across the country loyal to the Episcopal Church. In it an ACN spokesman charges, amongst even more outrageous statements, that “the leadership [of The Episcopal Church] have embraced a foreign and alien and pagan religion.” That sort of thing takes one’s breath away by its sheer ignorance and vindictiveness.
I hope you can begin to understand the frustration of a solidly orthodox Episcopalian upon reading such accusations. But out of a need for both charity and clarity in addressing the characterization of mainline Episcopalians, we respond as follows:
Charge against Episcopalians: Jesus is only one of many paths to god instead of the only way.
As Bill Coats notes, most in our church believe Jesus to be the sole path to salvation. However, there has always been room for other views, including St. Paul’s argument to the contrary in his Epistle to the Romans (chapters 9-11), where he argues that the Jews remain the people of God and Christians have been grafted into Jewish holy history, a reading which has become the norm in most Christian churches in understanding our relationship to Judaism.
Through the ages, Anglicans have embraced both these views as responsive to the Biblical record – so it is unclear why the ACN and the Nigerian Mission to the U.S. want to insist that everyone submit to their own conclusions or – failing to submit -- be charged as heathen or heretic. Even the Southern Baptist Convention is not that arrogant.
Charge against Episcopalians: Loving a person means acceptance and love of that person’s sins.
This was a charge made against Jesus by religious leaders, that by sharing meals with the tax collectors and sinners, he was not only affirming them as people but also accepting and affirming their sins. The Network people are surely not suggesting that in loving felons, the leaders in The Episcopal Church are condoning or loving the felonies – or that in following Jesus’ command to love our enemies, we are encouraging them to defeat us?
The issue here seems to be the growing understanding throughout the church that the homosexual practice condemned in Leviticus and Romans 1:27 is far different from what more and more Episcopalians know first hand in the gay and lesbian people they see in loving, caring relationships which are based on commitment, fidelity and the desire to reflect the presence of God in their common life. Again, most Episcopalians believe that homosexuality is an inborn affect, something St. Paul did not know. This new understanding then has altered the original context of Paul’s prohibition and allows us to focus on the qualities of intimate relationships, whether homosexual or heterosexual, rather than on externals.
St. Paul, himself, shifts the ground somewhat as he moves from his attack on abusive sexual relationships in the first chapter of Romans, where he argues for restraints, to his very powerful statement about how to value and judge relationships which are marked by the presence of the Holy Spirit:
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.
One thing that has changed is our understanding of how difficult it has become for the church to condemn human relationships that are filled with the marks and the presence of the Holy Spirit. To judge those relationships as sinful when God’s presence in them is so apparent is most likely a matter of a lack of faith than anything else.
Liberal and moderate Episcopalians condemn sexual relationships that are promiscuous, exploitive or outside the bonds of love and commitment. For the Network/Nigerian coalition to claim otherwise is reckless and, basically, a smear job on faithful Christians. It represents a misrepresentation of the Jews, as well, in that Reformed and much of Conservative Judaism have stated that the Levitical laws condemning homosexuality are in conflict with the broader scope of their Scripture which affirms the goodness and holiness of loving, committed relationships between both heterosexual and homosexual couples.
Charge against Episcopalians: The Holy Scriptures are historical relics and are not be taken seriously.
Anglicans around the world have held different beliefs about the nature of the authority and interpretation of Holy Scripture. What is new is the Network/Nigerian contention that there can now be only one way of interpreting the Bible and only one way of considering its authority.
We believe that the Bible is the Word of God and that it is primary in encountering and experiencing the living God. We value the Bible for what it reveals, which is often in parable and through the experience of those living in the stories, rather than in lists of rules and proscriptions. Most of us believe that improvements in translations of the Bible and the light that has come from recent discoveries and new tools for understanding the Bible can only deepen our understanding of the meaning and message of Scripture.
The majority of Episcopalians believe there is room for various approaches and interpretations of the Bible – and that part of our common life is to be spent in dialogue between and among those understandings. The Network/Nigerian coalition seems to want to excise from The Episcopal Church any interpretations other than their own narrow and restrictive interpretations. It is destructive of the whole church for them to claim that anyone who does not agree with their peculiar point of view is a heretic, apostate, or enemy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We invite them to coexist with us, but not to attempt to destroy us with this new, rigid exclusivism.
Charge against Episcopalians: People can propound any new teaching as long as it makes the listeners feel good.
We find it preposterous and insulting to claim that the Episcopal church espouses a "feel good theology." This is an ideologically motivated fabrication and we reject it out of hand
Liberal and moderate clergy and laypeople have always focused on the Cross as central to our salvation as well as to our understanding of the world – to suggest otherwise is ignorant and mean-spirited.
Charge against Episcopalians: Heaven and hell are only figurative terms used in the bible; liberals believe it is wrong to frighten people with such old ideas in the modern world.
The exact meaning of heaven and hell have been in dispute in Anglicanism, as well as in other branches of the whole church for some time. In fact, there are several conflicting notions of each throughout both Christian and Jewish Scriptures. When the ANC, AAC or any other group claims that those holding a different but valid Biblical position other than its own are heretical or disingenuous, they reveal a spiritual arrogance not seen since the Crusades. While that attitude has marked the multitude of Christian sects around the country, it does not reflect our Anglican tradition of comprehensiveness.
There is certainly room in today’s church, as there has been throughout our history as Anglicans, for more than one interpretation of the meaning and reality of heaven and hell, as well as other key understandings of the Christian faith found in Scripture and our tradition. What is new is the arrogance of dismissing and demeaning any interpretation other than one’s own.
Charge against Episcopalians: The assertion that the Resurrection of Jesus never happened.
The charge that liberal and moderate Episcopalians do not believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is ill-informed and reckless. There have always been variations of belief in the resurrection, even among the writers of the Gospel and in the Epistles, and those differences persist today in our church as well as in others. Until recently, it has only been in fundamentalist churches that believers were attacked for holding Paul’s understanding of the Resurrection instead of Matthew’s. When we talk about essentials and the heart of our faith, those who are attacking us who believe in the resurrection of Jesus and who hold that this resurrection is the ground of the new life for all believers, owe us a formal apology.
We say the Nicene Creed proudly and we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ every Sunday with great joy and thanksgiving. What could bring anyone visiting our churches and observing the faith and devotion of our people to say anything different? We not only believe in the Resurrection, we are both proud and humbled to be called “resurrection people.” We will not be deterred in our faith by anyone seeking to demean or diminish that resurrection faith.
Charge against Episcopalians: The Episcopal Church has abandoned its faith and embraced the heresies of Bishop Spong and Marcus Borg.
This charge is familiar to those who were on high school debate teams. If you were willing to do anything to win, you would first lay out the extremes of your opponent’s side and then the centrists of your own – and then characterize the struggle as between those two straw men.
Neither Bishop Spong nor Marcus Borg represent the center of the Episcopal Church, but both have contributed to the welfare of the whole spectrum of our church. Bishop Spong does not represent his teaching as a replacement for our Catechism. His life has been dedicated to reaching those outside the Christian church who have found the Christian faith to be incomprehensible. His purpose is not that others believe as he does, but to provide a door into the Christian faith so young and older people outside the faith can hear our preaching and be involved in our worship, and be caught up in the living presence of Jesus Christ in our life in the church and in the world.
If we are going to be open and honest about the accusations about John Spong, it is crucial to know what Bishop Spong is doing: he is not speaking for the church, but to the unchurched – and God has used his peculiar witness for good. If one were to compare records of various bishops in drawing people into the Episcopal Church, often to become some of our best conservative, moderate and liberal lay people, clergy and bishops, the two at the top of the list would probably be Jack Spong and James Pike.
Has the Episcopal Church abandoned its faith and taken on the teachings of Bishop Spong? Of course not. All anyone has to do is to visit our seminaries, listen to the preaching and teaching of our clergy, read through the Catechism at the back of the Book of Common Prayer and the liturgies of the Prayer Book. It all hangs together as the core of our faith, even though it is not lock-step uniform.
As Episcopalians, we are part of a wonderful whole, with a full spectrum of witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. At a recent House of Bishops meeting, note was taken of Bishop Bob Duncan, the head of the ACN, and Bishop Gene Robinson in deep conversation – what a powerful image of our church. We have liberals, moderates and conservatives and everything in between, all celebrating a common faith. May we never be reduced to commonality – for the same reason none of us would ever go to a circus which had only thirty-five elephant acts. I want the trapeze artists, the clowns, the jugglers and lion tamers. We have them all in the episcopate and in our congregations.
Beware, when church leaders want to claim the whole of church for themselves, whether of the right, left or middle. Beware, especially, when those who believe they, alone, are the orthodox begin talking about the real orthodoxy as “the faith first handed down to the saints.” Up until thirty five years ago, “the faith first handed down to the saints” meant no women on vestries, no women allowed in church without a hat or head covering, no remarriage after divorce no matter what the circumstances, separate churches for Black people, no use of birth control measures, and a thoroughgoing marginalization of gay and lesbian people and others.
Change and reassessment of our understanding of Scriptures and our tradition has not been an enemy of the Christian Church over the past several decades. Our task as the Church of Jesus Christ is to hold onto the core of the Gospel handed down to us by the faithful of previous generations, while letting go of the parts of that tradition which contravene and contradict Jesus’ commandment of Love.
The demonizing of John Spong has spilled over onto such Biblical scholars as Marcus Borg, who has also been called a “heretic” by spokesmen of the ACN and AAC. Dr. Borg is not Episcopalian. As a Biblical scholar he has few peers. He is not orthodox in some of his beliefs but he has, like Bishop Spong, inspired great numbers of the unchurched to reassess their faith and to commit themselves to traditional Anglican orthodoxy. One of the great gifts of Marcus Borg is that he makes it possible for large numbers of people to enter into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ – and has probably put more Bibles on bedside tables than any other living Christian!
Those who have the most trouble with theologians and Biblical scholars like Marcus Borg are those who insist on the literal meaning of Scripture or something close to that. That quasi-fundamentalist approach to Scripture, so often found in the “orthodox” rants is one, but only one of many strains of Anglican approaches to Scripture – and a recent strain at that. Many in The Episcopal Church believe that approach does not honor Holy Scripture, tending to take a dynamic revelation and reducing it to a dictated document, tied to an ancient culture.
A lively and faithful Episcopal Church will welcome the insights and the prodding of a wide variety of scholars, teachers and leaders, just as we welcome the prophets and sages who prod us into new awareness of the church’s role in the world. This has been our genius.
In summary: I am proud to be a member of The Episcopal Church and I regret with great sadness the attacks from those who style themselves as the “orthodox.” I do not want to impugn the character or the purposes of all who are in the Anglican Communion Network, because I know many who are fully dedicated to the life of Jesus Christ and his Church and who want only that their own theological commitments be more fully honored in the church. I apologize if I have seemed to disparage honestly held opinions about Scripture and tradition by these same people. Of course, there is room for them in The Episcopal Church, just not as the sole arbiters of what God is speaking to us through the Bible or our tradition. The one thing I would ask of those with significant differences from the heart, the majority of The Episcopal Church is that they renounce the tactics and distortions noted above – and that their attacks cease and be replaced with dialogue and some form of mutual regard. Our Communion deserves better than the false accusations addressed in this article. To quote, once more, the wisdom of Bill Coats, from an informal conversation:
“Anglicanism has always been marked by a particular generosity. The various schools within the church appealed to different audiences. Each approach may not be exactly compatible, biblically or theologically, with each other, but the trust which was the glue for the church was that each group intended in their approach that the Lord Jesus be accepted and worshiped. …What made you doubt the same intent and sincerity on our part, particularly when we kept denying as we do now the outrageous charges you make against us? We say speaking openly as Christian brothers and sisters: What happened to your generosity of spirit?”
Note: The quotes containing the language of “heretic, apostate” and the like come directly from the DVD, Choose This Day, produced and distributed by the ACN for distribution to non-ACN households to lure them away from their congregations. You can download the video at: http://www.anglicandecision.com/
Sunday, July 02, 2006
by Thomas B. Woodward
Monday, October 31, 2005
The prophet Amos, in one of his most powerful moments, points to the self-satisfied who look forward to the Day of the Lord as a time of congratulations and glory, and shouts, "Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light ..." This is not a time for glory, but for repentance.
In the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, half of the young women thought they had plenty of time before they would be needed -- and for quite different reasons than the self-satisfied of Amos time, were not prepared for the decisive time when it came. They thought it time for checking out their e-mails or the sale over at Talbotts, but when it came time for them to illuminate the wedding hall with their lamps, they found that they had run out of time.
Amos and Matthew both knew how important it is to know what time it is. Both were aware, too, of the religious meaning of time. In Scriptures there are two notions of time. One has to do with chronos, chronology, calendar and wristwatch time. The other is kairos, decisive time. Thus, if you are a trapeze artist and you have just completed your triple spin in mid-air, you are not concerned whether it is 8:12 or 8:15 p.m. -- you just know that it is time to be caught! Kairos, not chronos. The question about time takes on a different dimension.
I have heard more than one psychiatrist say that the only therapeutic question worth asking is "How are you going to spend your time?" Are you going to spend your time playing the victim, wallowing in guilt, blaming your mother, isolating yourself in a life of bullying and resentment -- or in living a life of intimacy with yourself and others? Eric Berne, in his popular book Games People Play, distinguishes between moments of intimacy and the many ways we "pass time," whether through intricate emotional games of blaming or avoiding responsibility, playing "How about those Packers?" or giving our lives over to the deadening effects of everyday life.
If the therapeutic question is, "How are you going to spend your time?" the religious question is "What time is it?" While on one level we live in a chronological world, the deeper reality is always about kairos. Paul Tillich called it the dimension of depth. Episcopalians usually prefer to talk about our sacramental understanding of the world, or the universe. For those who know to look for it and to entrust their lives to it, life, itself, is an outward and visible experience of an inward and spiritual grace and reality. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, "Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes. The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries."
What time is it? It is time to remember just who we are and, as he old saw goes, "whose we are," even or especially when our worlds are crumbling. As Julia notes in T. S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party, "Now that they have been stripped naked to their souls, they have the opportunity, perhaps for the first time, to choose proper costumes, or huddle quickly into new disguises." And what is true for us as individuals is true for us as churches and cities and nations.
The two questions, the therapeutic and the religious, come together in the simple story of the fellow who was walking by a construction site. He asked one worker what he was doing and the fellow replied, "I'm laying bricks." He then asked the same question of another worker and was told, "I'm making a buck." After a few moments he asked the same question of a third worker. The third responded "I'm building a cathedral."
That is a central meaning of our lives. We are building a cathedral -- whether that cathedral is a relationship, a community, or the transformation of our lives. We know from Amos as we know from Jesus that it is not "our" cathedral, except as it is marked with justice, dignity, inclusiveness and love.
It is always time for cathedral building -- both internally and externally -- and to think otherwise is to miss what is most important about our world. Though so much of our time we act as though the meaning of our lives were defined by what we experience on the surface of life, but in light of what we know in Christ, such an attitude is crazy, the emotional equivalent of sitting around plucking blackberries while surrounded by bushes afire with God.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel used to retell an old Hassidic tale as a parable of our calling -- and it is probably never more appropriately retold than now. It goes: Once upon a time there was a small kingdom whose only industry was its agriculture. Everyone was happy and everyone had plenty to eat -- until one year, when it was discovered to everyone's horror, that something terrible had gone wrong with that year's crops. Something in the crops made whoever ate them insane. The kingdom was soon in an uproar. So the monarch hurriedly gathered all her wise men and wise women together and met with them around the clock for several days. Then she called the kingdom together to announce her decision. "Twelve people will be set aside," she said. "The rest of us will eat the crazy-making crop. But all our food in storage will be set aside for the twelve. They will eat the old crop. The twelve will serve the very important function of reminding the rest of us that we are, indeed, crazy."
What a magnificant image of our calling! We are fools: fools for Christ, stumbling along, in trouble with the authorities who trouble us all, never quite understanding the wisdom of the age, always a little out of step. Whether by a name like Mother Theresa or Francis of Assisi, like Desmond Tutu or Rosa Parks, we are holy fools and ambassadors of another way, reminding one another just what time it is.
The Rev. Thomas B. Woodward is the former Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Salinas, California, and is now retired, living in Santa Fe, New Mexico with his wife, Ann. Both attend St. Bede's there.
- Acts 2:1-21 OR Ezekiel 37:1-14
- Psalm 104:25-35, 37
- Romans 8:22-27 OR Acts 2:1-21
- John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
If you wander far enough
you will come to it
and when you get there
they will give you a place to sit
for yourself only, in a nice chair,
and all your friends will be there
with smiles on their faces
and they will likewise all have places.
My first response to the poem (I had failed to read the title before reading the body of the poem) was that it was about heaven. Then "Eternity" came to mind. But Creeley's title suggests that from his perspectives what he describes is far from a celestial vision: he calls the poem "Oh, No."
"Oh, No" is a response to circumstances of boredom or death. What a shock it was to me to get the sense of the poem so very wrong. What is worse is the tragedy that such dynamic, life-filled realities as resurrection and eternity can be so easily transformed by our religion into just their opposites! Hocus pocus: life magically transformed into death, or into boredom.
And if that were not enough, the power and dynamism of Pentecost has been domesticated by our culture. The peculiar power of Pentecost, which had to do with giving visible shape to the prophets' vision of the people of God, now speaks tamer to the church about the warmth and reassurance of individual spiritual reveries. Being "caught up in the power of the Spirit" has in popular parlance more and more devolved into a kind of spiritualized egoism. But when Jesus speaks about the coming of the Comforter in our alternate Gospel reading of John 14, he is not talking about a security blanket.
Whenever I have worked with the scriptures for Pentecost, I have always pondered two things. The first is fear. It is so soon after the resurrection, and the disciples, out of fear, are gathered behind closed or locked doors. They were afraid and in their fear they went for the security blanket of isolation, the closed doors. We're not all that different. We are all tempted to lock our own doors out of one fear or another -- even the relatively new fear that our church doors themselves might be stolen by some dissident jurisdiction!
Jesus walks into the middle of the fear of his disciples and he breathes on them. It was that simple -- he merely breathes on them. He does not change their outward circumstance, but he does transform their fear and their isolation into something quite different -- and that happened in another time or in another telling as the disciples were gathered together in the same or another room and were overcome with a power they could only describe as a rushing wind or as tongues of fire.
Two of the events which prefigured the disciples' experience of Pentecost -- namely the scattering of peoples into different voices and rival communities in the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) and Ezekiel's story of the resurrection of the bodies of the slain soldiers in the Valley of the Bones (Ezekiel 37) -- help us understand the heart of its meaning: the tearing of human community through confusion or violence will be replaces with the gifts of wholeness and hope.
That vision leads me to the second image that is so important to me in the Pentecost lections: Paul's celebration of the varieties of the gifts of the Spirit in I Corinthians 12. These gifts are not merely an infusion of personal warmth to get us through the night; they are gifts for the building up of the community, for the overcoming of isolation and fear, and for making our life in the church the kind of experience for others what the disciples had discovered for themselves. Think of the poor and marginalized crying out, "Good God, it is as though they hear and understand us in our own tongue!"
It is clear that the feast of Pentecost is a political as well as a religious feast, as it witnesses to the prophetic vision of a world made whole and a people made whole. After reading the prophets and after standing in the tradition of Pentecost, the crucial question about my life can never again be "How am I doing?" It is "How are we doing?" The "we" may be the rich, if we are poor -- or it may be the poor, if we are rich. The "we" will always be composed of those most different or most isolated from us.
Pentecost challenges us to ask, "How are we doing? How are we connected? How is our life changing, together? How is the face of Jesus Christ reflected in all that?" How about them Mesopotamians and Cappadocians and Phrygians? Have you ever seen anything like it?
Pentecost is a little like reading The Witness on a regular basis: once you've been there, it is nearly impossible to go back. The fears of the present somehow get swallowed up in the hope of what we are privileged to seek -- and the isolation we had experienced dealing with all those difficult differences has given way to learning to speak the common language given us at Pentecost. To paraphrase Robert Creeley:
If you wander far enough
you will come to it
and when you get there
they will give you a place to sit
in a nice chair,
and all your friends will be there
with smiles on their faces
and they will all be just itching
to get out of those chairs and into the streets
laughing and loving and doing whatever it takes ...
for the long haul.
Tom Woodward is a retired priest of the Episcopal Church, now living in Santa Fe, New Mexico with his wife, Ann. He is currently completing a book titled The Parables Your Pastor Never Preached: Restoring the Power of Jesus' Teaching. He spent twenty-three years in campus ministry around the country and the last seventeen years as rector of St. Paul's, Salinas, California. He has also had a parallel career as a street performer, as Uncle Billy's Pocket Circus, performing in over 50 States and overseas.
Legislative Summary (complete)
The Witness article on Bishop Robinson's response -- and commentary
Diocese of Chicago Summary (2 pages)
Statement of Conscience by Progressives (written by Bishop Chane)
Conservative bishops' response
Thursday, April 27, 2006
Thomas B. Woodward
You know there are some stories of Christian heroism that should have made the Bible, but it was too late -- and there ought to be some way of passing these on. I think, in particular of a former parishioner of St. Paul’s who died and was appearing before St. Peter at the Gates of Heaven. Peter was talking with him. “Look,” he said, “before you meet with the Father, I thought I should tell you -- we've looked at your life and your really didn't do anything particularly good or bad. And, to tell you the truth, we’re not at all sure what to do with you. Can you tell us anything you did that can help us make a decision?"
Our former parishioner thought for a moment and then said, "Yeah, there is something. Once when I was driving through Gilroy I came upon this group of bikers who were harassing this young woman. So I pulled over, opened the trunk of my car, got out my tire iron, and went up to the guy who looked like the leader of the bikers. He was a big, muscular, hairy guy with tattoos all over his body and a ring pierced through his nose.
“Well,” he said, “I tore the nose ring out of his nose and told him that I was a Christian and that he and his gang had better stop bothering the woman or they would have to deal with me!" "I'm impressed," St. Peter responded, "When did this happen?" ”Oh,” the guy said, "About two minutes ago."
There are others, as well, who may be a little less than heroes; but their stories still need to be heard. It was at the coffee hour a few weeks ago when Arnold was talking with a couple of guys from the parish about married life. One of the guys was saying that he had had it. He said that he had been doing the cooking for too many years, that it was his wife’s job, and enough is enough.
“So I told her,” he said, “this cooking is not my job . . it’s yours. . .and I want you to start cooking good meals, from scratch, from now on. “Well,” he said, “The first day I didn’t see anything, the second day I didn’t see anything, but the third day. . and every day after it has been one great meal after another. I’m happy.”
The second guy said, “I know what you mean, only for me it is the housecleaning. So I told my wife, This sharing the vacuuming and all that? That is your work -- not mine, so from now on I want you to fulfill your responsibilities. And,” he told his buddies, “the same thing. The first day I didn’t see anything.. .the second day I didn’t see anything, but the third day and every day after that it has been a clean house, everything sparkling and I’m happy.”
So Arnold says, “Look, I know where you guys are coming from. I told Janet. This stuff about the cooking and the cleaning and the laundry? That is not my responsibility: you are a woman – it is yours. And,” he said, “the first day, I didn’t see anything. The second day, I didn’t see anything. But by the third day some of the swelling had gone down and I could see a little bit out of my left eye.”
I know we are all grateful for Arnold’s new found sight – and even more grateful for the vision we have each been given of the resurrected life intended for us all, regardless of who does the laundry, the cooking and cleaning.
Part of our celebration of this great season of Easter is the observation of Bright Sunday, a remnant of the Medieval Feast of Fools, the day when Easter was celebrated with all kinds of foolery -- ranging from jokes and stories to dressing the priest up in a donkey suit and chasing him around the sanctuary. Now that I am in my 60’s, we have wisely restricted the day to jokes and stories. So, some of the best, more of the worst, and a couple from the all time hits list.
But, to tell you the truth, last Sunday afternoon, following the Easter Service, I was thinking of preaching a regular sermon today.While Ann and I were out driving down River Road, I asked her, “Ann, how many really great preachers do think there are in the State of California?” She paused for a minute and said, “Probably one fewer than you think.”
Well, I’m used to that. Last week I asked Bruce Taylor how he liked the upgrade to our sound system. He said, “I don’t like it.” So I asked him why. He said, “Had I wanted to hear what you were saying, I would have sat up front.”
I did try to expand my awareness of things on the trip Ann and I took to Italy last Fall. In between restaurants, we did go to see some religious art. Sometimes that is not easy, because there are always people around talking. One of the most beautiful paintings I saw was Frescobaldi’s “Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden.” But, sure enough, while I was trying to soak in the meaning of the art, there were these three guys jabbering. The first guy, a Brit, was saying, “Look at their reserve, their calm, they must be British.” The second guy, a Frenchman, said, “No. No. That’s nonsense. “Look at them: they’re naked and so beautiful. They are so clearly French.” “You’ve both got it wrong,” said the third, a guy with a Slavic accent. "No clothes, no shelter, they have only an apple to eat -- and they're being told this is paradise. They’ve got to be Russian."
Former parishioner, Amy Nack, told me about the woman flying to France. Shortly after take-off, the pilot came on the intercom and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got some serious turbulence ahead so we are going to have to detour -- so our 7 hour flight will be more like 10 hours.” Well, the woman started going crazy, yelling “Let me off, let me off! I can’t take it!” When the stewardess arrived, the woman told her about her claustrophobia. She said she was prepared for the 7 hour flight, but there was no way could she handle 10 hours. The stewardess tried to calm her down. She said, “You’re going to France, right?” [Yes] “Do you speak the language? [No] So the stewardess said, “I’m going to give you a set of headphones. One of the channels has French lessons – and that may preoccupy you enough.” The woman said she was not sure, but she would try.
At the end of the flight, the woman gave the headphones back to the stewardess and said, “I can’t thank you enough. I not only made it, but I know some of the language – and I know that because of that. . . I’m going to have a great vacation.” So, after she cleared customs and got into a taxi, the driver asked her where she was going and she said, “#%#*%#. . . . . .” (sound of static)
That was Amy’s joke, not mine – and Amy is now safely in Boise, Idaho. So, maybe it is time to move away from the jokes and into some history. I don’t know how many of you are aware of it, but before he got into movies, Clint Eastwood actually worked for Wells Fargo in a remote part of Montana where they still used the Pony Express. On one of his deliveries, he thought he heard something so he asked his partner to check. So his partner turned around to look and said, “Yeh, someone’s back there.” Clint said, “How far away. . . how big is he?” “He’s pretty far back: he’s only about this big.” (thumb and forefinger about an inch apart)
So the two upped their pace, but after about 10 minutes, Clint asked again, “How far back is he? . . . how big is he now?” His partner checked it out and said, “He’s getting closer. .he’s about this big.” (thumb and forefinger about four inches apart). Ten minutes later, Eastwood said, “I think I hear him – how close is he now?” His partner checked and said, “He’s real close. . . he’s almost as big as we are.” “Well,” said Clint, “Shoot him!” “Shoot him?” said his partner, “I can’t shoot him!” “Why can’t you shoot him?” asked Clint. “How can I shoot him? I’ve known him since he was this high!?!” (thumb and forefinger about an inch apart)
I know that by now you all are missing Howard Coe a lot. If you remember, one Bright Sunday, as I began my sermon by saying, “Well, where to begin? where to begin?” Howard said, for all to hear, “As close to the end as possible.” And we are getting close.
Toward the end of his life, when he was suffering from the accumulated effects of a lifetime of drinking, a very ill W.C. Fields was discovered by one of us friends reading the Bible. His friend, flabbergasted, asked: “What are you, an atheist, doing --.reading the Bible?” Fields replied, “I’m looking for loopholes. . . looking for loopholes.”
Over the years, we have had Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and atheist jokes, but nothing about Hinduism, so . . . Two Hindu swamis were talking one day. One said to the other, "How did you like my latest book, 'The Art of Levitation'?" ”It was incredible,” his friend said, "It kept me up all night."
Back to the Bible. Sometimes the Bible can get you in trouble. Like when the cake decorator in New Zealand was asked to inscribe I John 4:8: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” – on a wedding cake. Unfortunately he misread the verse – and when the cake arrived at the wedding reception it was discovered that not I John 4:8 ,,,,but John 4:8 was inscribed on the cake: “For you have five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband.”
And if that wasn’t bad enough, Peter Demmon got called over the house of one of our teenagers. While cleaning the teenagers room, the girl’s parent had found this note, tacked up on her bulletin board: Job 7:11.
The girl’s parent had looked it up in the Bible and it read: “Therefore, I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.”
Peter said he thought it might indicate a serious cry for help – so he asked me to come over. I arrived just about the time the teenager arrived home and I asked if we could all pray; so I prayed for reassurance, for trust and courage for the young woman, and most of all for a sense of hope for her. As the adults all said, “Amen,” she asked what that was all about. So I showed her the note and expressed our concern. “Oh, that,” she said, “that’s there to remind me that there’s a job opening at 7/11.”
As I’ve told some of you before, despite the rumors and what so many of you have said is your common experience, there are times when we clergy do make a real difference in people’s lives. Less than a year ago I ran into a fellow who seemed as depressed as anyone I’ve ever seen. I asked him what was wrong and he said, “It’s terrible. I’ve lost my job. My health insurance has run out. I’m about to lose my house and my car. My wife is going to leave me and I can’t afford to buy my children decent clothes so they can go to school.” I told him I might be able to help and asked if he had a Bible at home. He said he did. I said, “What I want you to do is to go home, take out your Bible, close your eyes and riffle through the pages of the Bible until God tells you to stop. Then, the Holy Spirit will guide your index finger to something on that page which will be the answer to your problems.” The guy said, “It sounds crazy, but I will try it.”
I didn’t see him for some time, but then, just a couple of weeks ago I saw him on Main Street and he looked terrific. He ran up to me and said, “Father, I can’t thank you enough. I don’t have a job yet, but I can keep my car and my house and my children are in school and I know we are all going to make it!” I asked him how all this came about and he said, “I did what you told me. I got out my Bible, closed my eyes, riffled through the pages and stopped when God told me to stop. Then the Holy Spirit guided my finger to the page – and when I lifted up my finger, there is was: the answer to all my problems!” “Really?” I said, “and what did it say?”
He said, “Chapter 11.”
Another family was at a restaurant. While his parents were having dessert, their son picked up a coin from the table and put it in his mouth. Before his father can warn him, he swallowed it and it got jammed in his windpipe. Well, his parents are frantic and screaming to the patrons that their son is choking on a coin stuck in his windpipe – can anyone help? A nicely dressed middle aged man about four tables away, calmly takes a sip from his coffee, folds up his newspaper neatly, stands up and moves toward the child. He then firmly grabs a handful of the boy’s crotch and continues to hold on tightly while the boy heaves and heaves and finally coughs up the coin onto the table. The father, so very grateful, begins to thank the man profusely. “You saved my son’s life,” the father said, “Are you a doctor. . . or maybe a surgeon?” “Oh, heavens no,” said the man, Nothing like that. . . I work for the IRS.”
One last story: A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn't seem to be breathing -- and his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls 911. He describes the scene to the operator and cries: “My friend is dead! My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator, in a calm soothing voice says: “Just take it easy. I can help. First, let's make sure he's really dead.” There is a silence on the line, then a shot is heard. The guy's voice comes back on the line. He says: “OK, now what?"
“OK, now what?” And that, of course, is the only real question for us in this glorious Easter Season. “Now what?” Now that we know – beyond any question or doubt that the light is stronger than death, that forgiveness is stronger than guilt, that resurrection is stronger than death and that our destiny as the children of God is utter bliss. . . .“Now what?” Do we live out our lives singing dirges of fear, hopelessness and worry or do we sing out, with every fiber of our being, “Alleluia.”
Satan thought that the light had been extinguished, buried in a tomb. But the joke was on Satan and all the forces of death, for Christ has burst that prison – and holds the door wide open for you and me. Alleluia.
Saturday, March 18, 2006
So, first, what happens when we die? What can we expect when we die? From all the research and from most of the recounting of near-death experiences, we can expect calm, serenity, light and, perhaps, a welcoming presence to guild us across the threshold into our new life.
A friend of mine, Jim, who had a temporary death, or near-death experience, told me that it was all light and peace. He said, "Tom, I may be afraid of a lot of things, but there is one thing I am not afraid of anymore -- and that's death." And Jim was a rough character: in fact, if anyone I've ever known had reason to fear what death might bring. . . it was Jim. What we can expect is calm. Serenity, light, and a welcoming presence to guide us.
What the Scripture says is this: in our Baptism, we are joined with the risen Christ. That is where our reality (our being) is rooted -- in the resurrected Christ. After Baptism, we don't belong to this order any more. As St. Paul writes, we are in, but not of the world. That is the basis of almost everything about the Christian faith. We are in. but not of the world. So our identity, our home is not changed by physical death. We remain Christ's. We continue in another dimension. We belong to Christ in life and we belong to him in death, though in another dimension of life.
Second, there will be a resurrection of the Body. There is nothing in the Christian Scriptures about "immortality of the soul." It is resurrection of the body. We will be persons, recognizable persons -- just as the Risen Christ was recognized and known by his friends. We will not be amorphous souls, all kind of blended in with one another. We will be embodied persons.
What will we be like? This is what John writes: "Beloved we are now God's children, but it is not yet clear what we shall become. We know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he really is." (I John 3:1-2)
The healing, the compassion, the commitment, the beauty and power and love of life and living that we know in Jesus -- that is what we grow into, that is what life will be like. "If you want to know what our new life will be like," says the Bible, "look at the Lord telling the stories, holding the children, eating and drinking and trading stories with his friends, that bursting in of life upon life -- that is what, that is who it will be like." Serenity? Identity? Joy. How can we face our dying? The first emotion most of us feel as we face our dying is fear. To fear. . . for us to fear the process of dying is natural, just as it was natural for Jesus. We speak of the Agony in the Garden and that was true. There was deep, deep agony in the heart of Jesus as he faced his death. But that was not all . . .and that is not all of it.
There comes a time for many people in their dying when they decide to let go . . .to let go of life and begin that process of transformation into resurrection. It's like allowing yourself to be carried, simply, in the arms of God. It is such a blessing to come to that point where we simply let go . .and allow ourselves to be borne by the loving hands of God.
For others, dying is dominated by a struggle to stay alive, a determination to fight death as though death were really an enemy. So there is a holding on at any and all expense.
There is, as the writer of Ecclesiastes says, "A time to live and a time to die." And it is important for us to know which time it is. My father knew: I have told many of you about the time when my father, living in Wickenburg, Arizona, was very sick. He had been living in near constant pain for several years and was very weak. He and I were out walking in the desert when we spotted a large group of buzzards circling overhead. My father looked up at them, raised his by then emaciated fist at them and shook it, shouting, "Not yet, you sons of bitches! Not yet!!!"
He was not ready to die. He was not ready to let go of anything.
There is a time to live and a time to die and, for us, the necessity to know which time it is.
And there are other kinds of dying, just as important. . . maybe more important than our physical dying. Life is, in reality, a series of dyings. When we go off to school for the first time, life is changed. . . and we have died to something. When we do off to school for the first time, when we begin middle school, high school, college -- if the transition is to be a healthy one, life is changed and there is a dying. . .as well as a rebirthing.
The same is true with a change in jobs, a change in the size of our families, changing in housing, living, change in anything. There are deaths to experience, to live through. When we marry, we promise to forsake all others. That does not mean just the old boy friends and girl friends, but anything and everything that might threaten the life and the intimacy of the marriage.
Life is not a continuum, but a series of deaths. The heart of our belief, as Christians, is that we can let go and entrust our lives to God. The basic creed of the world is backwards. The world's creed is, "First you live and then you die." The Christian faith reverses that: "First you die, then you live." That is the rhythm of our lives.
I see it so often in those of you who, through one thing or another, have come face to face with your own dying, physical death, or the death of a part your life. There is, so often, then, a commitment to life on a whole other level, a whole other level of life and intimacy and grace. What that involves is a letting go and entrusting ourselves to God and to the process of resurrection. . .in this life. . . or in the life to come.
We were so fortunate to celebrate just that at our Annual Meeting as we stood to applaud Charles Schriver for his courage in living a resurrected life. . .among the living. And Charles is not alone: he is a visible symbol of what God is doing in all of our lives.
We do not belong to the expectations or the limitations of this world. We do not belong to beatitudes or the precepts of this world. We have been, we are being born into another order. First, you die . . . then you live. That process of moving into the light. Always there is that opportunity, always we have that choice. Bless us, dear God, in all our living and in our dyings.
Friday, August 3
The worst thing about being the one who neither slumbers nor sleeps is late night television. I made a big mistake last night and watched three hours of Pat Robertson re-runs. I must not do that again. I think there is a real possibility of contracting spiritual diabetes from the show if I spend more than twenty minutes more with that man's smile.
Saturday, August 4
Sabbath. At last! My day off. This could not have come at a better time, given how hard Monday will be for me. Off to the hot tubs.
Sunday, August 5
This morning, Francis Assisi stopped by the gym, just as I was in the middle of my stretching exercises. He said he wanted to know my favorite day of the week. I told him that Sunday was my favorite day of the week. He nodded and then asked, "So what is your worst day of the week?"
"That's easy," I said. "Sunday is my worst day of the week." Francis looked puzzled. then he asked, sarcastically if I had been studying Buddhism on the side. Francis can sometimes be a jerk. I closed my eyes, counted to ten and then went on.
"Look, " I said. "I probably hear more prayers on Sunday than any other day. That's good and that's bad. The good part is that so many of the prayers come from people's hearts. It's like they are lifting up their pain and asking me to care about it. And that is one of the things I do best . . caring about their pain and their hopes." Actually, I love the way Jesus put it, that not a bird falls from the sky without my noticing . . . and grieving.
"So what is the bad part?" Francis asked. I told him I didn't want to talk about it. The truth is I was still mad about his Buddha remark. Anyway, Francis left graciously, saying that he knew I wanted to get back to my exercising. He remembers about tomorrow.
So why is this the worst day of the week for me? I know the answer and I'm glad I didn't share it with Francis. He would have been very disappointed and he probably would have thought less well of me.
So why is this the worst day of the week for me? I think because in praying their own pain, most people don't seem very interested in mine. My heart breaks for those who don't have people to pray for them -- young kids, old people, those millions of men and women in Africa who are dying with AIDS. When people pray to me for their own concerns, don't they realize, don't they know how much I hurt deep down inside? I know it's not their place to comfort and console me, but it's terrible to feel so alone. They pray to me because they feel powerless and because they trust my love: I know I would like to have more of a reciprocal relationship and to trust their love a little more. I know what Buddha would say. He's talked to me about this more than once.
Monday, August 6: The Feast of the Transfiguration
The Feast of the Transfiguration. This used to be my favorite day of the year -- better than Christmas and Easter and St. Francis Day all lumped together. It really is the point of it all, the transfiguration of people and places and relationships and troubles and. . .and then on this day, of all days, Hiroshima. Those arrogant Americans have stolen my feast and replaced it with The Feast of the Disfiguration. And outrage of outrages, those bastards named the project "Trinity," after me. Tomorrow can't come fast enough for me.
Tuesday, August 7
At breakfast this morning, Jesus called me grumpy. Actually he said I had been grumpy all day. I told him I was entitled to my own feelings. He said I was a romantic. He said my feelings had compromised what I knew had always been true. He said he wanted to remind me that his own life was lived not amongst the lilies of the field, but in constant struggle with the darkness.
He said that, in Psalm 23, it was "though" (inevitable), not "if" (maybe). It was "though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." He said he wanted to remind me that the light shines in the darkness (not just in Church School).
I tried to remind him that those were the Psalmist's words and John's words, not his. Jesus waited a long time, then reached across the table to put his hand on my arm and said, "I'm sorry you hurt so much."
Wednesday, August 8
I hope I didn't look bad at breakfast yesterday. It wouldn't have the first time. In retrospect, I know Jesus was right -- but I was right, too. Anyway, I should not have sent him to his room.
I think I will take the day off to listen to stories, but stories of heroism, not of goodness. I've heard too many, way too many goodness stories. Give me adventure stories, stories of bravery and heroism -- stories about goodness put me to sleep.
My third thought was this, Why don't you preach about something that people struggle with, fight about? Then I thought, why don't you put all together in one sermon? Why not preach about something really wonderful, pretty confusing, and that people struggle with --all at the same time? In other words, why not say something about sex?
One of my favorite writers, Frederick Buechner, writes, "Sex, contrary to the prude, Mrs. Grundy, sex is not sin and contrary to the publisher of Playboy, Hugh Heffner, it is not salvation, either. It is more like nitroglycerin: it can be used to blow up bridges or to heal hearts."
I think the first and most obvious thing to say about the religious meaning of sex is that sex is --or should be, personal. But to tell you the truth, that is not a very obvious thing about sex: in our culture, most of what passes as sex is not about persons. It is about body parts.
The problem with Playboy magazine, Baywatch, pornographic materials and male hunks is not that they are too sexual. It is that they are really anti-sexual. They have little, if anything, to do with two people in relationship. I think most of the people involved in those things are the real Puritans, because they are frightened to death of a sexual relationship between two people.
When we learn to relate to one another as body parts, when we learn to objectify others, turning them into objects for our gratification, we kill them -- spiritually, we kill them. Or we kill ourselves by taking away the human, the personal dimension of sex.
In the Episcopal Church, we talk of sex as sacramental. It is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. In a kiss, four lips in closest proximity, a kiss is sacramental. The outward and visible and pleasureful sign...communicates an inward and spiritual grace -- or something else quite different.
A kiss can be an act of love and affirmation or it can be a lie -- it can be an inward and spiritual lie, an inward and spiritual manipulation, an inward and spiritual homicide. When we touch one another, we are sacramentally involved with that person, whether that is a touch on the arm, an embrace, a kiss, or an act of sexual intercourse.
It is no wonder that so much of our healing comes through touch, because God works sacramentally, incarnationally. God works through our touching, through our embracing. I think one of the reasons the church takes sex so seriously is that the sexual act mirrors the relationship between God and the Church. God becomes incarnate in who we are, in what we do -- there is that interpenetration of being with absolute commitment. We offer ourselves to God: God becomes one with us through the Holy Spirit. There is nothing casual about it, though its purpose is joy and rejoicing and communion. Sex is meant to be personal: it is sacramental.
And, third, sex is only one of hundreds of ways one human can love another.One of the terrible things drilled in the minds of so many men is that there is only one way to love, really love a woman -- and that is sexually. There are hundreds, thousands of ways to love a woman or a man that don't involve sex. I think that's part of the problem for our young people. There is such pressure to go from A to Z in one fell swoop -- too many miss the rest of the alphabet of loving and learning to love a partner. And it's all those letters between A and Z which provide the context for sex. It's all the myriad ways of learning to love another person that give the depth and the sacramental quality to the sexual expression of love.
So what do we say to our children? What do we say to ourselves? Most importantly, I think, is that we need to think about the context for sex -- all the ways we can love another person or be loved by that person. I think most of us find it difficult to ask for what we want or need -- sometimes even to know what we want or need. Some of that has to do with our level of self-esteem. I think of a teen-age girl who wants nothing more than to be heard and to be told she is special and to be honored for who she is and for how she is trying to deal with all that's been handed her; but what she settles for is sex -- because she doesn't know she's worth asking for and receiving what she really needs.
I think of middle-aged and older men who need above all else personal support and encouragement and a way of dealing with all that middle-age and the later years bring, who judge their lives or their marriages or themselves by the amount or quality or quantity of sex in their relationship.
Here are some questions and concerns for any of us, maybe especially for teen-agers, but probably for us all. For that teen-age girl: What do you want -- what do you really want with him? How can the two of you work toward that? What would it feel like to be honored. . .really honored by someone you adored, by someone you are drawn to? Don't skip over the letters of the alphabet.
And a second thing: there is a difference between having a feeling, an urge and acting on that feeling, that urge. We know that about our anger; but we have trouble with our sexual urges. I can be so angry with someone that I want to kill him. . .but I don't. I know the difference between having the feeling, the urge and acting on it. But with our sexual urges we have such trouble -- like there is no choice. It is like that urge is inextricably bound up with action.
There is a ctitical difference between having a feeling, an urge and acting on that feeling, that urge. The more deeply we know that, the more control we have in our lives, the happier our lives -- and the more we can enjoy and appreciate our urges without being dominated or victimized by them.
In the context of struggle and deeply shared lives, sex really is like nitroglycerin: it can heal hearts and make them strong. In the context of fear and insecurity and the absence of shared trust, sex can blow up bridges, leaving things and people in shambles.
In the Episcopal Church, sex has always been seen, at least officially, as a gift for pleasure, for procreation, and for the celebration of loving relationship. And that gift has been given to us by God.
Three last things, briefly. First, I am very much aware that in talking about sex, I have talked about sexual intercourse, while there is an enormous range of ways we can be sexual with one another -- holding hands, flirtatious looks, embracing, kissing. Our being sexual covers a lot of territory -- and it shortchanges our whole sexuality to talk about it only in terms of sexual intercourse.
Second, I wish we had better ways to reassure people that masturbation is not sinful. It can be misused, but on the whole it can be a matter of self-affirmation and self-care. When I try to tote up the amount of guilt, shame, and furtiveness that surrounds the whole matter of masturbation, I am appalled. Masturbation is nothing to feel guilty about, ashamed about. . .it's part of our sexuality.
And third, our sexuality is tied up with our spirituality. There is a built-in sense of incompleteness in each one of us -- that wanting to be known, that wanting to give ourselves completely, that wanting to be held, to be reassured that we are completely safe and secure. All the way through the Bible -- not just in the Song of Songs, but running all the way through the Bible -- there are sexual images of our relationship to God. There is Christ the Bridegroom, the Church the Bride; the notion of incarnation, of giving ourselves over to the loving arms of God. But. . . now we see dimly.
Each of us is on a journey. Some parts of the journey are easy. Some are so very, very difficult. How we deal with ourselves, and with others, as sexual beings is one of the most puzzling and difficult things there is in life. . .for everyone. And no wonder our young people are so confused. Sex, again, is not sin, but neither is it our salvation. Again, much more, so much more, it is like nitroglycerin: capable of blowing up bridges or healing hearts.
Let us pray:Our hearts are restless, dear God, and our hearts will be restless until they find their home in you. Help us as we live our lives, to be wise, to be thoughtful and loving, help us to rejoice in all the gifts you give us, help us to honor ourselves and all those you have given us. Forgive our confusion, guide us into the paths of joy, all for the sake of your kingdom. Amen.
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Thomas B. Woodward
Everyone here knows my policy of refusing to exclude groups just because they irritate me; but I am close to reconsidering on the matter of statisticians. Now there is a profession for people with time on their hands!
Someone had contracted with a group of these people to do a survey on new arrivals – and the preliminary report took up a whole staff meeting. The big question was “Who or what is the first thing you want to know when you arrive?” The winner, with 37.5%, was “Will my husband/wife be here?” The second, with 22.5%, was “Will I see my pet, ___, again?” The third (and most disturbing) with 12.5% was wanting to know the results of a recent sports event (men) or soap opera crisis (women) -- and in sixth place was “I want to know what God is really like.” Sixth place! Give me a break!!
Matthew said I was just upset that I was not the first person the newly arrived wanted to see. I disagreed with him, of course, but that is what it is all about, isn’t it? I put on a good face for the old timers, but I feel a major depression coming on. Jesus all but ensured that the depression would be deep and long lasting with his cheap shot: “I can’t imagine how anyone so infinite can be so small.”
I stayed in my room all day today.
I stayed in my room all day for the second day in a row. A new record.
I did it. I made it to lunch and I did the right thing. I asked for help in dealing with the depression. I don’t remember much of the discussion and very, very little about the advice – except for John. John took my hand in his, looked me straight in the eye and said, “God, get over it. You created all these creatures for your pleasure and joy; so why shouldn’t they feel towards one another the same kind of affection you have for each of them? If anything, you are a victim of your own success in creating such a lovable creation.”
In better spirits I ate two desserts, drank a rare cappuccino and smiled for the first time in four days. I think if I ever had the opportunity to take a sabbatical, the guy I would have in charge during the interim would be John.
With much trepidation I went to Jesus to ask him how he saw Monday’s report by the statisticians. Jesus saw right past my disappointment and hurt. He asked me what it was that the new arrivals most wanted to know about me. I told him I didn’t hear that part of the report – I was too upset about being sixth on the list.
Jesus said that two things stood out. The first, he said, “was that they wanted to see your face, especially the lines on your face. They wanted to see what the accumulation of thousands of years of compassion and hurt and love look like.” I told him I thought that was really lovely – and that I could not have asked for a deeper appreciation. I am a great believer in the lines on people’s faces. It’s the first thing I look for in the elderly, the lines on their faces. There are sad lines and there are compassionate lines. There are also lines of anger and bitterness. The lines on our faces tell our stories. In a way, we work hard for the lines on our faces (I remember reading somewhere that we earn the peculiar lines on our faces). How touching that others want to see mine.
What a great image that is – the lines on my face. I know I’m often worried about the way I’m perceived. The worst is that old dichotomy between “the God of the Old Testament” and “the God of the New Testament.” Whoever dreamed that up should be grateful not to have divulged that disgraceful thought anywhere near my hearing!
Glee in creating . . .passion for justice . . . generosity of the holiness code . . . the compassion for the widows and the victims . . . the rescue of the oppressed . . . having to work with (to be honest with myself) pretty substandard leadership – I think I’ve been pretty consistent all the way through eternity.
After yesterday, this would have been a wonderful day for quiet meditation and reflection, but when Jesus sensed that I was more myself and (I hate the jargon) that my boundaries were once more intact, he sought me out to tell me the second thing the newly arrivals wanted to know. He said, “They want to know if you really are male.” I should have guessed, known.
Then, Martin Luther said he wanted to challenge Buddha to a debate. The Buddha said that he would be honored to share a platform with the great pastor; but, he said, he would probably not be doing much of the debating, himself. He was hoping, he said, that Herr Martin would allow others to share that burden on the Buddhist side. I am looking forward to seeing who Martin will choose.
How many times have I written this: thank Me for Sabbath time. I will use the day fantasizing about “The Great Debate,” as Martin is advertising it.
The great night finally came. The place was full. And Brother Martin, bless his heart, had recruited several friends to join him at the Christian table – Peter, representing first century Christianity, himself representing Reformation theology, and St. Augustine as the “closer.” Martin and Augustine started the debate off to much applause and enthusiasm from the crowd. Augustine outlined the case for Christianity and detailed some of the more important Scriptural references. Then Martin took over. Martin had obviously been working with some of the more effective Black American preachers in preparation for the debates, because he was constantly interrupted with “Preach it, Brother Martin,” and “You lay it down and we’ll pick it up” as well as more “Amens” than most Lutherans have heard in a lifetime.
When Martin finally sat down, Gautama slowly approached the front of the stage, sat down, closed his eyes for several minutes and then, simply, stared at those sitting in front of him with such love and compassion and caring. That was it: no words, no gestures, no explanations. Sitting at the back, I could feel the tension for the first half hour. Then it melted away and it was like all the doubt, all the confusion, every bit of the need for explanation or information was sucked right out of the auditorium. We were all just there.
When the timer waved the yellow card, Buddha rose, bowed to the crowd, bowed to the Christian table . . . . and returned to his seat. Not a single person clapped or whistled. There was just respectful silence. It seemed clear to me that, at that point, the debates were over.
Peter did his best. He really did. If anybody can preach the resurrection, Peter can. And he did. It was clear to me, though, that Brother Martin had made a mistake by calling on Peter, not John. John would have shared his reverence for the great Buddha and then, quite humbly, would have spoken about the quiet and powerful presence of the Risen Christ as companion to the great Buddha, not his competitor or superior. Peter did his best, though; it just was not sufficient for the evening.
The final part of the program was the best. One of Buddha’s staff asked the crowd’s indulgence to accept, as the Buddhists’ final offering, a presentation by an adult and a children’s’ Buddhist choir. Then out came a mixed adult choir, followed by a large children’s choir, all dressed in lovely saffron robes. None of us was prepared for what was to follow.
“Rather than more words or silence,” the young choral director said, “we have prepared a short program – not for your edification, but for your entertainment.” The adult choir then sang a haunting, a capella version of Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Plenty of Nothing (and nothing’s plenty for me),” and then a knock-your-socks off Gershwin parody, “Porgy and Less,” with saffron robed baritone and soprano pouring their hearts out to one another. If that was not enough, the children’s’ choir (introduced as “Gautama’s Guys and Girls Junior Choir”) ended the program, and any remote semblance of dignity to the evening, singing, to a familiar tune:
Buddha loves me, this I know;
for the Buddha-book tells me so.
When I hear that great big gong,
I know I’ve been gosh-darn wrong.
Yes, Buddha loves me!
Yes, Buddha loves me.
Yes, Buddha loves me:
The Buddha-Book tells me so.
The Buddhists were right: the only path to humility is through silence or the ministry of the fool. They had given the gift through both. After many hugs and embraces, we all left in a spirit of reconciliation and joy. Peter and Augustine seemed crushed. I will speak with them tomorrow. Brother Martin was the only one that evening who laughed louder than me.
There can be no debates between us, only rejoicing in one another’s truth and laughter at our common folly. Like a fool, I jumped up and shouted, “I’ll drink to that!”
There has been a major shift in the interpretation of the parables of Jesus in recent years. In simplest terms, several Biblical scholars believe that it is no longer helpful to interpret the parables at all. Why could this be so? While earlier New Testament scholars believed that each parable had a point or a lesson to apply, others have found it more helpful and more true to the force and place of the parable in Jesus’ teaching and presence to concentrate on the experience of the parable, itself. In other words, our task is not to apply the parables to our lives, but to experience the world revealed in the parable, itself.
Discovering the generosity of the owner of the vineyard in the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard may move us to emulate that generosity, but our worlds are untouched. We know from our life in the world that good advice and good examples, while salutary, do not change our basic orientation in the world. One of the things that we do know about the parables of Jesus is that they represent a basic shift in our orientation to the world. In this parable (Matthew 20:1-15) it is when we are involved emotionally and spiritually in the struggle between the workers who were first recruited and worked all day and those who were hired last and worked only an hour for the same wage that we begin to understand the shift in orientation. It is, I believe, when we also become involved in the conflict with others in the parable, with members of Jesus’ party, and with casual on-lookers that we move even deeper into what Bernard Brandon Scott refers to as the re-imagined world of Jesus.[i]
This shift from interpretation to re-experiencing is crucial. To conclude that God intends to treat all people with generosity and in ways that do not necessarily reflect our own cultural notions of fairness and justice is one thing. To live, even in one’s imagination, within this world of shifted priorities and ethics is quite another.
I began to understand this shift when working several years ago with a clown group composed of people with various disabilities. One of the middle-aged clowns was a woman named Maureen, who had been paralyzed for decades by a phobia about being close to men. She had been given reassurance upon reassurance and had been told in counseling that she could find men with whom she could trust herself. No amount of good advice or insight seemed to help at all. However, when Maureen donned her clown suit and went into the community to clown, she found it easy to joke with men, to chuck them under the chin in fun and even to sit in their laps flirting with them in the safety of her clown character. She was in another world, or in what for her must have felt like a parallel universe.
It took less than two years for her let go of the phobia and have relatively intimate relationships with men outside her clowning, because she had experienced another world. She made the switch from one world to another, from one kingdom to another. And so is the hope God holds out for us, in our attachments and orientation to the world the parables opposed. What is important to know is that the parables cannot be reduced to lessons about life or exhortations to live with different values. Gabriel Marcel wrote that life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived: so it is with the world disclosed in and through the parables of Jesus.
Two illustrations of this come to mind. The first is the notion of Jesus as the “Word.” Jesus cannot be reduced to words or images or descriptions: it is his life, his story, his presence which are the “word.” It is all of that which God meant to say. The earthly Jesus and the response of the faithful to him and the experience of the church of the risen Christ is “what God meant to say.” That is the word. Any work with the words and world of the parables ought to take place within the context of the Word.
The second illustration comes from the arts. The great dancer, Pavlova, was once asked what she meant by one of her dances. She replied, simply, “If I could have said it, I certainly would not have danced it.” So, too, with the parables of Jesus. Were the message of the parables possible to list in a series of aphorisms or guides to successful, fruitful or spiritually enhanced lives, Jesus might well have provided such a list. But this is about living in a whole other world or environment altogether – one you cannot understand from the outside. In that way it is like falling in love, living in the circus or even learning how to ride a bike! You know what it’s like when you get there, but you can’t get there without just being there.
The heart of what follows is a series of entry points into the world of the parables of Jesus. Each entry point is suitable for a congregation either at worship or in a retreat setting. With most of the parables, I have stressed the humor inherent in the parable or in its telling or re-enactment. I have done this, in part to honor the humor or comic spirit in the parable and, in part, to allow the different sensibility found in the parables to sneak into our consciousness. Most of the parables are deeply comic – and others do well, I believe, when dressed in comedy’s clothing.
I have introduced each of the parables with an “Outline of the Parable,” in which I have described the parable’s setting, its probable use by Jesus, and an overview of its meanings. Following the introduction, I have provided suggestions for staging or exploring the parable and a sample script for introducing the parable verbally to those in attendance. I have also included “Closing Lines” for use after the performance of the parable, as a way of bringing some closure to the experience. The “Reflections” are further thoughts about the parable and represent my experience within the life of the parable.
[i] Scott, Bernard Brandon, Re-Imagine the World: An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus, Polebridge Press, Santa Rosa, California 2001.