Sunday, July 02, 2006

What Time is It?

The Witness Magazine
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.

For the Long Haul

from The Witness Magazine
by Thomas B. Woodward
Monday,May 29, 2006

Readings for Pentecost Day, June 4, 2006
  • 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
I have always been struck by the power of our myths to tame the critical stories of the Bible. To illustrate that, I used to ask people at church gatherings to give a title to a poem by Robert Creeley, from his collection For Love: Poems 1950-1960. As a significant personal challenge, try to guess Creeley's title for this poem:

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.

Documents re: General Convention 2006

Here are several ways of obtaining information about the past General Convention

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