Alle Menschen werden Bruder (sorry, no umlaut available)

Not long ago I read an article about a man who spent several months getting away from it all by living in a remote fishing village in Southeast Asia.  He said that he didn’t want to be just another tourist day tripping through the land not really absorbing the true meaning of local life.  It was about the same time I had finished reading a few English murder mysteries in which life in the charming village was sprinkled with tour groups parading through, gawking without the least bit of understanding of what they were gawking at.  
The locals, it seems, tolerate the tourists for their money, but generally consider them to be two dimensional, none to bright, and having no lasting reality.  They are just plastic figurines passing through, led by a loudmouth ignoramus holding an umbrella.  On the other hand, tourists are presumed to see locals as yokels who strut their stuff on the stage until closing time when they are trundled off to someplace out of sight, while the tourists return to the real world.
We have been tourists in many places, sometime staying a few days, but more often only a few hours.  Sometimes those places have been in remote foreign countries, and sometimes in towns a few miles away.  They have even been in local neighborhoods not our own.  Just the same, we have discovered that a few days, or a few hours, of close observation can open whole new worlds of experience that broaden our understanding of who we are as persons, especially in relationship to others who live in other places under other conditions so unlike the ones we live in.  It does bother me a bit to be herded off to a venue clearly designed for tourists to get a taste of local culture, a taste no local would ever recognize.  But that’s also a part of the experience.  It tells me something about what the locals think we are like.  The point is, even our momentary exchanges with the people of a different place and culture changes something of who we are, and, I suspect, does something of the same to them.
Our little city is becoming a destination for wine tourism.  Many weekends, especially those featuring some wine event, bring in hordes of tourists who spend a few days, a lot of money, and go home.  They walk down main street with the usual semi-lost look of tourists everywhere, and it can easily be said that they are not really part of our community.  They didn’t homestead here.  They don’t care who the mayor is.  The big debate over a new high school is of no interest to them.  When they leave, they will cease to exist, from our point of view.  Except that they are a part of our community.  They are a part of our livelihood.  They influence the crops that are grown, who the mayor will be, and whether we vote for a new school.  They don’t cease to exist when they leave.  They take something of us with them, and they leave something of themselves behind.  
What all of this adds up to is the recognition that the person serving me pizza in Pisa, and the tourist I greet on our own main street, are a more intimate part of my life, and I of theirs, than I can fully appreciate.  One way or the other, it’s true for all of us.  But appreciating it at least a little can change the way we look at others, perhaps enabling us to sing along with Friedrich Schiller:
Joy, beautiful spark of the divinity,
Daughter from Elysium,
We enter your sanctuary, burning with fervour,
o heavenly being!
Your magic brings together
what custom has sternly divided.
All men shall become brothers,

wherever your gentle wings hover.

What is Redemption

(Note to academics: this brief essay is intended to be helpful to ordinary people who have heard the word but not given much thought to what it means.)

As we approach Easter there will be a lot of talk about redemption, but what does redemption mean? 
If I redeem coupons at the grocery store, I get to trade something of little value (the coupon) for something of greater value (a food item).  It may still cost me something, but less than it otherwise would.
In some states I can take my soda cans and bottles to a redemption center and get paid for them.  Like my coupons, I trade in something of little value for something of greater value, with little cost to me, just the time and effort required to collect and deliver the can and bottles. 
Redemption centers are also where I can take recyclable trash, stuff that has no more value to me, but, in the hands of the recycler, may be turned into something entirely new and of significant value.
Redemption, then, seems to have to do with trading something of lesser value for something of greater value at little or no cost to us.
Yet sometimes we speak of redemption as having an enormous personal cost.  When we have really messed up, recognizing that what we have done has caused real damage to things and people, we wonder what we need to do to redeem ourselves. How can we restore our reputation?  How can we fix what we have damaged?  How can  we put things back to the way they are supposed to be?  What do we have to change to avoid future failure and save future success.  The emotional, physical, and spiritual cost can be very high, higher than we can pay.
In like manner, we are happy to talk about how others have messed up even more than we have, and what they have to do to restore our trust in them.  The costs we impose on them can be unbearable.  Some people, we say, are beyond redemption.  
So, from the point of view of the consumer, redemption appears to be a two edged sword, at least in common usage.  On the one hand, it’s a really good deal that costs us almost nothing; on the other, it’s very costly, perhaps more costly than we can manage.  
Redemption has other meanings, at least as it is used in scripture.  It can also mean something like liberation or restoration.  What does it take to liberate someone from slavery or an abusive environment?  What would it take to liberate us from guilt and shame?  What would it take to liberate us from the limitations of our human condition: illness, disability, injury, etc.?  What would it take to restore someone bruised and broken to pristine, like new condition?  Whatever it takes, that is what Jesus came to do, and he had the power to do it.  
Redemption, then, is a complicated word with a range of complicated meanings.  Jesus was, and is, the agency of God’s redeeming power, in all of its forms and meanings, for all of humanity and all of creation.

Maybe that’s why, when we talk about being redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, or by the blood of Christ, there isn’t just one definition on which to hang everything else.  Anything we say, any doctrine of atonement, can grasp only a portion of what, in the end, is far too big for human comprehension.  It is a holy mystery.  Speaking for myself, I don’t have to know how it works, I only have to know that it does. 


The clergy from the seven Episcopal churches in our area gather about once a month for prayer and fellowship that includes a check in with each of us about what is new or changing in our lives.  We met last week, and when it was my turn to say something, I talked about my growing recognition of how disconnected I have become from the day to day life of the diocese.
Retired for over six years, no longer serving on diocesan boards or committees, and never having felt the need to be in on every tidbit of news and rumor that floats around, I have discovered that I also don’t know some of the new clergy, and am not a part of the circles of friendship into which they have entered.  Oddly enough my absence has not been missed.  Whatever leadership or wisdom I once offered has been easily replaced by very competent others. 
For example, I spent a good deal of my adult life as an expert in organization development, leading workshops and offering courses to help congregations through difficult times.  A whole new cadre of well trained folks have taken over with their own way of doing things, and it’s a good way.  They are better organized and have a better plan for getting things done than I ever had.  Moreover, they are living into the now of what for me are mostly memories. 
Once in the center of things, I now observe them from the fringe, if not the outside.  It’s a little disorienting.  It is a loss and I do feel it.  I don’t want it back.  I want to stay involved, but not plugged in. 
I may be disconnected from the daily life of the diocese, but not disconnected from life, just plugged in somewhere else.  I serve on boards and commissions here in town.  An important part of my ministry is working with the fire department and coroner’s office.  The little parish I serve is pure joy.  We travel more than ever, and stay away longer.  We take delight in the music and art that surrounds us in our home and in the community.  I take pleasure in being helpful to the trickle of clergy, and a few others, who seek me out.  My wife and I play a lot more, often together, sometimes on our own, and always taking delight in what each other is doing. 
I wonder what it’s like for others.  How hard is it to become disconnected from what was once the core of every day life?  How hard is it to discover that, yes, you can be replaced, and not only replaced but improved upon?  How hard is it to become connected in new ways and in different place?

As for me and my house; we have places to go, people to see, things to do. 

I used to be Catholic, but now I’m Christian

I met a young man at a car dealership yesterday, one of their finance and loan managers.  He asked me what I did and I said I was an Episcopal Priest.  He puzzled about that for a minute, and said he didn’t know what that was, and could I tell him more about what an Episcopal might be.
Where to start?  “Do you know what Roman Catholics are?”  “Oh, sure; I grew up in the Catholic Church.  My dad even went to seminary when he was young.”  “OK, Episcopalians are Catholics without the pope, and priests like me can be married, which works out well for my wife and children.”
“Gee, I wish I had known that.  I used to be Catholic but now I’m Christian.”
I used to be Catholic but now I’m Christian?  Where did that come from?  It comes from various elements within more conservative evangelical churches who say of themselves that “we are Christians,” but “they are Roman Catholics.”  Do they mean that Roman Catholics are not Christians?  Sort of but not exactly.  They would observe that Catholics worship Mary, bow down to idols, and believe the pope stands between you and Jesus, and let you draw your own conclusion by simply restating that “We are Christians but they are Roman Catholics.”
What about Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and such?  Not very important in the scheme of things, and, for the most part, ignored.  Which brings me back to something he said to me: “I wish I had known that.”
Why didn’t he know that?  Why did he have absolutely no idea who or what an Episcopalian might be?  I have no desire to pirate Roman Catholics away from their church, but it seems to me that those who have chosen to leave would find the Anglican traditions of the Episcopal Church to be a comfortably familiar setting for worship.  
What we don’t offer is a secure fix on the one and only way to understand the bible, truth, or what is right and wrong in the world today.  And that, according to my new friend, was something that appealed to him about his new “Christian” church home.  Simple answers to hard questions made life less confusing and uncertain. 

I’m not sure where to go with that, except to encourage denominational leaders to invest in more effective marketing through various forms of advertising and engagement with the media at all levels, and to be more vigorous in teaching adult Episcopalians what it means to be Episcopalians, a people who live with faithful certainty in an uncertain world. 

Exercise, Hygiene, and Study

When I was a young boy in the early 1950s, our grade school class was subjected to movies explaining the importance of exercise, hygiene, and study habits.  I guess they were intended to inspire us to a higher standard of something or other.  We were shown how our dads got all the exercise they needed working at their factory jobs.  Our moms got all the exercise they needed wiping down clotheslines, scrubbing floors, and cooking.  I’m not sure what that had to do with third or fourth grade ideals of exercise, but it did open windows into ways of life different than ours.  Most of our dads worked in offices, and most of our moms had discovered the joys of washers and dryers. 
Hygiene was another matter.  The films always showed boys, never girls.  I guess girl hygiene was too sensitive for public display.  Anyway, the boy in the film awoke bright and cheery at the first ding of an alarm clock.  He systematically washed up with soap and water, brushed his teeth with vigor and delight, combed his hair, and became magically dressed.  We were amazed that it could be done, even on film. 
With a smile and respectful good morning to his mother, he sat down to a well laid out breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast, and juice before happily leaving for school.  It left us puzzled, having never personally witnessed anything like it in real life. 
Early in the evening he sat down to homework.  In fact, he sat up straight in a straight back wooden chair.  A floor lamp placed at a prescribed forty-five degree angle over his left shoulder provided the right amount of light at the right angle.  With two or three perfectly sharpened pencils at hand, he opened his books and got right to work.  Who knew that was even possible?

The whole thing was a bit eerie.  Rod Serling, I suspect, got the idea for The Twilight Zone from watching the same films.  Moreover, I think it is memory of films such as these, rather than the real life we experienced, that has inspired many people to want to return to the good old days when things were simple and everyone took responsibility for their own well being.   It was fiction then, and it’s fiction now, but fiction often has more staying power than reality. 

Blood! We Need A Blood Sacrifice! But I Digress.

“Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (Hebrews 9.22)
Some years ago I had a parishioner who was fixated on the Substitutionary Doctrine of Atonement as the one and only way of understanding salvation.  This passage from Hebrews was her favorite, and few conversations were complete until she had proclaimed it in a voice of Charlton Heston like forceful authority.  How she became an Episcopalian was a mystery.  
I tend to remember her during Lent because the drive toward Easter invariably raises the question: what is the meaning of the cross, particularly as it relates to salvation?  For my one time parishioner, a wrathful God who demanded blood sacrifice for atonement, and was pleased to put Jesus to death as a substitute for what we truly deserved, was an odd sort of comfort to her.  On the one hand it gratified her that she, and a few others, would receive forgiveness through Christ’s blood.  On the other hand, she was saddened that so many others did not grasp the terrible fate that awaited them in the hands of an angry God, and she was determined to compel them to accept her brand of faith as their only hope.  
Like I said, how she was an Episcopalian was a mystery.
Her theology was, however, consistent with the majority of conservative evangelical churches that dominate our area.  The result is a hard core of convicted Calvinistic Christians (who have no idea who Calvin was) amidst a larger population that is either disgusted with the message and tone of their religion or wholly ignorant of Christianity.  In between is a relatively small group of churches like ours that have become known as progressive.  
She introduced me many times to her trove of Christian books and adult education materials, almost all from Colorado Springs or someplace in Texas.  It was her treasured source of the only true understanding of scripture.  I would ask her why she didn’t have any books or materials from the Anglican tradition of the Episcopal Church, and the answer was usually the same.  “I didn’t know there were any.”
I wasn’t surprised.  She had a point.  The stuff in her collection was slick, well written, easy to understand, unequivocal in its message, convincing, and abundant.  Offerings from our tradition were meager by comparison.  Our popular writers, if popular they were, tended to be academics writing for academics.  Or they were academics writing popular material, but with inconsistent messages that often raised more questions than answers.  Various Sunday School and adult materials were good but lacked slick persuasiveness, consistency, or abundance.  
Her collection was filled with books that all said the same thing, but with different covers, and published with plenty of hype several times a year as if they were something new and exciting.  Thanks to her, I got weekly calls from Texas peddling videos and workbooks for teens and adults on almost any subject dear to conservative hearts.  I often reviewed the material they sent on trial.  It was well produced and offered an easy out for any pastor needing something he or she did not have to struggle with.  None of it was consistent with our theological tradition.
It’s not that we didn’t produce good stuff.  Now and then we did, and do, but it was hit or miss, a little here, a little there, and marketed much like the child who knocks on my door and says, “You don’t want to buy a box of candy, do you?”  Now retired, I’m not up on what is out there now.

Well talk about a digression.  This article started out as a commentary on the doctrines of salvation, and was intended to make the point that, for Episcopalians, it’s not what we think and believe, but how we think and believe, and that is what I am going to try to bring to my small rural congregation this Lent.  

Pay Attention. Keep it Simple.

Last Sunday I heard something in the text from Genesis t as if it was a new thing.  It was that God called Adam to till and keep his garden.  God called human kind to be in partnership with him caring for his creation.  Our creation story tells us something important about who we are called to be and what we are called to do.  We are called to be partners with God in caring for the earth and its creatures.  
To be in partnership with God means having a relationship with God that goes well beyond the superficial affirmation tumbling with little thought from the mouths of many Christians.  It means, to use the words of the collect for Thursday prayers, “…in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight…”
That’s a working relationship that may or may not have emotional content, but always has the certain knowledge that we are in partnership with and ever walking in God’s sight.  I’m reminded of the shock that people expressed when Mother Teresa wrote that she had gone for years without the experience of God’s presence.  She may not have had an emotional experience of God’s presence, but I believe that she was never in doubt about her partnership with God, or about knowing, without feeling, that she was always walking in God’s sight.  In fact, I suspect that, as in any partnership, even one with God, there were more than a few arguments between them.
Partnerships exist to do something, not nothing.  The something in partnership with God is to till and keep his creation.  Tilling and keeping means attending to what creation needs for it to flourish now and in all that is yet to come, not for the sake of the caretaker, but for the sake of creation itself including the caretaker.  
I thought of that each morning during our Maui sojourn as I watched a man tending the koi pond on the condo grounds.  He kept it clean, monitored the water quality, tended the plants, and fed the koi.  It was his livelihood, but he did it for the sake of the koi, the water, and the plants, not for the sake of the condo tenants, although they too benefitted.  It’s a small example, and like any analogy it has its flaws, but I think you get the point.  
On a larger scale, we are called to care for the earth and its creatures not for own sake alone, but for the flourishing of creation.  We alone, among all of God’s earthly creatures, are able to make decisions about that.  Like other creatures, we need to use creation for our own survival, but unlike other creatures, we also desire to flourish in imaginative ways that both use and abuse the rest of creation.  We alone are able to evaluate our choices, assess advantages against disadvantages, and consider the effects of our decisions on future generations of our own kind and of all kinds. 
If the original sin of Adam and Eve was to eat of the forbidden fruit, the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, our original sin has been to be dismissive of that knowledge, preferring that which gives advantage to our selfish short term wants regardless of their effects on the rest of God’s creation.  Moreover, we tend to thoughtlessly forget that we have any partnership with God, or that we are ever walking in his sight.  I am not referring to the generic we, but to the specific we of Christians here and now, of you and me.  
It’s not something we need to beat ourselves up about.  It’s just something we need to recognize, remembering that we are to delight in God’s will and walk in God’s ways.  What are God’s will and ways?  To be in partnership with God as we till and care for God’s creation.  Pay attention.  Keep it simple.  

Retirement and Lenten Discipline

Lent was my favorite season when I was in the corporate world.  It was a season to slow down, to attend noon services in a chapel not far from my office, to go home at five and take no work with me, to meditate on life and God, and to become more deeply engaged in the life of my parish.  You can see where that got me.  Into seminary and the pulpit.  After that Lent became more problematic.  Extra courses of study to lead, quiet days to plan, an uptick in parishioner counseling, Easter arrangements to be finalized, with the usual array of glitches littering the path, and my own desire to be a model of lenten discipline.

In other words, life accelerated during Lent.  It wasn’t a bad thing.  I enjoyed and was energized by it, but forty days, not counting Sundays, took its toll.  It became something like a liturgical triathlon for which I had not adequately trained.  Looking back on it, maybe that’s what Advent and Christmas are for.  But I digress.

In retirement, Lent has once again become a slow season of contemplative grace, especially on Sundays with the small rural congregation I serve in partnership with two other retired clergy.  Most weekday mornings can be filled with as much time for prayer and reading as I desire.  I can participate in, as well as lead, whatever special services or events I choose.  Lent is a good time.

So what is my lenten discipline now that things have slowed down?  It’s something that may take me through all the Lents that remain for me.  It’s the problem of learning to love, as Christ loves, the people I don’t like very much, the people I try to avoid if I can.  Being in Christian love with people I like is easy.  Being charitable in a Christian loving sort of way to people I hardly know, or don’t know at all, is not that hard either.  People I really don’t like, well that’s another matter.  I do know them, or think I do, and I don’t like them.

My new lenten discipline forces me to confront two very difficult sets of questions.  Why don’t I like them, and is that objectively justifiable?  What would I have to do or feel to love them as Christ loves them?

One part of the answer has to do with becoming open to hearing their stories, the events of their lives that have formed the persons they have become.  Doing that always opens a door to empathy that I had never seen before.  But one can’t go around probing into the private lives of everyone one doesn’t like.  It’s rude, and more than a bit arrogant.  More Christlike is patient listening when the opportunity to listen has been offered by someone who needs to tell their story.  And who has time for that, especially when it’s someone you don’t like and don’t want to be around?

I have found that more than a few are eager, hungry even, to tell their stories, and offer frequent clues they hope will entice a willing listener.  Becoming more alert to those clues takes some new listening skills of their own, and I’m working on that.  And not having the time?  In retirement, time is what I do have.

Another, and more important part of the answer, has to do with a truthful self examination of myself.  What are the prejudices, unwarranted assumptions, and ignorance that I bring to the judgments I make?  What is it that inclines me to like or dislike a person?  What about my own story, and the emotional baggage that I haul around with me each day?  What obstacles do I place in my own way as I trod the path toward Christian love of neighbor and enemy alike?  Nasty little questions aren’t they?  They’re especially troublesome because I don’t like to think of my wisdom, long study of ethics, and intelligence as being the bearers of prejudices, unwarranted assumptions, and ignorance.  It’s just plain humiliating.

I don’t ignore these sets of questions the rest of the year, but I don’t spend much time on them either.  Now, in this Lent, and in each Lent to come, they are the focus of my daily conversation with God, and I trust that I have enough years left to make some progress.

Morning Prayer, the Ocean, and Lent

I suppose on Ash Wednesday I should be writing a deeply spiritual meditation on the meaning of  Lent, at least for me, and, indeed, one is rattling around in my head.  But first, some thoughts about the ocean.

My practice of morning prayer during our annual Maui sojourn is to sit on the lanai enjoying the early hours of dawn, slowly letting the words of scripture embrace my thoughts.  This year, for the first time, we have rented a fourth floor condo right on the beach.  Our lanai looks out over a well tended koi pond, a popular beach walk, with the beach and ocean just beyond.  There is something about the ocean that I find almost hypnotic.  What begins as scripturally ignited prayer quickly becomes a nearly absent minded contentment at just watching the ocean, the shore break, and the occasional whale antics between here and Lana’i.  Somehow it seems a part of prayer, but prayer with no object and little subject.

As the morning progresses into warmth, the beach becomes alive with tourists.  Some are taking long morning walks, some are running, and some begin to populate the beach with folding chairs and umbrellas.  A few get in the water.  The crowd, on this multi-ethnic island, is mostly white, very white, and determined to be less white when they go home in seven days.  Beautiful agile young people with sculpted bodies mix with their less agile elders whose bodies bear the marks of surgeries for heart, back, knees, and hips.  I wonder if the young will take better care of themselves than many of us did, and do they have any recognition that they are looking into the crystal ball of their own future as they walk down the beach.

Far out against the Lana’i coastline, a tug pulls an enormous barge laden with all that civilization can produce.  Sometime tomorrow it will arrive at the Big Island to disgorge its wares.  If it’s on the barge, you can buy it.  If it’s not on the barge, you can’t.  These islands are two thousand miles from any mainland.  It’s easy for tourists to forget. To live here is to be dependent.  No sane person can take seriously the notion of virile self sufficiency.  Survival, even for those living in aboriginal isolation in remote valleys, means dependency on others.  That’s something mainlanders often ignore, or even deny, about themselves.

Lent is a good time to think about dependency.  On whom are we dependent, and for what?  Maybe what we can give up for Lent is the hubris of imagined self sufficiency.  Come sit with me and look out at the ocean, and listen to what God has to say.

Sometimes I think I could be content just to sit here all day looking out over the beach and ocean as a form of unspoken prayer.  Old men can do that, you know, and get away with it.  As it is, we will soon head to church for ashes and Eucharist.  This afternoon, God willing, we’ll head out onto the water in a kayak, or maybe I’ll do some paddle boarding.  That will be prayer too.

The Question of Crimea

The Ukrainian crisis has sparked the usual media frenzy intent on inciting hysteria.  And there is nothing as likely to get a good round of public hysteria fired up than the old bugaboo of Russian imperialism and military bullying.

It might be worthwhile noting that world military powers have a solid record of occasional military incursions within their self appointed spheres of influence whenever they think it appropriate.  The Brits did it throughout the empire for several centuries.  We Americans have been known to use a little muscle in a variety of Latin American countries now and then.  So it’s not a purely Russian thing.  It’s something big, powerful countries do to protect what they say is their legitimate sphere of influence.

In the case of Ukraine, the news reports that about sixty years ago Khrushchev transferred Russian Crimea to Ukraine, and that the region was never integrated or assimilated into Ukrainian culture, society, or loyalty.   Assuming the reports are accurate, the question I keep asking myself is why would he have done that?  The only answer I can come up with is that he wanted to establish a strong and loyal Russian foothold in a region that he knew to be independent minded.  If you are ruling the USSR that might make some sense.  If the USSR has disintegrated, and its former member republics want little to do with mother Russia, it is bound to break down sooner or later, and so it has.  

So, if the Russians want Crimea back, and the Crimeans want to go back, and the Ukrainians don’t much like the Crimeans anyway, why don’t the rest of us relax and let this thing work itself out?  Maybe you have some thoughts on why that’s a bad idea.  Maybe you know a lot more about the region than I do.  After all, what I know is what I read in the papers, and that’s always problematic.  There is one caveat.  Just because Putin is a jerk on so many levels is not a reason for us to get involved.