Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas, Christopher Hithcens, Sneeering, Testing, And Praying Today

Christopher Hitchens’ death on the brink of the Feast of the Nativity sets my mind spinning about the mysteries of birth, life, death, and how we understand them.

I wish Christopher Hitchens well as a person but have major issues with the meaning of Christopher Hitchens as a cultural icon. Some of the media have called him an “intellectual.” He did attend Oxford for his undergraduate education, but does not seem to have pursued any post-graduate studies or done any real academic training beyond that basic liberal arts education. He was a journalist in the contemporary sense, not so much a reporter of facts as a commentator. His commentary rightly chastised Christians for failing to live up to our highest aspirations and then gilding our flaws in religious pretense, but Hitchens drew unwarranted theological conclusions from his chastisements. The “new atheists” by and large have not brought the same weight of philosophical reason to the table that an earlier generation (e.g. Bertrand Russell) did.

To the end, Hitchens maintained his posture of sneering, bored supercilious attitude. The sneer has been au courant for nearly 300 years now. When Holman Hunt painted The Light of the World, the most popular painting of the Victorian Age, Thomas Carlyle castigated him for this naïve portrait of faith. Sneering became fashionable in the salons of 18th Century France, and has remained the ego armor of choice ever since. Hitchens was consistently faithful to his essential face-set sneer. It has become a socially prescribed way to achieve and maintain status to mock and demean innocence which may be painted as naïve. Another option, which lacks the social sanction afforded to sneering, is to join with the “naïve,” to live and die in the attitude of prayer.

The tension between sneering and praying calls to mind another great believer and disbeliever, Anthony Flew, who truly did neither. Flew, a real intellectual, was a philosopher of science and was the leading voice of atheism in our time. His was a scientific atheism, a genuine scientific atheism, not the hackneyed leaps to the wrong conclusions we see in Dawkins. Flew started from a stance of studied neutrality. His only commitment was to “follow the evidence” wherever it might lead. Eventually, it led him to believe in “God,” by which he meant an intelligent and purposeful Creator. The “new atheists” were aghast and burned him at the journalistic stake for “apostasy.” I am not kidding. The new atheists really called Flew and “apostate” from their true faith – which of course is what it is.

In the end, I am not with Flew either. But there is a contrast worth noting. The attitude of sneering is an ego-armor, a defensive pride in looking down on believers and belief. I object to sneering as a spiritual practice precisely because it protects the very ego which Buddhism would disintegrate with awareness, Islam would surrender through obedience, and Christianity would sacrifice for the sake of a selfless life lived in Christ and for others. The one thing modernity and post-modernity have in common is their deification of the ego which most ancient spiritual traditions regard as the problem. Worse yet, sneering builds up the ego at the expense of others. There is violence in it.

Scientism such as Flew’s could be egoistic but it is not inherently so. It can be rigorously honest and courageous. It can be a heroic quest for truth. I have to admire that. I would have to admire it in Flew even if it had not led him to theism. I can admire, but I cannot join. Scientism deifies a method of knowing truth. The problem is it assumes one method of inquiry is capable of knowing, proving, and expressing everything. If I may use an analogy from the scientific world, it is like doing astronomy with a microscope, and so denying the existence of stars. Leave religion out of it for the moment. There is truth in poetry, art, and music that is beyond scientific reach. There is truth in the ancient stories and yes, truth both apprehended and expressed in rituals for which there are no words. Forgive me for this quotation from my youth, but it is still true. “It is only with the heart that one sees rightly. The things which are essential are invisible to the eye.” Antoine de St. Exupery.

The God I believe in cannot be proven or disproven by experiments. But here is the situation I find myself in. Suppose God could be disproven in some rational way. Suppose pride in being right or perhaps integrity in following the truth compelled me to admit that faith is false. What then would I do? A parallel question: truth aside, what if faith simply loses its last vestige of social credibility and disappears. Suppose the church dies out from under me?

Here is my problem. I have known the story so long, performed the rituals so often, they are more part of me than my very heart. When I have been in trouble I have called on God time and again. Each time God has delivered me. “How can you say that?” skeptics may wonder. Sometimes my salvations have been almost miraculous. Sometimes they seemed completely miraculous. Other times, they came in reasonable, even ordinary, ways. All I know is I cast myself on God’s mercy and I received mercy. When I was at the bank of Red Sea with the Egyptian Army charging – not just once but time and again – the Sea parted. It has happened as a kind of promise that when death itself takes hold of me, even that Sea will part into God’s mercy. I do not know what that mercy will look like. I take the traditional images of life after death as a fair portrait of mercy. But whatever form it takes, if it is God’s choice; it will be fine with me.

So, if logic should compel me to deny God or if I were the only believer left, I would still have to believe. I cannot and will not adopt the option of defensive psycho-violence or a too small way of knowing. I will admire the logicians like Flew, regardless of their conclusions, but I am not one of them. They practice a monotheistic reverence for the scientific method while I am an epistemological polytheist knowing truth in various ways. Ultimately, I am one who prays. This is my advice: If one does not want to wind up like me, an old man praying, one had better stop praying at an early age. There comes a point of no return, a time when prayer has been answered with so much truth and grace that one is honor bound to keep praying even if the last blessing has already been bestowed. The Church, the fellowship of believers, a flawed lot -- but no more flawed than I am -- has carried me thus far. I hope they will be with me to the end, but if they are not, Jesus has been too present, too real, for too long – so that “Though none go with me, still I will follow.”

I have to admit the priority of my faith. I could be fooling myself to avoid the tension between faith and integrity. But the arguments for God – not just Flew’s intelligent purposeful creator but the God of infinite mystery, the God of beauty beyond the reach of our aesthetic imagination, the God of truth beyond all our ways of knowing, the God of goodness beyond our highest moral aspiration – makes vastly more sense to me than the small minded reductionism of modernist and post-modernist secularism. St. Anselm called theology “faith seeking understanding.” I am with Anselm rather than Flew. I do not start intellectually neutral. My commitment is to God as I have known him in Christ Jesus. I am with Anselm and Augustine, “Credo ut intelligam” I believe in order that I may understand.” If understanding did not buttress faith for me, then I would go with whoever (it was not Tertullian) said “credo quia absurdum est” I believe because it is absurd. I would not really believe something simply because it is absurd, but if it is absurdly hopeful in the face of despair, absurdly good in the face of evil, absurdly profound beyond the banality of our experience, then those absurdities would at least makes me want to give it a fair hearing. So count me with Augustine, Anselm, Kierkegaard, and William James (The Will To Believe). An existential posture has to go deeper than the head level. We choose to believe or we choose to disbelieve as an act of will, not intellect, then find our reasons after the fact. Having sat on a pillow long enough to watch how my heart and mind work, I know the Buddhist teachings of abidharma are precisely true. Feeling first – then thought – then perception. It works opposite to the scientific method.

And all this leads to the Star over the Stable. I believe in that Star over the Stable this Christmas – not as a provable or disprovable factum of history, but as a picture of something truer and better than science can test or words can express. When people are sorted either by God or social scientists, list my name among those who go to a stable to pray.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Surprises at St. Jude's

Today was my first Sunday visit to St. Jude’s the parish. I have visited St. Jude’s Ranch many times and have celebrated the Eucharist with gatherings of our deacons there in the Zabriske Chapel. St. Jude’s graciously hosts our deacon conferences at no charge. But this was my first Sunday visit, marking the actual return of St. Jude’s to the Episcopal fold. Bishop Katharine visited and Kay Rohde celebrated there, but the priest who served St. Jude’s was of a schismatic persuasion and was not willing to attend those services. So much of the congregation was not there either. Today, St. Jude’s is in some sense our oldest, in another sense our newest, Latino parish.

The first surprise of the day was the turnout. Attendance at St. Jude’s is often around 15 to 20. On a big Sunday it breaks 40. Today we had 80 people, which packed the Chapel. They were engaged, singing the Spanish hymns a capella, fully participating in the liturgy using a Spanish translation of the Book of Common Prayer. Some of the attendance was no doubt due to the three baptisms – one early elementary schoolboy and two teenage girls. When I baptize older children and teenagers of Latino families, I always know there is a story there. I don’t know what it is, but there is a story. We are doing something important.

After the service I did a little demographic research about where the congregants reside. Many of them are, in fact, from Boulder City. When we began work on restoring our ties to St. Jude’s, I was assured that there is only one Latino family living in Boulder City and they attend St. Christopher’s. It turns out there is an invisible Latino population in BC. I am not being ironic. It really is true. By patronizing different businesses, etc. it is quite possible for ethnic groups to inhabit the same space with minimal awareness of each other’s existence. But, as I expected, many of them lived in Henderson. Neither of our churches in Henderson has a Missa Espanol so the 20 minute drive to St. Jude’s works for them just for convenience. But a significant minority drive to St. Jude’s from Las Vegas. There are no more community churches. We are all destination churches. People drive to where they choose to worship.

The next surprise came when I asked the teenagers, Cheyenne and Mia, in Spanish “Do you desire to be baptized?” They looked at me blankly. I thought it was my pronunciation; but Fr. Leslie explained that they did not speak Spanish. Oh my! Flashback to the ordeal a few years ago when I agonized over preparing and delivering a French sermon in Haiti only to learn afterward that the congregation did not speak French. They spoke Creole. So I found myself fumblingly trying to translate the questions I was reading out of a Spanish Prayer Book back into English. There goes another stereotype.

After the congregation finished receiving the sacrament, they brought the children up for blessings. I have never done more blessings of children, not even at our largest Latino congregation in Las Vegas. There was a hunger for blessings.

After the service, Christina Vela, the Regional Program Director for St. Jude’s (that means she runs the Nevada campus – there are two campuses in Texas) came by to meet me. That is a very positive gesture. If I am correct that Nevada Episcopalians share a sense of call to help at-risk children, then restoring our historic commitment to supporting St. Jude’s is a top mission priority.

Relations have been being maintained by folks like Sherm Fredericks who serves on the St. Jude’s Board. Connection with the parish restarted in earnest through the work of Fr. Bernardo Iniesta-Avila and his wife Lolita. It has been carried on by Fr. Leslie Holdridge. I am enormously grateful to them for their work at times when it was not at all clear that anything would come of it. They walked by faith and not by light; but the light is dawning. No worship space in Nevada has a holier feel than St. Jude’s. I feel blessed to have been there today and am eager to return.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christmas Message 2011

Dear Nevada Episcopalians,

I write to express my hope that your Christmas season, in all its aspects – church, family, friends, and home – will be a time of grace and blessing, that you know in your souls the serene hope of God’s good news for us.

The Scriptures and the Carols for Christmas are exuberant in claiming that this event makes all things right. Through Advent we have sung of an absent but hoped for God:

O come, o come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

In step with nature’s season of the long nights, we darken the room for the lighting of the candle. On Christmas Eve, we will exult:

Hark the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn king
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come . . . .
No more let sins and sorrows grow
Or thorns infest the ground. . . .
He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness. . . .

We celebrate a sunrise, a dawn, an experience of grace. Like most Episcopalians, I love this celebration. Of all the branches of the Christian family, we are the ones most devoted to the Feast of the Nativity.

But I sometimes wonder two things. First, I wonder if our heads and hearts align. Do we understand what we are celebrating? In the theology of the Western world, salvation is something that happened on Good Friday to pay a debt incurred at the Fall in Eden. In that theology, the birth of Jesus is just a necessary preparation for the real action scheduled for 30 years later. To make such a to-do over Christmas makes no sense. That is part of why the Calvinist Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell, banned the celebration of Christmas for the 40 years of his rule; and the brilliant Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon concurred that we should not be so exuberant over the set up for tragedy.

The second thing I wonder is whether we believe our Scriptures and our Carols deeply; or is it a night of just pretending it’s all alright. Agnostic professor Bart Ehrman attributes his disbelief to the disconnect between the Christmas celebration of “Peace on Earth, Good will toward men” with our experience that two thousand years later sickness, crime, poverty, prejudice, and death are just as real as they were before – in a sense, more so. Sins and sorrows still grow. Thorns infest the ground.

So what are we celebrating? First, it helps to broaden our theology a bit, to stretch it farther to the East and farther back in time. The great Eastern theologians, the same ones who gave us the Nicene Creed, taught that the Incarnation itself was part and parcel of our redemption and salvation. God in taking on human nature changes it sanctifies our very being. By entering more deeply into our world, God makes it holy. That is why the Creed links salvation to the Incarnation:

For us and for our salvation
He came down from heaven.
By the power of the Holy Spirit,
he became incarnate of the virgin Mary
and was made human.

And our Eucharistic Prayer says:

When we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death,
You, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ your only and eternal Son
to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us,
to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.

Human life becomes God’s life; God’s life becomes human. The temporal is imbued with the eternal. This is not to deny or diminish the salvific power of Good Friday. Western Theology has got that right; but the power of Christmas – and Easter and Pentecost for that matter – are at least as much a part of God’s great drama of our redemption.

But what about our experience? Can we really believe that something important has happened when so much still seems so wrong in our world? Christians have never claimed that the power of sin in the world is already vanquished. The fulfillment of our hope lies beyond the reach of our mortal lives and beyond the reach of unfolding history. St. Paul tells us that this world is still under the sway of “the powers and the principalities of this present age.” C. S. Lewis says our world is “in enemy hands.” But the end of the story has changed and we are given a foretaste of our destiny in the joy of Christmas. In a novel, the meaning of each chapter depends on how the book comes out. All our present delights and regrets, successes and failures, take on their meaning from a story; the story of our lives, the story of human history, the story of the whole cosmos has been decisively changed.

At Christmas, we touch holiness. More than that, we are touched by holiness. At a little Episcopal Church in Texas a long, long time ago, I attended my first liturgical worship. I was a teenage Presbyterian with minimal understanding of what was happening. It was not a dramatic conversion experience. But in a quiet way, I touched holiness and was touched by holiness. I didn’t know it then but the course of my life was changed. Christmas after Christmas over the years, I have received grace. My prayer for you is that you will touch the holy and be touched by the holy, and so be drawn closer to your destiny in union with the God and Father of All.

Bishop Dan

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Having Our Cake And Eating It Too: An Amateur Question About The Payroll Tax Gridlock

I am not a political scientist and am even less of an economist, so this is just the naive question of an amateur.

We want to continue the tax cut for working people not just for their direct benefit but to stimulate demand for the sake of the whole economy. Everyone agrees on that. The question is how to pay for it.

The leading proposal is a tax surcharge on the rich. The objection is that if the rich have less disposable income, they will not invest in businesses that would employ people. That may or may not be true, (we gave the largest most powerful banks all that bailout money thinking they would actually loan it to small businesses -- didn't happen) but let's assume it is true. The rich need more money so they can invest in job creating businesses.

Other recent news stories disclose that the richest 1% of the nation contributes a ludicrous amount of money to fund political campaigns -- way, way disproportionate to the rest of us, more money than average people earn all year.

So here's what I am wondering. If we extended the tax cut for working people and paid for it by a surcharge on the rich, maybe we could put a cap on individual campain contributions. Then instead of bearing the unfair and noxious burden of paying for all those annoying tv ads, the rich could use the money they save to invest in businesses that create jobs.

My idea is no doubt unconstitutional, but by the time that issue gets to the Supreme Court, the economy will have been saved and everyone will be happy. But what do I know?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Addendum: Undead From The Mizpah

Morning at the Mizpah in Tonopah, home of the Muckers. I lugged my luggage into the elevator where I met a seemingly normal woman who asked if I had stayed here last night. That struck me as an odd question to ask a stranger in a hotel elevator but what do I know? Maybe it's done in Tonopah. "Yes," I answered.

"Did anything happen?" she asked with arched eyebrows.

"Hmmmmmm," I thought in a cloud shaped word balloon.

"Nothing in particular," I said. "Was something supposed to?"

She told me how her family had seen an ice chest lid open all by itself -- as in with no one else around. It turns out the Mizpah is famously haunted. I owned up to seeing a couple of UFOs last night but no evidence of specters. The conversation continued with the desk clerk Victorina, an exceptionally nice lady who watched my bags while I dashed upstairs for another load.

According to Victorina, the nonpaying spooks of the Mizpah include two ghostly miners, two children, and a lady in red. The Mizpah has been on that tv show about real ghosts -- which explains why the tv at the Mizpah bar shows Ghost Story instead of a football game.

By now I was in uniform so I told her I could dispatch the five wraiths. I've done it before. But I acknowledged that for marketing purposes it might be better to keep them. One thing for sure: on my next visitation schedule I will be at St Mark's, Tonopah for All Saints Day so I can spend Halloween at the Mizpah -- but I have to say I spent one Halloween at the Hotel Nevada in Ely and that was pretty wild!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Live From The Mizpah: Moonlight, Music, And The Grace Of Surreal Juxtapositions

Here at Tonopahs's newly reopened Edwardian (built in 05 during a mining boom -- think Lilly Langtree) elegant hotel, the Mizpah, I remember the desert night drive that brought me here. Music catches the theme. It starts with two words from a new Paul Simon song --"thank you!" sung in the voice of a car wash worker who has just gotten a tip and is exclaiming his gratitude for all to hear -- "thank" plosive with surprise -- "you" drawn out and with an upward inflection to show more gifts are hoped for from others who hear how much their generosity will be appreciated. I myself have given alms to panhandlers, sometimes against my better judgment, hoping for the "God bless you" they so often bestow -- for while I vacillate in my belief in the efficacy of the priestly blessings, I hope the blessings of the poor may expunge my sins. I say that car wash guy's thank you for so many things in my life including a certain surreal set of juxtapositions that keeps me perpetually off balance, perplexed, and delightedly amazed. Music on that theme to come.

After 3 days of inspection and consultation from nationally important Latino Ministries people come to Nevada to see what we had done for God's mission with the money they entrusted to us -- 3 days that actually warmed my heart with the gentle joy of this mission -- I got up this morning at 4:30 to catch a plane to Reno and was still late for the Camp Galilee Board meeting. The Board consists of devoted people who sweat the small stuff but for a big mission. Then, after some dawdling in Carson City -- I buy all my pipes in Carson -- I began the 4 hour drive to Tonopah where I will preach and celebrate for God and 6 to 8 people tomorrow.

Just East of the Fernley roundabout, 2 things happened at once. To my left an almost full moon rose into a heavy bank of dark clouds. The thickest clouds shrouded the moon while the moon back lit the others. Strictly speaking, it was lovely. But an association with a life crisis in years past has left me -- I admit this is crazy -- afraid of full moons. So when the moon broke through I did what I always do. I stared at it straight on and said "Surely it is God who saves me. I will trust in him and not be afraid . . . ." In case you are not already persuaded I am unhinged, I will tell you what was happening over the pasture to my right. Two small flying objects, which are still unidentified by me' were executing impossible maneuvers. They had bright blue, green, white, and red lights. One was roundish. The other was shaped like an airplane. It sometimes spun wing over wing rapidly. Both darted at acute angles. I am not saying the A word. A navy air base is at least as close as Fallon. All I can say is whatever those things were, they were amazing.

Remember I got up at 4:30 after 3 intense days of Latino ministries review and drove to the Las Vegas airport which is strange enough in itself. It had been a day of meeting with a board of directors and 2 priests "in transition" as we euphemistically say. Now, as I drove between a beautiful but threatening moonrise and a UFO exposition I was listening for the first time to "The Goat Rodeo Sessions" -- Yo Yo Ma and friends performing original bluegrass compositions with post-modern arrangements for a classical string quartet rendition. Did I mention the surreal juxtapositions of my life? And I said "thank you!"

Awhile later I went over a hill and came to Walker Lake. My old enemy the moon -- just one night waning past full -- spread a milky sheet of light over the gently rippling waters -- a "kindly light" if ever I did see one -- and I said, "thank you!"

As I drove on through the jagged desert, I edited tomorrow's sermon in my mind -- all about waking up and keeping watch for three great wonders that define the very value of life. Then I composed a rant which I hope to deliver at next week's gathering of Bishops of Small Dioceses -- a rant at the Church Medical Trust, a rant so angry that if I get a chance to start it I am sure I will be gagged and carried out before I get to the best parts.

Then I came to Tonopah and the stately old Mizpah where I talked with the drunks at the bar about Macs vs PC's, boxing (Manny Paquio of course), the perils of on line translators when flirting with Scandinavian women, race relations, and all the things that occupy the minds of people who drink at the Mizpah on a Saturday night. As I end this day, knowing tomorrow I will proclaim the gospel by such lights as are given me then drive back to Tahoe to debrief summer camp with 2 bishops and 3 chaplains then fly to Salt Lake where I will insult and abuse actuaries, I say, Thank you!"

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sitting In A Zen Garden In Pocatello I Ponder The Oddness Of Life

On a soft Autumn afternoon, under blue Idaho skies, I sit in a Japanese gazebo in the Zen garden of the Pocatello airport. I live in Las Vegas, the neon capital of the Western Hemisphere. There is no neon here, just stillness. Inside the airport, there is no one at ticketing, no one in the closed cafe, no other passenger. Eventually, a pleasant young woman in a TSA uniform comes out to join me. She is not checking to see if I am a security threat. No, instead she tells me her life story and many of her hopes and dreams. She is from Preston on the Utah border but would like to live in San Diego someday. She was in Athens, Georgia once for training back when she was in the car business, and was captivated by the green antiquity.

After she goes, I remember this weekend at the Diocese of Idaho Convention. I was the after dinner speaker. I began, "It is a sweeter thing for me to be here than most of you can imagine," then told them the story of how 30 years ago God had saved my life from cynical despair through the gracious agency of the Episcopal Church in Idaho. "I was born here," I told them, "through an at risk spriitual pregnancy and an arduous labor." It was a sweet thing to be here and the people this weekend were as kind and human as ever. I told them that "when I could not see God, I saw you." The truth is I still cannot see God anywhere so clearly as in the rumpled, fallible, oft-times maddening collection of people who stumble along together as the church. It takes better spiritual x ray vision than I have yet achieved to see God behind the opaque pride of the arrogantly disbelieving and the spiritually advanced alike -- though I still try.

Here I saw a few old friends from those distant decades. I saw newer friends whom I know from national gatherings of those who try to be the church in the wild and sometimes lonely places like Pocatello, Blackfoot, Arco, Austin, Eureka, Ely, and Pioche. And I met new people: a retired admiral with bushy white eyebrows who settled in Idaho Falls after giving up his life on nuclear submarines; a tall handsome middle school teacher who discovered how rich he was while teaching English in Turkey; a lawyer who was once a high roller in the state bar but now serves as the chancellor for this church.

I flew here 3 days ago, changing planes in Salt Lake, waiting for my connection in "the back 40" where all the planes are going to Great Falls, Helena, St. George, Twin Falls, Idaho Falls, Grand Junction. I don't know what possessed me to ever leave the West. "How could I sing King Alpha's song in a strange land?" I did not tell Jesse these things. How do I know what she needs? Perhaps she too needs an exile from this arid spaiousness; perhaps for her an urban exile in San Diego or back in the land of green antiquity. I suppose I did. And I know I may leave this land again someday. Out here even the mountains are transitory. They erupted recently in geological time and may collapse in some seismic shift one of these days. As the Bishop of Idaho often says, "Life is short. There is so little time to be kind."

So this is not my life forever. Today, it is given to me to sit in a Zen garden at an empty airport in Pocatello and shake my head over just how odd that is.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Family Of God In Lincoln County, Nevada

Don’t get me wrong. I love Las Vegas. The sheer surrealism of living here amazes me every day. But sometimes it is just too much. Saturday things had been frenzied in a good way with our booth at the Pure Aloha Festival and Convention preparation going on at the same time. Then there was a barrage of the kind of incoming criticism that just goes with the turf of my curious (double entendre) vocation. But God provides. Saturday afternoon, Linda and I headed out for Pioche. But not so fast there kid. We took the I-15, little knowing it had been narrowed to a single lane for road construction. Trapped. It took forever before we could escape the jam. When we did, we had escaped onto the Las Vegas Strip. Arrrrgh! It was a tortuous odyssey wending our way to the I-95. But eventually we made it. We were sprung!

Then it was a lovely drive through the autumn afternoon up the 93, through my beloved Pahranagat Valley, through the Joshua Tree forest, along the pastures, to Pioche, once the wildest town in the Wild Wild West.

Dinner at the Silver Café. Then up the hill to Christ Church where Nick had unlocked the lower level and turned on the heat for us to spend the night in the bedroom they keep ready for itinerant preachers and roving prophets. The dog Fichu was beside himself. The steeply sloping back yard of Christ Church is his favorite place on God’s green earth. He did miss the cats that used to live across the street but they had moved on. There we spent a quiet evening, me reading A. N. Wilson’s eloquent biography of the Puritan heretic Milton.

Morning brought biscuits and sausage gravy at the Silver Café. A rangy young working man was making sweeping generalizations about the evils of socialism while an older working man was responding with a nuanced analysis of the pros and cons of the President’s Jobs Bill.

Back to Church for an early morning vestry meeting. They handled their business expeditiously and informally. As the Treasurer put it “We don’t know Robert.” His rules of order did not impede the good Christian folk of Pioche from getting on with the mission.

They had a challenge. The church musician Louie was missing. That is not unusual. He sometimes goes on walk about. To accommodate his wandering ways, they are buying one of those nifty machines that play hymns to support congregational singing, but it isn’t here yet. So they called Norma to drive a few hours down from Ely to provide the musical accompaniment on a xylophone. It was excellent. The gathered assembly of about 20 people sang right along.

The road from the 93 down to Pioche is an adopted highway, adopted by Christ Church, as a sign conspicuously announces. Civic responsibility, the Church engaged with society, the Christ light shining in a mountain village. After seeing the sign, Linda and I scanned the roadside for litter intending to stop and pick up any scrap we might find. But Deacon Kathy Hiatt and the laity of Christ Church had beaten us to it. The road was pristine.

At the vestry meeting we learned that this little congregation recently gave money to Episcopal Relief and Development to help the tornado victims in Joplin, Missouri. They support a missionary family in Chile. A thank you poster on their wall marks a donation they had made to UNICEF. They voluntarily give money above and beyond their diocesan assessment to support Ministry Development throughout our diocese.

Christ Church was founded by the first missionary bishop of Nevada, Ozzie Whittaker, who celebrated the first Pioche Holy Eucharist in a saloon, using the bar for an altar. This congregation was nourished for many years by Deaconess-in-Charge Jenny Hesmark whose biography is now being written by Karen Wilkes of St. Christopher’s, Boulder City. Christ Church was the star of Bishop Wes Frensdorff’s Total Ministry innovations in the 70s. Then they were shaped in the faith by the devoted ministry of their priest, the Rev. Jean Orr. Jean was called to priesthood by this congregation in 1975 – that’s right several years before women’s ordination was allowed in the Episcopal Church. Jean served until she was past 90. It was my privilege just last week at St. Catherine’s, Reno to confirm Jean’s grand-niece, Sophia Bedel.

When things get rough, it’s good to find the family of God to take one in and boost one’s hope.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Listening To The Heartbeat

“You look happy,” she said. She was the cashier at Maxi’s Café across from the B gates in the Reno airport. It was Sunday afternoon and I was buying a tuna and caper half sandwich when she said, “You look happy.”

“I am happy,” I said. I was happy. But I was surprised that anyone should say I looked happy, especially at the airport where my usually dour demeanor descends to anxious and morose. But I was so happy that it showed and I knew why. All weekend long, I had been listening to the heartbeat of the Church.

It started as I was “leaving Las Vegas” Thursday afternoon. I’d just finished a speaking engagement on Faith and the Practice of Law at the UNLV Law School. Things were swirling in the diocesan office and among various people in the city. They were scrambling to put together an evangelism booth at the Pure Aloha Festival to be held in the Silverton Casino the following week. We wanted to use this event to publicize our new Filipino/ Pacific Islander ministries which will kick off in January. Ellie was revising the diocesan evangelism brochure to focus on F/ PI evangelism. She was calling our people to find out how to translate Aloha into Tagalog and Igarot. The replies were coming with proposals to add floral designs. She added floral designs. More languages of the Pacific were suggested.

People at different congregations, people who three days ago had never heard of each other, were e mailing back and forth several times a day to coordinate the staffing of our booth which will be open all hours for four days. They were Filipino (Tagalog), Filipino (Igarot), Guamese, Anglo, Cuban, Mexican-American. It was a flurry of trying to do the impossible in too little time. But they were doing it with joy.

Context: we were already in full tilt panic getting ready for convention when Tom Walsh said, “What about the Pure Aloha Festival?” Within a day, we had rented what may be the first evangelism booth in a Las Vegas casino. But, hey, we are the 9th Island. Of course it’s impossible, but what would Eddie Aikau do? (If you don’t know, it’s only because you are not from Hawaii. Google Eddie Aikau). As a thousand bumper stickers say in Hawaii, “Eddie would go for it.”

Arriving in Reno, I drove straight to the Grove for the Empty Bowls Benefit to raise money for the St. Paul’s Community Food Pantry. Donning my “Bishy D” apron, I served bread, cookies, and ice cream. The place was packed. Many beautiful bowls were purchased. I bought one. A film described St. Paul’s efforts to combat hunger in Reno and Sparks. What the St. Paul’s congregation does each week is an incredible level of ministry driven by an inspiring degree of dedication.

Fast forward to Friday morning: I made my way through the line of people waiting to receive food at St. Paul’s, Sparks. Inside, I found Fr. Kirk and his son Cooper who had just come back from a night sleeping on the streets in cardboard boxes. It was an experience of solidarity with the homeless and also another fundraiser. They had sponsors like in a marathon benefit. By acting in solidarity with the homeless, they raised money for ministry to the homeless.

Then it was Saturday night. Off to Carson City (arriving late) for the Bristlecone Mass at the Brewery Arts Center. I swear half the town was there to see St. Peter’s performance of a jazz mass written by one of their own members. It was a composition with profound liturgical theology. It went from the words of institution “Do this in remembrance of me” to a song about Jesus being present as a homeless person pushing his shopping cart in the streets, pulling his coat together against the cold. This Mass understood what the incarnation that happens in the Mass means. It concluded with the eschatological welcome song “Come on in.” Along with music by a top class jazz trio and excellent solos supported by the Sagebrush Chorale, there were dancers (square, ballet, interpretive), mimes, and a juggler. The only place I have seen anything remotely comparable to the Bristlecone Mass is at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. This was missional music from a missional church whose Circles of Support program provides a comprehensive array of services to families transitioning from homelessness.

Sunday morning I was at our newest free-standing congregation (the Latino ministries are hosted by existing congregations), St. Catherine’s, Reno. At 9 a.m., they had a Family Eucharist – 25 people present – almost all young parents and their children. They were a lively, joyful group singing “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” At 11, the larger congregation came to support three youngsters for their Confirmation. Among them, it was my privilege to confirm the great grandniece of the Rev. Jean Orr who served Christ Church, Pioche so well, so faithfully, and so long. All three of the confirmands were completely engaged and delighted to take this step in the Christian life.

All the while, the calls and e mails about the Pure Aloha Festival evangelism booth kept flying. The Evangelism Team was burning the candle at both ends to roll out our new evangelism logo which is still top secret in Nevada but Bishop Katharine and the communications people at 815 are cheering loudly and demanding t shirts.

So how was I “listening to the heartbeat of the Church?” Those words are a paraphrase of Philip Newell’s book on Celtic Christianity, Listening to the Heartbeat of God. And they refer to the end of one of Bishop Katharine’s best sermons. At the end she said, “The heartbeat of the Church is ‘mission, mission, mission.’”

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Live From Quito 6 (Part B) The End

In addition to the dramatic resolution of the crisis in Ecuador Central and taking the first step toward a major restructuring of the church, we adopted a pastoral teaching on the environment, particularly about how environmental degradation hurts the poor. A lot of the education sessions had been preparing us for this. It is incumbent on us to share what we learn. A pastoral teaching is one way to do that.

As I look back over my descriptions of this time with the House of Bishops, I see that I have missed much of the quality and feel of what has been happening. The missing pieces are obvious. I have not told you that we celebrated the Eucharist together every day, that we began each day with Morning Prayer followed by Bible Study, that we stopped in the middle of each day for Noonday Prayer, that we ended each day with Evening Prayer, or that we said Compline once. I did not tell you of the special prayers said at other times for people in need or the many prayers of thanksgiving. I did not tell you of the moments of silence for disaster victims, for family members who died this week, for bishops who died since our lasr meeting.

Scripture, prayer, and sacraments were, as always, the supporting structure of all we did. Simply, we continued in the fellowship of the Apostles, the breaking of bread, and in the prayers..

A bishop is a bishop not because of personal gifts and talents. Nor is it enough that a bishop be elected. A bishop has to be plugged into episcopacy. That starts when three or more bishops consecrate him or her. But it does not end there. The authentic exercise of episcopacy depends on connection to the gathered assembly of bishops. Each individual bishop represents this body, which is immensely wiser and holier than any of us could ever be on our own.

Live From Quito 6 (Part A)

The crisis in Ecuador Central was resolved today. The settlement is complicated but this is the crux of it: Bishop Ruiz, the Standing Committee, the Legal Representative, the Chancellor -- in short the entire diocesan leadership -- will resign, ceding all authority to the Presiding Bishop until they can have a convention to elect new leadership. Bp Katharine has appointed Bp Victor Scantleberry to serve as interim bishop and oversee a process of reconciliation.

Coming to Quito was not easy. It was a long flight for many of us. Quito is the most dangerous airport in the world. One bishop was mugged yesterday. Today a bishop spouse was hospitalized with altitude sickness. A lot of us have been impaired to varying degrees by the altitude. But if our presence helped bring about this step toward peace, where before there were threats of violence, it was worth it. Though the crisis is past, the troubles here did not begin recently and they will not be resolved soon. But this was a big step. We gave our friend Bishop Luiz Fernando Ruiz a standing ovation. We laid hands on him, his wife Tanya, and their baby for healing at the closing Eucharist. You can see the toll this ordeal has taken on them.

Today the new Chief Operating Officer of the Episcopal Center (815), Bp Stacy Sauls, made the case for a major restructuring of the the Church. We suffer from "death by governance" (Bishop Katharine). Up to 45% of the church budget goes to overhead. We have 75 standing commissions. He gave examples of ways to save millions of dollars from governance so we can redirect that money to mission and social ministries at the local level. We do not have a specific substantive proposal,but a proposed resolution for a special commission to create a restructuring plan to submit at a special convention. Note the point is not just to spend less. It is to redirect money and human resources from governance to mission, from centralized to local, while streamlining the governing bodies of the Church.

The same goals are behind our proposed canon to merge our two diocesan governing boards. Western Kansas and some other small, financially challenged dioceses are dong the same thing this year.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Live From Quito 5: The Losses We Endure

Disasters have been a major theme of this House of Bishops. We heard from the bishops of Vermont and Albany about the flood, from the bishop of Western Missouri about the tornado, from the bishop of Texas about the drought and wildfires. It has been one hard year! They expressed their appreciation for the prayers and support of the rest of the church in helping them through these catastrophes.

The Archbishop of Japan showed a DVD and gave a heartbreaking report of their triple disaster -- earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear radiation. The bishop of Haiti updated us on the slow process of rebuilding their broken nation after that earthquake. He was deeply grateful for our support and to Bishop Katharine for her repeated visits to encourage and console the Haitian people.

The bishops have been very solicitous for the people of Reno involved in the air crash. They assure us of their prayers.

All of this is probably why I found tears in my eyes at today's Eucharist when we sang Thomas Dorsey's hymn written late one night in 1932 in an Atlanta hotel after he learned that his wife had died in childbirth and the child had died too while he was away.

"When the darkness appears and the night draws near
When the day is past and gone
At the river I stand
Guide my feet, hold my hand
Precious Lord take my hand, lead me home."

Live From Quito 4

Just a few highlights from today: one of our guest bishops from another church in the Anglican Communion told us that once when he was a new bishop he asked his wife, "Did you ever in your wildest dreams imagine that I would be bishop of this diocese?" She replied, "Darling, in my wildest dreams, you do not appear."

An English bishop informed us of issues in the C of E including the upcoming Synod which will decide whether to admit women to the episcopacy. He indicated that many in England believe the discussion of the Anglican Covenant has been helpful but see no need to actually adopt the Covenant. He made no prediction of the outcome and did not say how he would vote. My prediction: we will endorse the core values in the first three sections of the covenant but not the sanctions in section four. I also predict not many other churches in the communion will sign on to the Covenant.

The bishops from Liturgy & Music reported on the same sex blessing liturgy drafting process. Enormous work has been done. Massive input has been received. More revising is probably ahead. My opinion: this rite will be approved in some form. There will be controversy about it. But whether it is a bloody controversy depends on which book we put it in. If we do this in a way that effectively compels all dioceses to use the rite, there will be real crises in several dioceses that oppose it. If we do it in a way that authorizes but does not compel its use, it will be used by most dioceses, and the ones who oppose it can dissent in good conscience without a major crisis. There will be upset but we will get through it. I also predict that whatever rite we authorize will be imperfect. Both the rite and the theological supporting document will be revised after a few years of experience.

We had reports and a panel discussion on the economic, environmental, and migration challenges facing our Episcopal Dioceses in Latin America. I was particularly struck to hear that restrictive immigration policies and deportations put people in a vulnerable situation. In that situation they become prey for sex traffickers. I had not made the connection between those two issues -- immigration and trafficking -- which are both major concerns in Nevada.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Live From Quito 3

Denver is 5,200 ft above sea level. Visitors to Denver are warned to take various precautions about the altitude. Quito is 9,200 ft above sea level -- 4,000 ft farther into the sky. That takes a little getting used to. I am over my illness now and have moved on to the altitude issue.

Given my marginal health, I did not go on the field trip to the Colombia border on Saturday. It was 11.5 hrs on a bus. The people in Tucan were grateful for the visit of those bishops and spouses who made the journey. But I passed.

My Saturday began congenially. I had breakfast with the music leader for the House of Bishops, Dent Davison. He is at the Cathedral in Chicago these days, but it turns out he grew up in Hawaii. We talked about our plans in Nevada for Filipino/ Pacific Islander Ministries, and he told me about a wonderful resource of traditional Christian music from the Pacific. The day ended with a dinner outing of the Province 8 bishops and spouses/partners. As providence would have it, I sat across the table from the bishop of Hawaii, who serves all the way to Guam. So we did more brainstorming about how to connect with our new mission field, Pacific Islanders living in the desert. In between, I caught up on paper work and church e mails. A very productive day!

This morning was the most important thing we have done so far. We went to Church! That is always the most important thing to do, but today it was even more so. The Diocese of Ecuador Central has a history of big time trouble. In March, the Standing Committee in one fell swoop ousted the bishop. Since then there have been threats of violence -- conflict like we do not see in USA church life. Bishop Katharine and her staff have been negotiating a resolution to the crisis. Today both sides celebrated Holy Communion together. Bishop Katharine preached a wise, calm, faithful sermon directly into the conflict. The antagonists met at the same altar because we were here. What Woody Allen said about life is definitely true about episcopacy. "90 per cent is just showing up."

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Live From Quito 2 (Part B)

We had a panel of Liberation Theologians on Friday afternoon. They were ok but mostly stating the obvious. I rarely speak at HOB meetings, but this time I asked what I considered to be a provocative question. Their replies were totally non-responsive. So while I did not like their answer I still like my question. Maybe you can do better with it:

The U.S. context for church, mission, and theology differs from Latin America in that the U.S. has had a large, strong, prosperous middle class. The Episcopal Church is overwhelmingly a middle class church. But the middle class has been declining and shrinking for years. Wealth disparity is on the persistent rise. The recession has shrunk the middle class further. Economists predict that the recovery will continue the tend. New jobs will be very high or low paying, not much in the middle. We are becoming an hour glass economy and society -- all haves and have nots -- not many have somes. Our way of being church, the people we evangelize, our liturgy and music is all shaped by being the church of a class that is ceasing to exist. Who is God calling is to become, what is God calling us to do in this shifting context?

After the panel, Prince Singh (Rochester) invited me to join him in a search for hats in Quto. We had a great time. I got a black wool South American cowboy hat. Prince wanted a leather hat. We asked some friends the Spanish word for leather but it turned out they gave us the word for skin. Fortunately we discovered the mistake before asking directions to a skin shop. After our purchases, we ate Ecuadoran food al fresco under an awning during a heavy rain storm. He and I are about as different as can be. Rochester and Nevada are about as different as can be. But we love comparing our experiences. So different in every way on the surface but with the same gosspel in our hearts.

We hurried back through the drenching rain to an Indaba conversation about the draft proposal for rites of same sex blessings and the supporting theological statement. There were 35 of us gathered for this special discipline of honest gentle sharing. What people said is confidential. But there are several noteworthy things that marked the meeting. 1. There were not two positions. There were at least 35 distinct viewpoints. Some will vote yes and some no. But their positions are all complex, nuanced, and intelligent. 2. I was surprised to hear some of the opinions coming out of the particular mouths expressing them. People had changed and grown as they struggled with hard and subtle issues. 3. I was impressed by the intelligence, wisdom, and compassion of every single person in the room without exception. 4, I continue to be amazed at the ability of these people to express strong feelings which put them at odds with each other but to treat each other with the utmost respect as they strive to understand the differences. It is as if they really mean their Baptismal vows!

Live From Quito 2 (Part A)

After a mostly sleepless night, I headed down to the hotel cafe. By God's good providence I ran into Kee Sloan there. Kee is suffragan bishop of Alabama and was recently elected in a landslide to become the next diocesan bishop. He and I were College for Bishops classmates and both have the awkward position of being moderates in a church that supposedly espouses moderation but has a hard time living into that identity in a polarized society. There is no one in the church I respect more than Kee for his kindness, courage, and honesty.

Morning Prayer was followed by Bible Study. We worked with how to follow Jesus' clear and emphatic teachings about social justice in our context. Jesus' teachings run contrary to the Spencerian political ideologies so popular in many of our congregations and many of our members trust Darwin and Spencer more than Christ and Moses in the public square.

I then bailed on the teaching session. It was on Scriptural Foundations of Liberation Theology. I have read quite a bit of that already and was unable to stay awake. Actually, I think the Latin American Liberation Theologians do a pretty good job with Scripture but Walter Brueggemann does it better. As you may have gathered we are focussing on Liberation Theology since it is so important here in Ecuador and throughout the continent. In short, I took a morning nap.

Over lunch, I joined about 10 bishops from wildly different diocese to discuss how best to do the ordination discernment process. There are plenty of good ideas around. This was interesting to me as we are working on refining our discernment process in Nevada. One thing we all agreed on today: we need a process that opens hearts and minds to find God's will. That means processes that generate wisdom and insight -- not yes or no judgments on people.

After lunch I met with Chaplain Simon who prayed for my healing and gave me good pointers on a healthier lifestyle. He is in D.C. now but hails from the Dominican Republic. He seems to have real ties to Haiti as well. At Morning Prayer he taught is the Haitian Creole liberation song O Bodye.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Live From Quito 1

This experience is marred by my feeling lousy. It could be the 2 root canals I had the afternoon before my flight, or the antibiotics I am taking, or the altitude, or being too old to travel this much. But I wouldn't miss it. Connecting with the other bishops is so energizing, edifying, and spiritually important.

it is spiritually important because this is how we form and sustain the church. The church is not at heart an authority structure. It is a web of relationships. Human friendships with people in other dioceses --not canons or commissions -- expand our identity beyond Nevada. Relationships make us bigger and bigger hearted. Each day I pray for this diocese Ecuador Central and it's bishop Luis, for the diocese of Machakos (Kenya) and it's bishop Joseph, and for the diocese of Santiago (Philippines) and its bishop Alexander. Knowing, appreciating, and praying for each other is how we form the church. We do some of that in Nevada. Many of our priests this year resolved to pray on a daily basis for 5 other priests. That's a start. I wonder what other networks of people might undertake to intentionally get acquainted and pray for one another.

Today we began with Holy Eucharist and a great sermon by Bishop Katharine on our duty as Christians to act and advocate for peace, reconciliation, and justice. Leading the church in the way of Jesus is bound to get resistance from those our scriptures call "worldly minded" (meaning that their secular ideologies trump their faith). But that resistance does not compare with the risks taken by Christians in Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, or the Philippines when they defend the poor and the outcasts. We need the Anglican Communion so they can inspire us with their strength and courage.

After the Eucharist we had small group check in followed by a report from the Medical Trust on our insurance premiums. That is a big problem for some dioceses including ours. They are working on it.At lunch, I slipped off with two buddies, Prince Singh of Rochester and Scott Mayer of Northwest Texas. We compared notes on Bishoping and told stories from our dioceses. This too is how we keep the chuch knitted together.In the afternoon we heard from a Kansas theologian about the place of peace and justice advocacy in the Anglican tradition going back to the 17th century on up through 19th century when Bishop Charles Gore grounded social justice in the Incarnation and the 20th Century's Archbishop William Temple who tied justice to the sacraments. Then we head from a Brazillian bishop about the church's on the ground experiences with social justice ministries.

After a pleasant dinner of Ecuadoran dishes most of which I did not recognize I have called it day well spent.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Bishop Felled In Comstock Shootout

After celebrating Ozzie Whittaker (1st bishop of the missionary district of Nevada & Arizona) Day, I hung around Virginia City which was thronged with tourists for Labor Day Weekend. Half the town was in Old West costume. I met up with Ken who plays the good guy Marshall in the gunfight show and we hatched a plot against one if the other actors. It went like this:

A volunteer is always called from the audience. Marshall Ken helps her shoot the bad guy Kyle. But another actor, Lefty, falls and Ken tells her she has missed the bad guy and shot innocent Lefty instead. Unbeknownst to anyone but Lefty and Ken we arranged that Lefty would not fall.

I was sitting in the front row. When the shot was fired I clutched my chest and fell splayed into the hay. Ken exclaimed, "Oh my gosh! You not only missed the bad guy! You shot Bishop Dan! He's the bishop of the Episcopal Churchall all over Nevada! You are in deep do-do!" I couldn't see the reactions because I was technically dead lying prostrate and slack-jawed across a hay bale. Reports are the volunteer from the audience handled it well enough but bad guy Kyle was pretty surprised.

It was a great day at St Paul the Prospector. We commissioned one of the flock, Christy Anne Strange, to serve as lay chaplain to the Sheriff's Department. After the service, we dedicated the Western Missionary Museum. They have quite the collection of artifacts and records there. The museum now has a docent and a gift shop. "The scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven brings out of his treasure that which is old and that which is new." A new museumm does both at once. Quite a way to mark their 150th anniversary!

For those who may not be Nevada church history buffs: it was important for me to get shot on Ozzie Whittaker Day. When Ozzie was elected Bishop of Pennsylvania, somebody took a shot at him during his installation service in Philadelphia. He survived and had a good long episcopacy back east to balance out his long years in the saddle between Virginia City and Tombstone. "Whistle back a memory. Whistle back where I wanna be ... To Tombstone Territory."

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Even The Help Bleaches Reality: We Are In The Room

Let me say this up front and clearly. The Help is a great movie. What it says about race relations in the South is not only true about 1963; it is still true in only slightly subtler form in pockets of society today. Viola Davis was brilliant and deserves an Oscar. If you haven’t seen The Help, do so right away.

But something bothered me. The book is about a Black perspective on White culture. The movie includes that. But, compared to the book, the movie is about a White perspective on Black people and their perspective on White culture. The author, Skeeter, becomes a principal character instead of the teller of the tale. They did not adapt the book into a screenplay; so much as they wrote a screenplay about the white person writing the book. As one who loved the movie – but loved the book more – I just wonder what that is about. Was the book, The Help, too Black for an American audience, in the opinion of Hollywood – despite being a best seller?

The Entertainment Industry, more than the news media, tells us who we are. We see ourselves reflected in their eyes. What they think we will pay to see has a powerful influence on who we become. That’s what makes the change from the book to the screenplay troubling. The screenplay was good – but bleached.

I recently heard an NPR interview with the man who adapted the book Soul Surfer for the screen. The book is the memoir of Bethany Hamilton, a young surfer who lost her arm in a shark attack. Bethany tells the story of how her Christian faith empowered her to get back on the surfboard and become a professional champion surfer.

Well, that is a great story but a bit too Christian for the big screen. So what to do? Change the story of course. Her Christianity is acknowledged this way: The devastating injury causes her to doubt the existence of God. Her youth group sponsor shows up and tells her God had a purpose for sending the shark to chomp off her limb. (Not the most appealing of theologies – God using sharks as Manchurian candidates to cripple young people.) But her vague faith in something – influenced by Native Hawaiian animist religion – gives her the courage to make a comeback. They want to show that she had faith – but do not want to say what she believed or who she had faith in.

The screenwriter was amazingly candid in acknowledging his cynicism. There is a “faith based market.” So they wanted enough spirituality to appeal to that market – but did not want to be so Christian as to offend the secular audiences. Bethany could be spiritual, but not too religious.

I have two concerns: First, I am troubled by the censorship of my own beliefs. Second, the movie just isn’t true. I understand society is rather secular – but it is not as secular as Hollywood portrays it. For instance, Bethany Hamilton is a Christian, but Hollywood will acknowledge that truth only in hushed whispers. They would feel so much more at ease with her as a neo-pagan animist.

Thinking back over classic television series, there have been a few explicitly religious ones – very few. But did you ever wonder if Magnum P. I. went to church? How about the Partridge family? This isn’t new. There is no acknowlegement that faith is part of the lives of normal/ normative people. The Entertainment Industry has been portraying life as secular for a long time. They tell us who we are. We believe it. Then we become it.

I don’t necessarily want screenwriters to be our evangelists. It’s just that we are in the room. I am troubled that they are so embarrassed by our presence that they pretend we aren’t here. Do they think that if they ignore us long enough we will just go away? Do they think that Black voices cannot speak for themselves, but must be mediated through White translators or at least have a White person standing there giving them permission to speak? Only on occasion does the Entertainment Industry dare to hold a mirror up to the world. Most of the time they paint a picture of us instead – and the picture is a bleached, monochrome, religionless, raceless, political convictionless, generic American -- far less engaging and less human than the truth.

But for those who are offended by my criticism of The Help, let me reiterate: The Help is a great movie. What it says about race relations in the South is not only true about 1963; it is still true in only slightly subtler form in pockets of society today. Viola Davis was brilliant and deserves an Oscar. If you haven’t seen The Help, do so right away.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


I sit with my 96 year old mother in her assisted living facility. She is not dying – not right away – but is in end stage congestive heart failure, has seriously high blood pressure, and seems to have had some mini-strokes. We are sitting in the common area where she does not like to be. She has been on the border of agoraphobia for decades. Her ability to focus and communicate is limited, so we have little to say.

A group begins to gather for worship. I offer to push my mother’s wheel chair back to her room where we can continue our non-conversation. I do not recall her being in a church except for a funeral or wedding since 1959. She has never joined the services at this assisted living home. I don’t know why she avoids corporate worship. I suspect she doesn’t get the worship and doesn’t like the corporate. She has never spoken of it. In our family, religion is a private affair. I offer to facilitate her escape.

To my surprise, she says, “Can I stay and hear it?” She does mean hear it – like hearing the mass – she does not sing and is quite blind – also deaf, but they sing loudly. I say “yes” and push her chair into formation with the gathered assembly – wondering what shift has happened in her and why. We are sitting in a worship service together for the first time in 50 years.

We sing from the Baptist hymnal. While we sing, the demented old lady sitting next to us reaches over and steals from my mother’s shoulders a ratty-looking towel which she has wrapped around herself for warmth. The geriatric thief turns the towel to her own use. But my mother still has an attractive blanket worn like a shawl around her shoulders, so it is ok. We sing:

“Sweet hour of prayer! Sweet hour of prayer!
May I thy consolation share,
Till, from Mt. Pisgah’s lofty height,
I see my home and take my flight.
This robe of flesh I’ll drop and rise,
To seize the everlasting prize . . . .”

What is my mother thinking as we sing this? Of my father, of my brother, of herself?

Then the pastor speaks. He is from Myrtle Springs Baptist, the little country church where I walked down the center aisle any number of times to Just As I Am. He is a pudgy young man in a knit shirt and sneakers. I am grateful to him for being here and so I think charitably on his vague abstract message about how Americans should be grateful to God that even when things are bad here, they worse in developing nations. I am not grateful for that. But I am grateful to him. He has spoken of spiritual things to my mother and he is from the church of my childhood.

At the end of the service, he passes through the throng shaking hands. He comes to me and I say, “When I was a boy, I attended Myrtle Springs. It is an important place to me.”

It is an important place to me. Those words hold memories of Royal Ambassadors, sword drill, Sunday School, of friends now departed, of Brother Tate shouting his ruddy faced robust gospel, succeeded by Brother Bob whose message was friendlier but less interesting, memories of the choir’s red headed soprano just a year older than me, the one I stared at but never spoke to.

“When I was a boy, I attended Myrtle Springs. It is an important place to me,” I said.

“That’s very nice,” he said and walked on by.

Double whammy. I had just been dismissively patronized the way old people are. He was in his patronizing-the-old-folks pastoral mode and was not able to shift gears fast enough to respond to me – bright, energetic, colorful character from Las Vegas that I am – and so he responded to me as he had to all the others. I learned something about my craft, about listening to people of any age and responding to them as if they matter.

But that is only one of the whammies. The other whammy is not about age. It is about shared places which is actually my point. During my long decades spent East of the Mississippi, I would on very rare occasion see someone get out of a car with an Idaho license plate. I eventually learned better, but at first I would speak to them. It was like seeing a long lost family member, so I would speak, saying,

“Idaho! I lived in Boise for over a decade, had a law office in Eagle, practiced in Canyon County too. Where were you? Did you eat Austrian Food at Peter Shott’s, drink beer at the Burger & Brew? What was that jazz piano player’s name?”

And they would stare at me like a panhandler at best, more likely someone about to pick their pocket.

In Las Vegas, I have twice at the gym seen someone with a Texas Longhorn shirt, and I have said something like,

“Hook ‘em horns. I’m a Texas Ex. When were you there? Ever eat the schnitzel at Sholz’s Beer Garden?”

They have looked at me nervously and moved away. Even Texans, the mega-cult of all mega-cults, the ultimate granfaloon, refuse to exchange the secret handshake based on sharing a common place in our past. These are not ordinary places. They are special places. To have been there is formative. To have been in the same place, when it is such a place, is to have been formed somewhat together.

There are still a few places where those bonds can be invoked. New Yorkers still recognize each other.

“I’m from New York.”
“The City?”
“Which borough?”
“ Manhattan.”
“I lived there in the late 80’s.”
“No kidding. Where?”
“Chelsea. Corner of 9th and 20th. How about you?”
“Upper West Side.”
“Cool. I used to work at John the Divine.”
“O yeah? . . . . .”

Places in common are precious in a transient society. This year I confirmed a woman in Henderson who turned out to be a lawyer with a Master of Divinity, and is now an aspirant for Holy Orders. There she was in Henderson, Nevada, and right away the first time I met her she said,

“I’m from Macon, Georgia.”
“No! How is that possible?”
“Lived there from birth through college.”
“What high school?”
“So you knew Marcia Aldridge?”
“Oh that’s right, she was at Southeast. Which college? Macon State?”
“No. Mercer. I had Mary Wilder.”
“You’re kidding. She was at St. Francis.”
“I know.”

We are not just inhabitants of places. We don’t just own, rent, or pass through them. We imbibe them. They become part of us and we become part of them. And we can never fully leave them. Not by moving a thousand miles away or staying in exile for decades. They are woven into our identity.

To have shared a place in our past is a bond. It may not make us friends. But it makes us compatriots – and that is a relationship. It is a relationship so rarely recognized that I just had to look up the word to make sure it means what I thought it did. It does. That pastor and I are compatriots. I could tell him a thing or two about his home if he would listen. And he could tell me what’s happening now. Those Idahoans and New Yorkers are my compatriots. The woman from Henderson and Macon and I are double compatriots.

Before long my mother will be buried in the same Texas earth where my grandparents, father, brother, most of the family I have known, and a goodly number of friends are buried. Even if I lived in Istanbul, Texas has a claim on me; and I, on it. Those who are bound to the same land are bound to me; and I, to them.

And what of those who share a place now? What is our tie to each other? There is a moral and metaphysical answer which is true regardless of what we acknowledge. To deny it is to cut ourselves off from reality. But the social and political question is: what tie will we own? Is our presence here an inconvenience or an asset to each other? Regardless of that, is our sharing of this space sacramental? Is the kingdom in fact among us waiting for us to live into it by acknowledging our earthy human bond?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Angry Whopper: Sacrament Of Our Day

Burger King has “unveiled” its newest work of culinary marketing – “the Angry Whopper.” Actually, the burger sounds pretty good and I am apt to eat one. As you have probably surmised, it is the regular old Whopper with some spicy substitutions like jalapenos and pepper jack cheese. But here’s what I’m wondering: why is the Whopper “angry”? Why not hot, fiery, spicy, searing, etc.? I gather that BK figures people want anger enough to pay for it, even at lunch. They want an angry lunch.

This isn’t entirely new. Think back to the theme song of the 60’s classic western The Rebel.

Johnny Yuma was a rebel.
He roamed through the west.
Johnny Yuma the rebel,
He wandered alone

(So far it’s just Kant and Kierkegaard’s solitary individual with a sawed off shotgun. But here’s what puzzles me):

Fighting mad
This rebel lad
He packed no star
As he wandered far
Where the only law
Was a hook and a draw.

Ok, “no star . . . the only law was a hook and a draw” -- we are celebrating the heroism of anarchy, living the “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, short” life in Thomas Hobbes’s state of nature, bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all – sounds like Congress and sometimes the Church). But what was Johnny Yuma fighting mad about? I watched the series faithfully, and found Johnny to be rather cool headed. But the theme song promised us he would be “fighting mad.” Why did they make such a promise utterly unsupported by the script or the acting? Whenever I wander far “where the only law is a hook and a draw” as is the case in some urban neighborhoods, I am not angry. I’m mostly nervous. So why was Johnny misrepresented in the song as “angry”?

Now even our hamburgers are imbued with rage, which calls to mind the punk rock 90s classic “Rage” by Henry Rollins. Do you recall the lyrics? To this day, I know every line by heart. It went:

Rage, rage, rage, rage, rage.
Rage, rage, rage, rage, rage.
Rage, rage, rage, rage, rage.

My wife teaches Property Law to first year law students. Typically, disputes arise as to the degree to which the individual’s property rights should be constrained to accommodate the needs of neighbors or the common good (e.g., zoning regulations) -- issues over which students differ according to political ideology. The more conservative students tend to get pretty worked up over things like zoning. My wife has on occasion asked them where the anger comes from. They are unable to articulate the cause of their emotions, but the question itself makes them all the angrier. What is this about?

Remember the Gulf Oil Spill. What were people actually angry at the President about – not so much any policy he had or had not adopted – they were angry that he was not sufficiently angry. With each passing year, anger grows more normative. Remember Sean Connery’s James Bond. He used to have a jolly good time blowing up the bad guys and saving the world. But Daniel Craig seethes with hatred. With him, it’s personal.

In the psycho-spiritual model I believe in, emotions are emotions. They are all natural and human. The core self or the soul looks upon those emotions, either inside us or outside us, with interest, patience, and acceptance, balancing our feelings and preserving our capacity to live rationally and in harmony – harmony both with each other and with the various parts of ourselves. But what happens when one emotion is elevated above the others, when one emotion is given the place in life that is the natural province of our serene center?

In Buddhism, there are 6 realms of being. We each live our life predominantly in one of them, but we experience all 6 realms each day as passing passions or moods. They are the realms of:

The Divas – blissed out
The Diva Locis – blissed out but crazy and erratic
Human – rational and choice making
Animal – controlled by sensuality
Hungry Ghosts – driven by insatiability – constant sense of scarcity
Hell Beings – consumed by fear and loathing

In the Buddhist model, it is the lowest realm of being that has become the pinnacle of spiritual aspiration in our popular and – God help us – political culture. When Clay, Webster, and Calhoun saved the nation in 1850 through Compromise, they acted rationally in a way which is hard to do in a society that buys anger for lunch.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Half Moon Reflections On A Week In The Life

On this half-moon night in Elko, I sip a Gentleman Jack in JR’s Bar while a sweet-voiced old guy with a white mustache and a red baseball cap sings “I thought I loved you then” at country karaoke night. A heavy set man plops down on the bar stool next to me. He is a sniper just back from Iraq, sent home because he is too old, but he has 479 confirmed kills. He wants someone to say they appreciate it, so I do, and get dizzy from the moral ambiguity of life. My glass is empty so I leave while a less romantic, more maudlin C & W favorite is on the karaoke machine. The desk clerk is singing it quietly as I go out the door into the night where the bright half-moon light -- which does not frighten me (I am only phobic of full moons) – is shining down into the clouds below.

And I remember bits of this past week. There was a whirl of news media around a scandal where I was, by virtue of my position, the appropriate point person. Bishops from all over the United States sent me messages of support and encouragement. I met 3 times with the congregation involved and was so impressed with their calm, their compassion, and their wisdom. All the things I was supposed to bring them, they already had in abundance. Even crises can be full of grace.

Thursday I was at an Army National Guard base for the commissioning of 1st Lt. Teogenes Bernardez, Jr. (our own Fr. Jun) as an officer and a chaplain. Friday I welcomed the Filipino Convocation of Episcopal Asian Ministries to a youth and young adult gathering in Las Vegas. There I discovered to my dismay that I was scheduled to be at St. Thomas, Las Vegas the next day – but I was also scheduled to be at St. Thomas the Believer in Lovelock. A calendar disaster of the first order!!! But I looked up and there, provided by the Lord like the ram with his horns caught in the bush on Mt. Moriah, was Bishop Botengan, retired from the Philippines. I asked him to save me by covering the Las Vegas service and he did. God is amazing. The one time I need a bishop; there actually is another one in the state.

Having resolved that crisis I dashed for the airport to catch a plane to Reno – not a minute to spare. But before I could get away, the Asian Ministries coordinator for Province 8 gave me a box of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, a present from the Bishop of Hawaii – perfect – it was supper! Yes, I ate an entire box of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts while driving lickety split to the airport.

Then it was off to Fallon – arrived just shy of 11 p.m. -- from which the Very Rev. Trudy Erquiaga and I headed out bright and early this morning to Lovelock Correctional Institution – home to our largest most Spirit-filled congregation in central Nevada. Yes the gospel is alive and well behind the barbed wire. Baptized two (full immersion), confirmed three or four, received one. Preached on Romans “If a person is in Christ, he is no longer under condemnation.” You can’t preach that anywhere else like you can in prison.

Then eastward as far as Elko. I called the people in Wells (situated about an hour on beyond Elko) to remind them I will be there tomorrow. Up to now I’ve had the impression they didn’t much want to see me. Some say they are afraid I will close them because they are so small. But today on the phone they were perfectly friendly. It’s a four person congregation, the faithful remnant of a church that split over controversies in years past. Two couples meet at our church each Sunday to say Morning Prayer. I like that. Also Wells is the former home of Elias, the mad prophet hitch-hiker who anointed me for this job when I gave him a ride in Georgia the week before the election. Closing them is unthinkable. I hope to tell them that.

Now here I am in Elko at my beloved Gold Country Inn. It was almost full when I arrived. There is a Western Shoshone reunion here this weekend. But I got one of the rooms with Moose curtains and bedspreads.

Today Trudy asked me how I am liking my job. How can I answer? Chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. Moose bedspreads. Gentleman Jack and an old guy singing “I thought I loved you then.” Prison church. Two old couples church. Filipino youth church. Army National Guard rituals. I don’t deserve this life. It is just too amazing.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Colts In A Ditch

Yesterday, as I was driving north into Fallon on 95, I saw a horse pasture to my right. It was a fenced pasture with a deep gulley inside the fence. The gulley had a steep slope, one that could be negotiated by a mature horse but not a colt. Two colts were lying along that steep slope. My guess is they frolicked along the edge, fell in, could not get out, and collapsed in exhaustion and despair.

Most of the mature horses in the pasture had gathered around. Several were at the top of the gulley. At least four horses had come down into it and were standing over the little ones. They were standing as if at attention, majestic in a posture of defense. They were guarding their young and calling out for help.

I called Dean Trudy Erquiaga on my cell phone (it’s alright I have Bluetooth). She called the Churchill County Sheriff’s Department, who in turn called the Highway Patrol. That’s as far as I know of the story but I imagine it came out alright. Fallon is the sort of place where a horse in need can find a friendly human hand.

But I can’t get out of my mind the picture of those horses standing over their colts. It was a thing of beauty, a thing of character. That image leads me inevitably to a sadder, contrasting picture – the state of children in Nevada and the response of our adult population.

Our dropout rate, our domestic violence rate, our divorce rate -- all the facts are consistent and emphatic. Thousands of Nevada’s children are lying in a ditch, exhausted and in despair. If we start with their families, the adults are often broken themselves. One way or another, many children today do not have families watching over them. We preserve our ranking as the state with the lowest number of young adults with post graduate degrees by remaining the state with the lowest percentage of preschoolers who are read to daily by an adult. The schools and social service agencies, already operating on a shoestring, are now being drastically defunded.

It’s always easy to blame the politicians. Partly I do – but I don’t’ think they lied to us. They have been clear on their priorities and we have elected them. I can only say that the adults who run our state, the adults who vote, the adults who advocate for this interest group or that – the adults of our state are leaving the children in the ditch. The current political expression of child neglect mirrors the chronic neglect of children in their homes.

I am not the one to find a mission for the Diocese of Nevada. My place is to listen to what’s on the hearts of people both inside and outside our church walls. What I hear is deep concern for the children. What I hear is a desire to find a way to stand together and watch over our children. I see it happening in different ways in different churches and communities. St. Matthew’s and St. Paul’s, Elko partner with Communities in Schools; St. Peter’s works through Food for Thought and there are other parish/ public school partnerships; several congregations have taken up advocacy about child sex trafficking. We are beginning to restore our partnership with St. Jude’s Ranch for Children. Some of us have engaged in legislative advocacy for the public schools where we deliver food, shoes, and school supplies. We are seeking grants to begin Episcopal Children’s Services in Nye County to transport at risk children to their service providers (transportation the Sheriff can no longer provide because of funding cuts.)

There are no doubt many ways to take action. But the image that remains in my mind is of those horses watching over their young. Already, the Episcopal Church in Nevada is moving into that posture, standing over the fallen in the ditch – guarding and calling out to those with the power to do more than we can do.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Leadership Is Making Something Happen

Ron Heifetz in his book, Leadership On The Line, tells the story of Lois. She lived on a Native American reservation where nearly everyone over 12 drank alcohol. She started going to the meeting lodge every Tuesday night. She told her friends she was leading AA meetings. But when they peeked through the window, there was Lois sitting all by herself. When people challenged her about this she said, “I am not alone. The spirits and the ancestors are there with me. Someday our people will come.”

Lois sat alone in that room for years. After three years, a few people joined her. After 10 years, the room was full. Leadership is doing what is needed -- not what is demanded.

Two years ago, there were no Sunday Schools for children in Nixon, Bullhead City, Ely, or Elko. There were no Sunday Schools because there were no children. There were no children because there were no Sunday Schools. But determined leaders in each of these communities started Sunday Schools. The adult teachers sat in empty rooms and waited. Today, there are vibrant Sunday Schools in those four churches. The children are present and they have brought their parents.

Who might need the grace of God? Who might need the love of Christ? What form might that grace need to take for someone?

Nevada has the highest divorce rate in the nation. This is not just folks flying in for their divorce then flying back home. Our people get divorced a lot. Might there be Nevadans hurting from their divorces who might need the support of a group. There’s a ready template. There’s a special version of it for the children. A church could extend that ministry to people regardless of where or whether they worship.

Might the offering of periodic Recovery Masses or healing services mediate grace to someone with an addiction? Last year I asked all our churches to observe a Recovery Sunday each year. One initially said it would be too expensive. Another is waiting to figure out if any of their present members need such a thing. But many of our congregations have observed at least one Recovery Mass and they plan to do it again. At our recent priests conference several priests requested the resources to offer a Recovery Mass. We might someday become a church explicitly for people in recovery, a church whose commitment to being “inclusive” would intentionally include the addicted.

Leadership is doing something new. It’s being out in front which necessarily means being alone at first. It’s risk taking because the new thing may fall flat. But it’s where the action is, where life happens.

There are a few business management folks in our diocese who want us to announce a strategy. Maybe someday we can do that. But that strategy depends on what is in our people’s hearts. I am still waiting to learn that. For example it does no good for me to say, we ought to offer Divorce Care unless it is in someone’s heart to minister to people in this particular pain. What other needs are out there? Needs of the vulnerable elderly? Needs of abused children? What about the deaf? I I have been told (elsewhere) that “we don’t offer signing in our worship because we have no deaf people.” That’s like not offering Sunday School because we have no children.

I don’t know a fraction of the needs that surround the church. All I know is what the church needs. We need leaders with the imagination, the compassion, the courage, and the initiative to make something happen. If our hearts are open, the Spirit will move us to right action.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Willl The Episcopal Church Survive? God Knows.

Will the Episcopal Church survive? God knows.

The allusion is to Ezekiel: “’Son of Man, can these bones live?’ ‘O Lord, thou knowest.” Ezekiel 37: 1-14. Life and death are God’s business. So is the future.

But some of our folks have been reading that if the Episcopal Church continues to lose members at the same rate we did in the past 7 years, we won’t last past 2060. Numbers and trends can be made to say all sorts of things, especially if you skip the facts of the story.

We have not been losing members randomly or through being boring or spiritually irrelevant. In fact, up until 2003, we were the only mainline denomination that was growing. In the past 7 years or so we have gone through a major controversy over gay inclusion. We did the right thing, in my view. We were true to an honest reading of Scripture and we acted faithfully on our theology. We were true to our beliefs. But it cost us the attempted secession of the Dioceses of San Joaquin, Ft. Worth, Pittsburgh, and Quincy. It led to the loss of congregations in dioceses that remained in the church, and the loss of members from congregations that stayed in their dioceses. Statistically, it was not a tsunami but it did make a notable dent in our membership for the past 7 years.

That controversy may not be completely over. But it has certainly lost a lot of steam. Much of American culture seems to have gone our way, and other mainline denominations are reaching similar conclusions to the ones we have reached. Even internationally, more and more of us are agreeing to disagree and get on with serving Christ.

As for the future and the doomsday predictions based on “current trends,” we would have to come up with a series of new controversies as divisive as the one of the past 7 years to keep up that rate of schism and chaos. I’m not sure we are that creative. Besides, new controversies don’t seem to be what we are doing these days. We are more interested in moving on beyond the old liberal-conservative point and counterpoint. We are settling down to the business of being the Church in the 21st Century. Everyone from Alban Institute to the Evangelism and Congregational Development folks are teaching how to close the door on old fights and live into a newly invigorated mission. See for example “Changing the Conversation” in Alban Weekly for May 16, 20111, The controversies of this decade have been hard, but they have brought us to a deeper understanding of the faith and a deeper appreciation of each other – those of us who are still together in this battle scarred old Church.

So what does the future hold for the Episcopal Church? God knows. I only know what I see here today in Nevada. I see children’s Sunday Schools in Ely, Elko, and Nixon where there were no children just three years ago. I see young adults at numerous congregations where there were no young adults three years ago. I see active campus ministries in Reno and Elko. We had churches packed for Easter this year that had not been full for years. Epiphany, one of our newest and demographically youngest congregations, is looking for a larger building because they are regularly over crowded. The Grace in the Desert juggernaut of growth goes on.

I see more and better parish web sites and Face Book pages. I hear our ministries recognized on NPR. Billboards are going up outside Ely and Fallon. Our Latino ministries happen in existing churches so we don’t count them as new parishes. But if you consider a worshiping community as a congregation, then we have seven brand new congregations all growing rapidly. We are offering small church music workshops and initiating a program of emergent ministries for miners and energy workers to rebuild our rural ministries. A plan for evangelism in Asian ministries is on the drawing board.

It isn’t all rosy. One of our well loved small congregations in Reno closed last year. But I see its former members now actively engaged and strengthening the other 3 congregations in Reno, one of which is a fairly new parish. Another of our small congregations went from about 24 to around 12 this year over a local fight. But some of those dozen folks have found their way to another Episcopal congregation in the area that was on the ropes a few years ago but now is coming back strong.

What does the future hold for the Episcopal Church? “O Lord our times are in your hands.” God knows. I don’t. No, I don’t know our future. But I know our mission and it is not perpetually checking our pulse. Our mission is being faithfully present in a culture where people are lost, alienated, lonely, and despairing. Our mission is shining the Christ light of hope into the dark corners of society – corners darkened by poverty, sometimes economic, more often spiritual. I believe people need the Episcopal Church and I believe God loves it. If God did not love it, it would have surely died long ago from all the things we’ve done to it in our human frailty and ineptitude.

What is God doing in the Episcopal Church? We have a lot of wind out here in the High Desert. Jesus said “God is wind.” John 4:24 “The wind bloweth wherever it listeth and you hear the sound of it; but canst not tell whence it cometh or whither it goest. So it is with every word that is born of the Spirit.” John 3: 8. The Church is God’s word born of the Spirit on Pentecost, reborn of the same Spirit with each and every baptism. Where is the Church going? Wherever God wills.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Little Pilgrimage: To And From The Sacred Lake

Whenever I have driven to Pyramid Lake, I have taken I-80 through Fernley and Wadsworth. This afternoon, for the first time, I took Pyramid Lake Rd. out of Sparks. Unlike I-80, it does not pass alongside the mountains but goes through them – rolling hills, with sharp vertical mountains jutting up among them, the road rising, falling, and winding its way deeper into the high desert.

It was an interesting enough drive, but I did know the road having driven it the opposite direction toward Sparks. I knew the road going one way, but had never driven it into the Rez. As I came around one of the mountains, the Lake was suddenly there. I found myself headed directly toward it. The water was huge. It doesn’t look that big from any other vantage point. A vast expanse of water the most striking emerald color I have ever seen.

I was awestruck and afraid. Why afraid? It felt like when you stand at the edge of the roof top of a tall building or on a high bridge like the one at Royal Gorge and you are afraid of falling but also have a terrifying urge to jump. Rudolf Otto said that experience lies at the root of religion. He called it the “mysterium tremendum; mysterium fascinans” – an encounter with something that at once frightens and fascinates – the kind of terrifying beauty from which you cannot look away. That’s what the Bible means by “fear of the Lord” – not dread of punishment but a trembling in the presence of something immeasurably strange and wonderful.

There are more spectacular places in the way the Rockies are spectacular. But no place on earth touches me in this Rudolf Otto way half so much as Pyramid Lake does. On a completely different dark and windblown day three years ago, I visited the lake and described that encounter this way:

The wind,
resolute, indomitable,
swoops over bare snow mountains
down, down onto Pyramid lake,
blue water skidding
away from shore, not to.
Windblown vapor,
mist twin, not spray,
races across, above
the breakers
toward island peaks – how far?
I stand,
then kneel
at the edge,
dip my fingers
into mysterium tremendum
and cross myself with fascinans.
Then turn,
boots sinking
in wet sand,
face wind-grit stung,
straining toward
any shelter
I can find
from God.

It turned out to be one of my very few published poems.

In a completely different way today, I drove around the mountain and found myself suddenly, abruptly (like that word “immediately” that begins so many sentence about Jesus in the book of Mark) and unexpectedly face to face with holiness. It felt as if I might drive off the hillside and sail right into that green water the way I hope someday to fly into God.

After the meeting of Paths Crossing, I drove home along Sutcliff Rd. The sun had set but the sky was still light in places though mostly covered with clouds. A light rain was falling. Clouds covered the mountain tops and swirled slowly in the wind. It was mysterious rain cloudiness with the lake beside me. It wasn’t startling now. But I was intensely aware of is deep presence even when I could not see it. God is rarely glimpsed but impossible to forget.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Riding The Range On A Fine Spring Weekend

I drove into White Pine County listening to Ranger Doug’s Classic Cowboy Coral, feeling thankful for Sirius radio when the Spanish language cd’s have over taxed my brain. After awhile I had heard enough of Gene Autry and The Sons of the Pioneers, and switched to Andrea Bocelli singing Cor Te Partio and Jasha Heifetz. I take my musical vacillations as proof that we are made up of diverse subpersonalities. My subpersonalities have little appreciation for each other’s music.

I arrived in plenty of time to check into the Hotel Nevada where they recognized me on the computer, if not by face, as a regular. Last time I was here, it was Halloween. Looking back at my blog posts, I seem not to have described the amazing bar scene at the Hotel Nevada that night. Right out of Star Wars. Incredible costumes on characters of all ages, many of whom would have been pretty colorful without costumes. Saturday afternoon in mid-April, things were more sedate.

When I drove to St. Bart’s for Margaret Bath’s slide show presentation on her mission trip to Kenya with Melvin Stringer’s Kenya Keep project, the first thing I noticed was that there was nowhere to park for a long way around the church. The second thing I noticed was that the parish hall was packed with people. The third thing was that the people included young adults and children. This was Saturday night at church. And in Ely there are options.

The slide show was splendid. It was not the old pity and guilt kind of thing we used to get on TV with Sally Struthers. We saw a lot of beauty and fascinating culture. We saw a land that is trying to get it right – protecting its environment, struggling unevenly toward democracy, working constructively with religious and cultural diversity. We also saw the Kibera slum, one of the world’s largest and poorest centers of urban blight with devastating impact on human lives. We saw the Emmanuel Clinic supported by Kenya Keep alleviating that suffering in Kibera. We saw schools where Episcopalians are sponsoring children for a better life. It was a presentation about poverty and affliction but surrounded by hope and an opportunity for us to make a difference.

To my bishop’s eye, there was something else noteworthy about this – a shared mission between St. Bart’s, Ely and St. Tim’s, Henderson. A diocese is not a regulatory body. It is a partnership (koinonia) in God’s mission. A diocese does not exist in a static way. It is always becoming, forming anew, like fresh skin cells. Margaret’s trip with Kenya Keep was an occasion of our becoming a diocese anew.

Breakfast at the Hotel Nevada. Generous portions. Good prices. Waitresses engaging in witticisms about people with bad altitudes needing altitude adjustments in the form of stiletto heels. I barely noticed the man sitting a stool away from me, but after he left my waitress told me he had bought my breakfast. What do such things mean? My guess is that I was the beneficiary of a gesture of thanks to God for some blessing in his life. Had he not done this, the waitress might not have asked my name and where I am from. She told me about a traveling preacher she knows who lives in Tonopah and also works in mine safety. “Oh, that would be Ken Curtis, I said. He’s sorta one of ours.” A grouchy mustached man sitting down the counter glowering over allegedly hard biscuits explained what Ken does at their mine. We all agreed that Ken is an exemplary person. Before long the waitress owned knowing Fr. Red and Paula Sims. I told her about the Kenya presentation by Margaret – of course, she knew Margaret and Tom, and said the former cook at Hotel Nevada went to St. Bart’s. I opined that “They are good folks over there.”
All I said. Evangelism – all starting with the generous gesture of an anonymous man – who, btw, was only there this morning because his coffee maker broke. Rare to find such generosity in a man with a broken coffee maker.

It was a good Palm Sunday complete with receiving into the church a new young adult. We got the perfect photo of Fr. Red with a mother and baby for the planned billboard ad. Then we dashed to make a house call for a home communion, receiving another new member, and anointing a St. Bart’s veteran member for healing. He is facing a possible major surgery late in life. The new member was his daughter in law who was serving the Lord at home with the gathered family.

Then off to Eureka to celebrate Palm Sunday with St. James. Along the way I listened to Hillbilly Jim’s Moonshine Matinee with included Whisperin’ Bill Anderson singing “The Tips Of My Fingers” and Baldomar Gomez Garza (aka Freddy Fender) singing “Wasted Days And Wasted Nights.” St. James is still a small gathering – 8 people this time – but we sang “the blood songs.” Fitting for the day.

Then it was on to Austin for a working dinner with Frank Whitman, our Lay Chaplain to Miners and Energy Workers. We ate at the Toiyabe Café where I had my customary Ortega Burger. There is a lot of shifting of roles along the Highway 50 Corridor these days. Frank and I were strategizing how to respond to the coming molybdenum boom in Eureka, the geothermal and mining surge around Austin, and the challenge of population growth and social services reductions in Tonopah. A productive meeting. Things are exciting in Central Nevada these days.

Then it was on to Tonopah. I am now safely ensconced at Tonopah Station. Tomorrow Deacon Clelia Garrity and I will sit in on a meeting of Attorney General Reps, county officials, and ecumenical leaders to discuss how this community can find ways to fend for itself as the population surges while state services are being withdrawn. I’m just here to listen, but it sounds like we need to do something.