Friday, January 11, 2013


Why should you care how I pray? What does my inner subjectivity have to do with yours? Certainly not that my inner subjectivity is anything to emulate. I am not an example in the sense of doing it right. But I might be an example of something larger than myself. I might be a particular expression of a whole – a whole of which we are both parts – so that each of our inner subjectivities has enough in common we can learn from each other. I do not mean that you should pray the way I pray. Not at all. But the spiritual and cultural influences that shape my prayer might touch you too in some way.

Since college days I wanted to “be spiritual.” I was spiritually competitive. I wanted to be the most spiritual person in the room. If you had done a 3-day Ignatian retreat, I had done an 8-day; if you had done an 8-day, I had done the 19th Annotation. I had more degrees and certificates in spirituality than most anyone I knew because I took care not to know the people who were better credentialed than I was. In addition to Shalem and all the Christian hot spots, I had been to Esalen, Omega, Kagyu Samten Choling in New Hampshire and Karma Dzong in Colorado. I had studied vipassana with Larry Rosenberg in Cambridge and shamata with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in Boulder. Does this sound like Paul recounting his mystical flights and missionary ordeals (I was a Marine for Jesus) in 2nd Corinthians? Do you think there may have been something not quite right in my spiritual quest?

I don’t for a minute regret my prayer and meditation practices from those days. Some of them are still with me, but they are no longer the staple of my spiritual diet. These days my prayer is pretty simple. Any child can do it. I pray for people. What might that be about?

Relationships have become precious to me. It may be the loss of relationships that teaches their value. No longer having parents in this world, no longer having siblings, makes it a different place. Being an empty nester changes the home. That sounds sad; and it is sad, but also poignant. I value my marriage more. I value my ties across the miles to my children and their families.

When I was a parish priest, relationships were close and personal – especially since I stayed in the same church for 14 years and the same small city for 18. I don’t have that now. But I do know people around Nevada, and I value them more than I would have once. Driving hours and hours through miles of arid loneliness makes me look at people differently when I arrive.

So I pray differently. After the basic daily office intro including some praise, thanksgiving, and the Our Father, I pray for my ancestors, for my family, and for a list of people who are in some sort of need (for Lucy’s metabolism, Karen’s cancer, Robin’s heart). I pray for those individuals purely hoping to open a channel of grace.

I pray for the Church, especially the Episcopal Church and our PB Katharine. I pray for Joseph and the Diocese of Machakos, for Alex and the Diocese of Santiago; and then for this Diocese of Nevada, for the Standing Committee, the staff, for particular parishes and clergy who are in the midst of troubles or on the threshold of opportunities.

What is going on here? I would be quite happy to have mystical experiences again. I would like to be a tranquil, serene, soulful person both for the intrinsic value of equanimity (like lower blood pressure) as well as the status of having people say, “he’s so spiritual.” But to tell the truth, I am not nearly as interested in myself as I once was. St. Augustine said, “I have become a great problem to myself.” That was my experience. Life is better now because I am no longer my own production. I am no longer a homework assignment to be turned in for a grade. The people with whom I am in relationship matter to me -- not my ego credentials.

My prayer parallels my work. Over the years I have taken on causes. I still have causes today. “A life without a cause is a life without an effect.” But through community organizing, I have come to value the relational network of public friends even more than the causes. The danger with the causes is that it is so easy invest one’s ego in them. Then we wind up using people to further our ego-infested causes. Friendships don’t make us proud. They make us human.

I am describing a shift from private heroic spirituality to relational spirituality. I don’t claim to be good at it. I wouldn’t last long in an intentional community. I tried once. Too tight for me. But whether I’m any good at it or not isn’t the point. The point is that I appreciate these people I pray for. I value them and my life is better because they are in it.

Maybe it’s just me. But maybe it isn’t. The best theology I am reading these days is relational theology. Roberto Goizueta’s book, Caminemos Con Jesus is subtitled "A Theology of Accompaniment." Marcus Borg can be summarized, “It’ about the relationships.” Same thing might be said of St. Paul.

Community organizing is on the rise as a means of both missional engagement and congregational development. Parker Palmer’s Circles of Trust model is teaching us how to create safe places in which genuinely human encounters are possible. Maybe it isn’t just me. Maybe it’s us -- us at this point in our human story.

Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone is about the decline of community in our culture. Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort is about the division of communities into little clusters of like-minded people, what Robert Bellah calls “special interest enclaves.” No wonder we listen to Garrison Keillor’s stories of Lake Woebegone with a kind of longing. We miss human community and it isn’t just nostalgia. Human community is an incarnate expression of the unity and diversity of God, of Reality itself, represented theologically by the Trinity. To fracture into a society of scattered individuals is to lose touch with our authentic human nature, the nature of God, and the imago dei.

So for me prayer these days is about connection. It’s about caring for the well being of my “poor earthbound companions and fellow mortals.” It’s nothing to write home about. But my longing for human bonds of affection is laced with hope.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Epiphany In Pahrump: A Glimpse Of The Future Church?

Worship was in fine form at St. Martin’s in the Desert, Pahrump, Nevada this Epiphany morning. For those who don’t know, Pahrump is a desert town situated between Las Vegas and Death Valley. Surprisingly it boasts at least one winery. I heard there was a second but have not seen it.

A lovely crèche was in the front of the nave. Three children processed bearing figures of kings and camels to complete the Nativity scene. The big deal about today’s service is that we received 9 new Episcopalians – all adults. To put this in context, that means we received as new members about 20% of those present.

Today’s vestry meeting was taken up mostly by discussion of community social ministries – a report on the monthly Teen Night hosted for community teens by St. Martin’s, the Stand For Children program hosted by St. Martin’s, the collection of school supplies for low income students, a $1,000 gift to Meals on Wheels because there is a waiting list of senior citizens needing that service. Most of St. Martin’s energy and attention is pointed outward.

We did go over the proposed budget, which will be presented to the annual meeting. It included the assessment paid to the Diocese plus a substantial additional contribution to support Ministry Development around the Diocese. The vestry expressed gratitude for the training the Diocese has provided them in the past. They want to support our effort to offer programs to other congregations. They want more training themselves, but mostly they see their contribution as “paying back” or “paying forward” for what they have been given. It’s sort of like the Eucharist – a giving back and receiving again.

The proposed parish budget for this year is a deficit budget, but the vestry wasn’t too worried about that. They adopted a deficit budget last year and wound up with a surplus. So they are hopeful.

But the St. Martin’s vestry was concerned that other congregations in Nevada may be struggling financially. They had heard about this in table conversations at Convention. They wanted to know if they should send support to struggling congregations out of their deficit budget. I assured them that the Diocese would take care of that and they had done their part by paying in their assessment.

St. Martin’s has a generous line item in their budget for outreach. They have another line item to support the operating budget of Camp Galilee (our diocesan camp & conference center). That line item does not include the money they send to Galilee out of their education budget to pay the expenses of sending children from Pahrump to camp. Some of these children are members of St. Martin’s. Some are just kids in town who need a week of camp at Tahoe.

There was talk about the upcoming MLK Breakfast where St. Martin’s has sponsored a table and Rev. Julie will give the invocation. They will do another project later in the year for the Bishop’s Big Hairy Audacious Goal, probably a Stand For Children event.

The vestry did not discuss The Knitting Nancys of St. Martin’s. But we did talk about them over the coffee hour. They had been featured in the national newsletter of The Seaman’s Institute for the sheer volume of gifts they produce for people who need them. None of this even mentions the prayer and study being done by St. Martin’s members of The Episcopal Community.

Oh bricks and mortar issues. There was a bogus rumor last year that our church in Tonopah was up for sale. So St. Martin’s members expressed some anxiety during the coffee hour for the well-being of our congregation in Tonopah. I wish there were not rumors that the Diocese is closing small churches. But I like it that one small church cares about another.

Being a bishop, I did my best to find fault with them. So I challenged the vestry on the budget to provide continuing education funds for their priest.

“Covered,” they said, “it’s under ‘training’.”

 “What about her costs of attending clergy conference?” I shot back.

“It’s under ‘business travel’,” they replied.

“And her Convention costs?” (I was scrambling.)

“We pay full fare for both clergy and lay delegates,” they said.

“How about a Basic Discipleship class?” I asked.

“Done and dusted,” they said.

 “How about following that up with a Gifts Discernment Workshop?” I countered.

“Calling you this week to schedule it. And by the way how are you coming on another Lenten mission discernment program as a sequel to the one we did last Lent?” they replied.

I was defeated. So I gave up and went home.

The Congregational Life Office of The Episcopal Church featured St. Martin’s in the Desert in a documentary film last year as an example of a congregation that is growing and flourishing because they are connected to their community. When they gather to sing and pray, they have a tangible sense of mission. Their mission field is right there in Nye County.

Having failed to nail St. Martin’s for any failures, I was left with nothing to say this morning but to commend them for actually acting like Christians.